Resilience: It’s not Just About Physical Strength

Thursday, June 25th, 2015
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On a regular basis I’m being told by my six-year-old son’s school that he needs to work on his ‘resilience’ – be less prone to meltdowns when he can’t come up with the right answer within three nanoseconds, not get as upset when he doesn’t win every single race, and basically be less emotional.

My telling him that his dad retains all the same faults yet seems to function quite well in society puts him at ease a little.

From the school’s view, resilience has nothing to do with physical toughness but is more about emotional strength – the software rather than the hardware if you will. Yet, in our property industry, ‘resilience’ runs the risk of being only about the physical toughness of property assets and their resistance to natural disasters, rather than also about community resilience – the software of the city.

I only have to delve into any number of current rating tools to find ‘disaster preparedness’ as being the only language contained under ‘resilience.’ The fact that the community resilience drivers are found elsewhere under different names may be the root cause of the dumbing-down I’m seeing in the language.

Before ‘resilience’ becomes just a new term for disaster preparedness the same way that ‘sustainability’ has become a front for good energy management, let’s take a short run through the software side of community resilience.

A common thread found in resilience theory is that of community strength. A community’s ability to survive and even thrive during tough times is largely decided both in the way that community builds itself around its physical places and also in the way people work and band together to create those spaces.

While the place is important, the ‘making’ builds connections, creates civic engagement, and empowers citizens—in short, it builds social capital,” said Mark Lakeman of Portland’s City Repair organisation. “The physical projects are just an excuse for people to meet their neighbours. The relationships that grow out of the ‘making’ are equal to, if not more important than, the places that result.”

Closer to home, you may recall the early 2014 heatwave across Australia, during which the number of deaths attributed to heat stress spiked. One of the factors identified as a contributor (along with poor urban design) was simply the lack of ‘neighbourliness’ – elderly people dying in their homes because there was no one checking in on them. It’s a sad indictment of how we’ve let ‘community’ go, yet communal support is a core ingredient for community resilience.

A good primer is the city resilience survey, or Community Scorecard, by Partners for Liveable Communities, which provides a well written plain-language survey that is tailored specifically for community engagement. The survey assesses five qualities that comprise resilience:

  1. Economy – jobs, innovation, talent attraction, economic base
  2. Environment – resource efficiency, consumption, air and water quality, access to the outdoors
  3. Education – high quality public education access & learning programs
  4. Health & Safety – physical and mental health
  5. Quality of Life – community care, interaction, openness to ideas

Very little of this is about the physical assets of a neighbourhood.

Another source that I keep coming back to is a guide from Canada entitled Strengthening Neighbourhood Resilience – Opportunities for Communities & Local Government. The guide focuses on the approaches we can take to stimulate a healthy local community of residents. It covers topics such as local economy, leadership and planning and is a comfortable read with great clarity around the softer aspects of building resilient communities.

“Resilience is our ability to respond and adapt to change in ways that are pro-active, that build local capacity, and that ensure essential needs are met,” it states.

Some key out-takes:

  • Resilient communities have a high level of social capital (mutual trust, social norms, participation)
  • A focus on resilience emphasises the dynamic nature of communities and the fact that they are always changing
  • Resilience prioritises tasks by focussing on what strengthens long-term adaptive capacity
  • Resilience planning sees the community as one interconnected system, rather than component parts. This is at the same time more complex but also more responsive to the community as a living thing.

To consider how community resilience can tie in with city disaster preparedness, we can see what New York City has done in the wake of Superstorm Sandy through the Building Resiliency Task Force NYC. The report presents a comprehensive range of actions that must be taken in order to protect the city against future storms, flooding, heatwaves and blackouts, events that are accelerated by global warming.

The solutions are not only about physical asset upgrades but also strengthening ‘neighbourliness’ and community strength. And this is all real – projects continue to be delivered through multiple million dollars in funding and investment.

I refuse to coach my son in being less emotional – it’s part of what makes him who he is. But what I can do is help him learn to ask for help, rely on others and build a network of support amongst his friends and family, and that is how he’ll become more resilient and flourish on his own terms.

So, when the term ‘resilience’ is being used in our industry, let’s not just focus on asset strength and disaster preparedness but also, dare I say it, creating more social prosperity. After all, people are the most interesting things aren’t they?

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