Imagine the bridge connecting the working class neighborhood to the industrial and commercial parts of town collapses. Getting to work now requires a two-hour bus ride, at a cost of $100 a month. How will the community address this problem? What will the headlines say? On the face of it, a resilient community should be able to bounce back from sudden shocks and overcome other threats to its well-being. A sudden shock might be a disaster, epidemic, economic downturn, a run of suicides or a spike in crime. Long term threats could be climate change impacts, demographic changes, or inequity in housing or access to food or healthcare.
How do you know if your community is resilient? It would certainly be nice to establish that BEFORE something bad happens. Or to have some benchmarks to achieve or surpass. Imagine a serious long-term threat, like climate change. How will your coastal community make decisions about adapting itself? What if whole neighborhoods have to move to higher ground? I was lucky to be invited to sit with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine Resilience Consensus Committee while they did their “listening visit” in New York City. They were asking these very questions. ADM Thad Allen, co-chair of the committee and friend to City 2.0, said, “what we need to know is, what are the vital signs we need to check, and what are the appropriate ranges of resilient system markers?”
Just like the human body, a community (city, too) is a system of systems. There is a system of nerves, a circulatory system, a system for digestion, and for muscle and bone. Communities, too, have governance and decision-making systems, economic systems, systems of infrastructure and relationships to natural ecosystems, and systems for maintaining the health and well-being of the residents. There might be some that are stronger than others, but if any one system fails, the whole body fails. Strengthening one often strengthens the other. Each system has vital signs that show its health, and together they have vital signs to show how healthy the body is overall.
We can’t know exactly what might challenge us or when, but one thing is certain. Healthy communities are resilient ones. A community suffering from poverty, inequity, illness, or corruption is significantly less likely to be able to recover quickly from sudden shocks. Resilient communities have mutual communication and support among local institutions of government, education, faith, and neighborhood, community involvement in decision-making, a sense of shared identity that crosses generations and includes natural assets, and a sense of common purpose and overall well-being.
Imagine what would happen in your community if there was a sudden shock. Would some be harmed more than others? How could the community help? There are government agencies that can help communities identify community assets, and possible threats, and help to guide resilience planning. But communities can take the initiative. They can determine their common values and goals for community health. They can outline their community assets, and prioritize which need the most protection. They can identify weaknesses in the systems or between them. They can look at their history and project into the future, remembering not to focus all their energy on the predictable. Resilient communities work together, even if they are very large. They care for the most vulnerable with dignity and empathy.