The Three-Legged Stool of Community Resilience

By: Rex L. LaMore, PhD - Director of the CCED

The concept of resilience has its historic roots in the ecological sciences. Ecologists define resiliency as “the ability of an ecosystem to resist, and recover from, a disturbance”. Living systems disrupted by external inputs (natural or manmade) strive for balance where species can survive and thrive in a complex web of interdependent systems, often thought of as the “web of life”. This process of seeking ecological balance is continual in an ever-changing environment.  

Community and economic development professionals are increasing recognizing that human settlements also are challenged to resist and recover from disturbances and strive for some level of sustainable balance in an ever-changing environment. Our growing realization of the impact of climate destabilization, our experience with a global pandemic as well as other manmade disruptions such as plant closings or social inequality have increased our urgency in trying to understand and create more resilient communities.  As professionals we have much to learn and do in supporting the creation of what might be more sustainable, just, and resilient human settlements. This article provides a working framework for community and economic development thinkers and doers to help advance our collective effort in this task.

A framework: A three-legged stool of community resilience

One way to conceive of community resiliency is to imagine communities as a three-legged stool. Each leg has a critical role to play in providing for the overall stability of our place. These legs are predictability, survivability, and response-ability.   

Predictability is our ability to anticipate future events that may disrupt our current economic, social and environmental systems. This includes estimating the probability of a shock occurring and the intensity of the event if it were to occur. This involves conducting environmental risk assessments (how likely are we to experience an environmental shock) economic vulnerability assessments (are we reliant on a few key industries in our regional/local economy) and social cohesion (are we a place with strong social bonds).  

Some communities have made advancements in environmental hazard mitigation planning and community and economic development professionals are encouraged to reach out to your regional/local hazard mitigation planners to increase your understanding of environmental hazard plans and preparations in your community. Less work has been done on estimating and identifying risks associated with economic and social instability.  

Very few organizations have sought to regularly estimate a community’s potential social and economic instability. While some work has occurred verifying the potential instability of communities reliant on a single primary industry as a major employer only recently has the consequences of extreme income and social inequality been considered a factor in long term community resilience. Some of the groundbreaking work of epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2011) provide convincing empirical evidence that income inequality has numerous negative social, health and economic implications for communities.  

As one of the legs in the three-legged stool of community resilience the predictability of a destabilizing event or the existence of a persistent social or economic trend should be identified and serve as the basis for mobilizing a community to address the two remaining legs of the community resiliency stool.

Survivability are those actions we take to prepare for and mitigate the impact of a predicted event for the purposes of reducing death and property destruction. These actions generally take place in preparation for an anticipated event such as preparing emergency response plans, constructing shelters, investing in green/hard infrastructure, identifying evacuation routes, establishing early warning systems, and having effective emergency communications networks in place (formal and informal). This is the “duck and cover” phase of community resiliency. We anticipated the event, we prepared for it, now let’s pray we survive it.  

There are financial and other resources available to help plan and finance actions communities can take to prepare for events. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has substantially improved its services since hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Community and economic development leaders should make themselves aware of and utilize the support available through FEMA. 

Our survivability is largely contingent on how well we do in predicting the nature of the event and acting on that knowledge! If we prepared for a flood but are devastated by a major plant closing or a “Black Swan” event our survival may be compromised. Denying the threat of a potential disruptive event can have fatal consequences for a community’s survivability. Sometimes we choose to not act on a potentially major disruptive event. Our inability to mobilize to end extreme income and racial inequality is an example of this failure to act leaving community’s vulnerable to social and economic upheaval. Recognizing this vulnerability leads us to our final leg of the three-legged stool of community resilience response-ability 

Response-ability in community resilience encompasses our willingness to act to prevent or reduce the potential tragic consequences of an event. This includes our willingness to act before a predictable event as well as after an event occurs. Our capacity to care for ourselves before a disruptive event and after a traumatic occurrence is an indication of our response-ability. Clearly mobilizing emergency response teams and programs that can help provide for the needs of those who have suffered injury or loss from the event must be our first order of response-ability. However response-ability also calls upon us to recognize potentially destabilizing events (economic vulnerability, social in justice and racial inequality) and seek to address these before a traumatic event may occur.   

Effective response-ability calls upon community and economic developers to lead beyond the emergency response actions of providing food, shelter, medical and business assistance, and other basic needs. A resilient community in accepting response-ability recognizes its vulnerabilities and mobilizes to address these. Past disruptive events can offer important lessons that can help us be more responsive to potential future disruptive events.  

It is a normal desire for those who have experienced trauma and loss because of catastrophic event to want to “return to the way it was”. However, doing so may place the community in a vulnerable position for a future event. For example, when a neighborhood is flooded, it may be wise to re-think should we build back the same way in a flood risk area or should we build back better/differently? This analogy can be applied to other disruptive events like a major plant closing, public health pandemics or persistent inequality. Response-ability calls us to recognize our vulnerabilities and to mobilize for change that is necessary for a more sustainable and just future for a people and their place.  

Catastrophic events can serve as transformative opportunities if done in a compassionate, participatory way. Advancing fundamental change at a time when people feel vulnerable as victims is possible if done with a commitment to fairness and justice in a community’s actions. It calls upon community and economic developers who are committed to facilitating positive change and seeking to create a more sustainable and just communities to build the trust amongst community stakeholders so they may take the risk associated with doing something different. It is this response-ability leg of the three-legged stool of community resilience that is most lacking in our current efforts in creating resilient communities. The capacity to envision a different future and to work towards that future.  

The 21st century presents several challenges to community and economic professionals. Creating resilient communities that are sustainable and just is perhaps the greatest challenge we face. Creating human settlements that can weather global climate change, economic transformation in a low carbon future and sustain a commitment to social justice and equity will require visionary leaders who can facilitate taking informed risks in a democratic system.  Our collective fate as a species will be determined by our ability to strive for balance in an ever-changing environment.  

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