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Building More Resilient Communities

By Lynnda Nelson, ICOR:

What Makes a Community More or Less Resilient? The Power of Local
It is widely accepted that resilience is not a process, it is not a management system standard, nor is it a consulting product. Resilience is a demonstrable outcome of a community’s capability to cope with uncertainty and change in an often volatile environment. Resilience is therefore a product of a community’s capabilities of interacting with its environment.

So what do we mean by “community resilience?” In order to answer that question, we first need to define what we mean by “community.” For the purposes of this discussion,

A community is a place-based group of people who have some meaningful capacity to influence their basic common needs given their particular social and political context.

Building resilience in communities is best done at a local level. It is at the community level where we most directly interact with the people and organizations that make up our society. It is where we are most affected by the decisions society makes: what jobs are available to us, what infrastructure is available for our use, and what policies exist that limit or empower us.

It is both ethical and practical for community members to be at the heart of community resilience building work.

Decades of research underline how important it is for local stakeholders to have real power in decisions that affect them.  Social capital—people’s relationships—is what gets things done in human systems, and is richest at the local level. Local connections and presence also create more and tighter opportunities for system feedback, which is essential for adaptation and innovation.

Six Foundations of Building Community Resilience
But local decision making doesn’t always lead to equitable outcomes; indeed, one of the weaknesses of decentralization is that parochialism and local prejudice can flourish if unchecked. This suggests two requirements for building community resilience:

  1. The responsibility for resilience building and the power to decide how it is done must ultimately rest with community members.
  2. The process of resilience building must equitably address both the particular situation of the community and the broader challenges facing society.

These two requirements – are in dynamic tension with each other, because together they task community members with acting beyond their own self-interest. They are also the starting point for the six foundations of building community resilience described in a report by The Post Carbon Institute.

  1. People: The power to envision the future of the community and build its resilience resides with community members.
  2. Systems thinking: Systems thinking is essential for understanding the complex, interrelated crises now unfolding and what they mean for our similarly complex communities.
  3. Adaptability: Because communities and the challenges we face are dynamic, adaptation is an ongoing process.
  4. Transformability: Some challenges are so big that it’s not possible for the community to simply adapt; fundamental, transformative changes may be necessary.
  5. Sustainability: Community resilience is not sustainable if it serves only us, and only now; it needs to work for other communities, future generations, and the ecosystems on which we all depend.
  6. Courage: As individuals and as a community, we need courage to confront challenging issues and take responsibility for our collective future.


The Institute for Sustainable Communities states that communities must cultivate four aspects in order to increase their resilience.

  1. Economic: A more resilient economy cultivates multiple employers that are constantly innovating and evolving, so if one or two become obsolete, many more are ready to step in and help fill the gap.
  2. Environmental: A community’s resilience is impacted by the health of its environment and its access to natural resources.
  3. Social: The people in the community do better in disasters when they have good social networks and connections.
  4. Diversity: Diversify to reduce vulnerabilities and to increase innovation and adaptability.

A study done by Stanford University, What Makes a Community Resilient, found that the more resilient communities appear to be those with a wide variety of deeply rooted cooperative organizations, often made up of such volunteers as doctors, educators, and religious leaders who build resilience into the social system. When people build organizations and those organizations are diverse, the community has the capacity to solve long-term problems.

The Many Definitions of Community Resilience
So given the importance of local and the importance of the people and the networks within each community, why is the focus for increasing a community’s resilience so often limited to resilience to disasters? When reviewing global literature, there is no evidence of a common, agreed definition of community resilience. In fact, there is no common, agreed definition even at a national level in the United States. The definitions below are those most commonly used.

“Community resilience is a measure of the sustained ability of a community to utilize available resources to respond to, withstand, and recover from adverse situations.”  RAND

“Community resilience is the capability to anticipate risk, limit impact, and bounce back rapidly through survival, adaptability, evolution, and growth in the face of turbulent change.” CARRI

“The ability of a community to maintain and evolve its identity in the face of both short-term and long-term changes while cultivating environmental, social, and economic sustainability.”  Post Carbon Institute

“The ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate, adapt to, transform and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions through risk management.” UNDRR

“A secure and resilient Nation with the capabilities required across the whole community to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from the threats and hazards that pose the greatest risk.” FEMA

“…the ability to withstand and recover rapidly from deliberate attacks, accidents, natural disasters, as well as unconventional stresses, shocks and threats to our economy and democratic system.” U.S. Department of Homeland Security

“Community Health Resilience (CHR) is the ability of a community to use its assets to strengthen public health and healthcare systems and to improve the community’s physical, behavioral, and social health to withstand, adapt to, and recover from adversity.” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

“The ability of a community to absorb and adapt in a changing environment to enable it to deliver its objectives and to survive and prosper.” ISO

One common thread is a proactive, positive approach to disaster preparedness versus the reactive, recovery approach. There are also common themes and elements that can be used to gain a broader understanding of how to increase or improve the resilience of communities.

A study completed by the Public Library of Science (PLOS) in February 2017, after a review of 80 definitions, found three types of definitions:

  1. Process’ definitions (i.e. an ongoing process of change and adaptation);
  2. Absence of adverse effect’ definitions (i.e. an ability to maintain stable functioning); and
  3. Range of positive attributes’ definitions (i.e. a broad collection of response-related abilities).

PLOS also identified nine core elements of community resilience common among definitions looking at resilience through a lens of being “disaster resilient.”

  1. Local knowledge: The effects of a disaster, whether short-term or long-term, could be mitigated if a community understands its existing vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities, if addressed prior to a disaster, are believed to build resilience within a community. For example, the importance of having a community assess and understand their own vulnerabilities.
  2. Community networks and relationships: The connectedness of a community, sometimes called its ‘social network’, was defined by the linkages within a community. The connectedness of the networks and their cohesion are important aspects of social capital, which conceptually focuses on bonding, bridging, and linking.
  3. Communication: Effective communication is identified as having occurred if the community used common meanings for all to understand and if the community provided opportunities for open dialogue.
  4. Health: The pre-existing health of a community and delivery of health services after a disaster are important for community resilience. Understanding and addressing health vulnerabilities can build resilience before a disaster and mitigate long-term issues after a disaster.
  5. Governance/leadership: Governance and leadership shape how communities handle crises. Two sub-elements were found within governance and leadership: infrastructure and services, and public involvement and support. For a community’s infrastructure and services, their effectiveness, efficiency, and capability to respond quickly are all noted as important.
  6. Resources: Resources need to be widely available and distributed in the community. From tangible supplies, such as food, water and first aid kits, to technical resources such as shelter, automobiles and essential machinery, a higher level of resources is generally supposed to lead to higher levels of resilience. ‘Resources’ are also defined more generally as including intangible aspects such as “natural, physical, human, financial, and social resources.”
  7. Economic investment: If not addressed, the direct and indirect economic costs of a disaster can plague an affected community long after it has occurred. Addressing the post-disaster economic situation can involve: (i) distribution of financial resources, (ii) economic programming and ensuring that interventions are cost-effective, and (iii) the economic development of the post-disaster infrastructure and increasing the diversity of economic resources.
  8. Preparedness: Almost all publications mentioned the importance of preparedness across a number of levels, including the individual, family and government. For example, emergency management systems should create plans before a disaster on how the disaster-response processes would work. Similarly, risk assessment was believed to help with preparedness.
  9. Mental Outlook: Mental outlook is defined as attitudes, feelings and views when facing the uncertainty that typically occurs after a disaster or when contemplating a future one. After a disaster, uncertainty is a common feeling among the affected population. The mental outlook of a community is important in shaping the willingness and ability of community members to continue on in the face of uncertainty.

Patel SS, Rogers MB, Amlôt R, Rubin GJ. What Do We Mean by ‘Community Resilience’? A Systematic Literature Review of How It Is Defined in the Literature. PLOS Currents Disasters. 2017 Feb 1 . Edition 1. Doi.

Community Resilience Frameworks
There are several frameworks that provide strategies for reducing disaster risk or increasing community resilience through better preparation for disasters.

RAND Corporation’s Eight Levers
The RAND Corporation has identified eight “levers,” or means of achieving community resilience. Activities related to these eight levers help move a community closer to achieving community resilience through an ongoing process.

Wellness and access contribute to the development of the social and economic well-being of a community and the physical and psychological health of the population.

Specifically following a disaster, education can be used to improve effective risk communication, engagement and community self-sufficiency build social connectedness, and partnerships ensure governmental and nongovernmental organizations are integrated.

Quality and efficiency are ongoing levers that cut across all levers and core components of community resilience; considerations about quality monitoring and resource efficiency are essential in developing local community resilience-building plans. Los Angeles County in California, USA, has implemented this framework.

FEMA’s Community Resilience Capacity-Building Indicators
FEMA’s focus on community resilience is on capacity-building before a disaster. The Mitigation Framework Leadership Group (MitFLG) has developed a draft concept with potential indicators and measures of community resilience that may be considered by a variety of users when evaluating how to improve communities’ ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters.

FEMA’s Community Resilience Indicators are based on the following principles or contributions to capacity-building:

  1. Support of intrinsic community functions that are also critical for absorbing, rebounding from, and adapting to hazard risks;
  2. Facilitating hazard-focused community preparedness, risk management, and mitigation actions that reduce long-term vulnerabilities; and
  3. Enabling post-disaster community recovery and redevelopment that integrates community resilience objectives.

FEMA’s Capacity-Building Indicators

  1. Access and functional needs: capacity to integrate the needs of populations with access and functional needs in planning.
  2. Economic resilience: capacity to adapt to and recover from incidents that impact the local or regional economy.
  3. Health resilience: capacity to adapt and recover from incidents that impact public health and public health infrastructure
  4. Housing resilience: capacity of the community to adapt to and recover from incidents that impact housing stock, affordability of housing, and accessibility of housing.
  5. Sustainability: integrate concepts of sustainable building, energy use, commodity consumption, and other related activities.
  6. Community planning: capacity to plan community resilience-building issues
  7. Social connectedness: capacity of the community to engage and employ formal and informal social networks

In Appendix A of the FEMA Resilience Indicator Categorization Taxonomy of the Mitigation Framework Leadership Group Draft Concept Paper, they also identify the following community resilience indicators:

  1. Infrastructure systems resilience – Includes guidance for:
    1. Facility Guidance: building resilience into existing facilities for achieving higher levels of performance, survivability, or other related criteria.
    2. Construction: constructing facilities to achieve higher levels of performance, survivability, or other related criteria.
    3. Assessment: assessing the performance of existing facilities in meeting resilience-driven targets.
    4. Water Infrastructure: assessing, evaluating, or building water and wastewater systems to meet resilience-driven targets.
    5. Critical Infrastructures: that applies broadly to critical infrastructures in meeting resilience-driven targets.
  2. Ecosystem and natural resource resilience – Includes the capacity of:
    1. Water: hydrological systems to be resilient to threats and hazards.
    2. Fisheries: fisheries to be resilient to threats and hazards.
    3. Agriculture: agriculture (production agriculture and livestock) to be resilient to threats and hazards.
    4. Wildlife: wildlife ecologies to be resilient to threats and hazards
    5. Cultural Resources: cultural assets and resources to be resilient to threats and hazards.
  3. Risk and resilience assessment – Includes the capacity to:
    1. Threat and Hazard Identification: identify, evaluate, and measure threats and hazards to communities and infrastructure.
    2. Risk Analysis: conduct analysis of known risks, evaluating probability, impact, and consequences to a community.
    3. Resiliency Assessment: conduct aggregate analyses of multiple variables that can suggest the degree to which a community is able to reach its resilience targets

United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction Making Cities Resilient Campaign
Throughout 2010-2020 and beyond, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) Making Cities Resilient Campaign (MCRC), together with partners, aim to support sustainable urban development by promoting resilience activities and increasing local level understanding of disaster risk. A ten-point checklist of essentials for making cities resilient serves as a guide for a city’s commitment toward improving their resilience and is the organizing principle for reporting and monitoring during the campaign.

Disaster Resilience Scorecard – 10 Essentials
The Scorecard provides a set of assessments that will allow local governments to monitor and review progress and challenges in the implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction: 2015-2030, and assess their disaster resilience.

It is structured around UNDDR’s Ten Essentials for Making Cities Resilient.

  1. Organize for disaster resilience
  2. Identify, understand, and use current and future risk scenarios
  3. Strengthen financial capacity
  4. Pursue resilient urban development and design
  5. Safeguard natural buffers to enhance the protective functions offered by natural ecosystems
  6. Strengthen institutional capacity for resilience
  7. Understand and strengthen societal capacity for resilience
  8. Increase infrastructure resilience
  9. Ensure effective disaster response
  10. Expedite recovery and build back better

The ICOR Resilient Community Framework
The ICOR Resilient Community Framework takes a broader view of community resilience with preparedness being one of the five systems upon which each community functions, no matter its size, with each system contributing to the overall resilience or vulnerability of the community.

A healthy Environmental System
A healthy environmental system protects and restores the natural resource base upon which life depends. It seeks to reduce climate impacts through adaptation and mitigation efforts and increase resource efficiencies.

A healthy environmental system has adequate natural resources to supports its population. There is adequate access to energy, food, and water.  The community has a healthy ecosystem and habitat. It has a limited amount of pollution in the water, air and land and it has procedures for the reduction of waste, and the recovery, reuse, and recycling of waste materials. A resilient community abides by International laws and standards and enforces these regulations.

Groups that are part of managing the community’s natural resources and protecting the environment are either provided by the government or are conducted by privately owned companies that deliver services such as electricity, water, gas, waste management, and sanitation services.

A Responsible Governance System
A responsible governance system provides community services, enforces laws humanely, protects its community members, and manages its finances and meets its budgets under changing conditions.

Resilient communities have a governance system that is self-governing and self-sustaining. It provides services needed by its community members such as transportation, power/energy, water/wastewater, and communication systems. A responsible governance system also provides for the development and maintenance of the community’s environment and infrastructure.

The government protects its community members through use of the military and police and has an emergency management capability. It should also have governing bodies, laws and representation and enforce its laws in a humane manner.

There should be a capacity to deliver within government bodies at all levels. Governance includes managing its finances to ensure funding for all needed activities and meeting budget requirements under changing conditions. Leadership should look to the long term as well as deal with short term issues.

The governance structure should have healthy relations with the governing bodies of other countries and abide by international law and the Geneva Convention.

A Strong Economic System
A strong economic system supports a community’s resilience by producing necessary resources, having a diversified economy, having access to financial and physical resources, and maintaining the value of its currency.

All communities require economic health and development in order to thrive. A resilient community is one where community members have access to good jobs and good wages and where employment is based primarily on education and skills.

A community with a strong economic system produces enough goods to meet the needs of the community members. A resilient community has a diversified economy that supports sustainability.

A healthy economic system depends upon ease of doing business, public transportation systems, its economic networks, energy efficiency, and property and living costs. It also depends upon access to funding and resources – both financial and physical – and maintains the value of its currency.

Quality of Life
A community with a high quality of life has access to education & information, access to affordable housing & quality healthcare, the existence of social freedoms, and access to employment and prosperity.

The quality of the life inside a community directly impacts its resilience. Communities can be vulnerable when there exist internal tensions due to unfairness. In a resilient community, all members of the community are equal and diversity is valued. There exist social freedoms such as freedom of speech and freedom to worship in the religion of their choosing.

A community with a high quality of life, needs to provide its members with a public education system that provides equal opportunities for the education of all of its community members. Informal education should also be available for community members to access additional learning through traditional and non-traditional methods.

A healthy community includes access to knowledge repositories and information systems such as a library and/or the Internet. This includes the availability of world and community news.

The resilient community also places a high value on human life. Community members have access to affordable housing, access to quality and affordable healthcare, and they have the freedom to worship in the religion of their choosing.

A resilient community is one where it is safe for its community members to live.

A Prepared System
In a prepared system, risk reduction activities are planned and funded, networks and partnerships exist to provide support in times of need, community members are educated on how to be more prepared, and organizations within the community are recognized for their resilience initiatives.

Communities need to reduce their vulnerability to natural and man-made disasters. This requires planned and funded risk reduction activities as well as preparing to manage through disruptive incidents and to be resilient against disasters. A strong emergency management system that supports the efforts of local police, fire fighters, and other emergency personnel is required.

Being prepared also requires a community to build networks and partnerships not just with other communities and governmental bodies, but also with the organizations it serves in both the public and private sectors. Being disaster-resilient requires educating community members on how to protect themselves and how to be more prepared.

A prepared system ensures that it has the resources and expertise necessary to assist the victims of disasters.

It also depends upon the resilience of the organizations within it. The resilience of each organization, a culture of innovation, and its ability to provide its good and services under all conditions has a strong impact on the overall resilience of the community. Resilient communities encourage preparedness, innovation, and recognize the resilience of the organizations within the community.

The ICOR Community Resilience Framework depends upon the following principles:

  1. When an individual system is strong it creates capital for the community. When an individual system is weak it makes the community vulnerable.
  2. A community’s resilience increases when it has more adaptive capacity and decreases when it is less able to manage change and endure stress.
  3. A community relies on its systems to be strong and flexible, to be able to evolve and adapt when necessary, and to be sufficiently agile to take advantage of opportunity.
  4. When an individual system operates with spare capacity, has the capacity to rebound quickly and re-establish its functions to avoid long-term disruptions, and encourages constant learning to allow new solutions as conditions change, the whole community benefits.
  5. The resilience of a community is not static. Adaptive capacity changes over time in response to changes in the community and its level of vulnerability.
  6. As each community is unique, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. A community needs to have a clear vision for how it wants to increase its resilience and set a roadmap for how it can get there.

The Rockefeller Foundation City Resilience Framework
The City Resilience Framework is a unique framework developed by Arup with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, based on extensive research in cities. It provides a lens to understand the complexity of cities and the drivers that contribute to their resilience. Looking at these drivers can help cities to assess the extent of their resilience, to identify critical areas of weakness, and to identify actions and programs to improve the city’s resilience. The City Resilience Framework responds to this challenge by providing an accessible, evidence-based articulation of city resilience.

The City Resilience Index (The Index) was developed by Arup. The Index has been designed to enable cities to measure and monitor the multiple factors that contribute to their resilience. Its primary purpose is to diagnose strengths and weaknesses and measure relative performance over time. This provides a holistic articulation of city resilience, structured around four dimensions, 12 goals and 52 indicators that are critical for the resilience of our cities. This structure also forms the foundations of the Index, which through the online platform, cities will be able to access and operationalize.

4 Dimensions
The research suggests that resilience of a city relates to four key dimensions:

  1. Health and well-being, ensuring the health and wellbeing of everyone living and working in the city;
  2. Economy and society, the social and financial systems that enable urban populations to live peacefully, and act collectively;
  3. Infrastructure and environment, man-made and natural systems that provide critical services, protect and connect urban citizens; and
  4. Leadership and strategy, the need for informed, inclusive, integrated and iterative decision making in our cities.

12 Goals
Underpinning these four dimensions, there are 12 goals that each and every city should strive towards in order to achieve resilience. Their research demonstrates that universally these are what matters most when a city faces a wide range of chronic problems or a sudden catastrophe. However, it is recognized within the framework that the relative importance of each goal and how they are realized will be unique for every city.

52 Indicators
Research to develop the City Resilience Framework and Index has identified 58 indicators. The indicators add further definition to the 12 goals and identify the critical factors that contribute towards the resilience of urban systems. The indicators also integrate the 7 qualities of resilient systems (e.g. robust, inclusive, flexible) that Arup’s empirical research has identified as of vital importance.

7 Qualities
The CRI assesses the qualities of resilience in city systems. These qualities are important characteristics that prevent breakdown or failure: inclusiveness, integration, reflectiveness, resourcefulness, robustness, redundancy, and flexibility.

The research suggests that some qualities – integration and inclusiveness – should be promoted across all systems, while others are more important in some systems than others.

The Star Community Rating System
The STAR Community Rating System (STAR) is the United States’ leading comprehensive framework and certification program for evaluating local sustainability, encompassing economic, environmental, and social performance measures. Local leaders use the rating system’s evaluation measures to assess their current level of sustainability, set targets for moving ahead, and measure progress along the way.

STAR was developed for local governments by local governments. Released in October 2012, STAR represents a milestone in the national movement to create more livable communities for all. The rating system’s evaluation measures collectively define community-scale sustainability, and present a vision of how communities can become more healthy, inclusive, and prosperous across seven goal areas. The system’s goals and objectives provide a much-needed vocabulary that local governments and their communities can use to more effectively strategize and define their sustainability planning efforts.

The intent of the rating system is to help communities identify, validate, and support implementation of best practices to improve sustainable community conditions. Built on the guiding principle of continuous improvement, STAR will evolve to remain the leading framework for local sustainability.

There is recognition that the content of the rating system may change over time to embrace innovation, apply new research, or adapt to changing conditions in the field of community sustainability. All updates to the rating system will strive to create a consistent system that is both rigorous and accessible to local government applicants and their partners.  See listing of STAR Certified Cities in the U.S.

If you are aware of other frameworks or tools for measuring the resilience of communities, please share them with us:






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