“Resilience” is a quality of a community and a system. It develops over time as a result of carefully analyzing strengths and vulnerabilities – followed by acting to increase competencies and reduce risk situations. Just what we need now and was needed in the near past.
In my years on the Seattle City Council, I chaired the committee that oversaw Emergency Management and served on the Board of Health. We practiced responding to pandemics, earthquakes, and other disasters. Some of the contingency plans, like using the Seattle Center Armory as an emergency morgue, were alarming. But we also worked on recovery strategies and learned that resilience paints the way to coming back from a crisis. Since then, I have applied some of these lessons teaching at the University of Washington and advising organizations on how to become more resilient.
I soon learned that a key impediment to resilience is the way our social, economic, and political systems are increasingly designed around embracing rapid change, forgetting the past, and disrupting the present. For example, just-in-time delivery of goods has become an organizing principle, and the prudent keeping of reserves has become a relic of the past.
The local response to the coronavirus has been led by Public Health Departments and emergency management professionals. Both have been neglected. Similarly, the larger lessons that we can learn from other crises (Katrina, Sandy, earthquakes around the Ring of Fire) have rapidly faded away from political and social salience. Most of us know that disasters will come, and hope and believe that “Someone in Government” is prepared for them. Can we do better than keeping our fingers crossed?
To be sure, there are people dedicated to learning the lessons of the past and figuring out how to add the new knowledge and understanding we have gained from science and technology. What the pandemic underscores is that these public agencies can’t do it by themselves: both our governance and our social systems have to be fully behind them if we are to cope with the world as it is, not as we would like to believe it is.
Fortunately, in Seattle and Washington we still respect science and have a visceral commitment to collective action, and these traits have been critical to our effective response to the Covid-19 pandemic. That is why we have rapidly dropped from having the highest number of cases and deaths in the nation to 15th or 20th in the list of states. What we must do now is take this renewed and successful pattern and make it a persistent habit for ourselves and our cities.
Resilience as a new approach to governance, not just for emergencies.
The concept of resilience, which began as a term to describe ways in which a community can be better prepared for emergencies, has broadened. Smart cities have begun to link it to the way in which communities can actually work all the time. It is precisely the characteristics that equip communities to respond most effectively to emergencies that also build strong communities over the long term. Building resilient communities means integrating our approaches to poverty, community engagement, economic development, and housing into a coherent strategy that empowers community members to engage with each other and with other communities. In this way, resilience becomes a complementary concept to sustainability – and becomes fundamental to the evolving dialogue around the critical issues of democracy. More than that, resilience is a design for the future.
Communities and governments can have different perspectives on where such initiatives should be based, on how to build social capital, and about who defines legitimacy and consensus. Resilience is such a powerful concept in these times that it has been embraced by some Republicans, like Senator Marco Rubio in this New York Times op-ed. While there are some issues glossed over or obscured in this article, and one may have a lot of skepticism that he would act on these ideas given his track record, it is an important to see this as a possible opening that should be followed up on.
I do think that many local officials, regardless of party, would find resilience a compelling strategy.”Overall, however, successful resilience strategies must be place-based. To work, they need to be adapted from the experience of others and benefit from professional expertise but also be tailored to the unique characteristics of the specific community.
Poverty is the largest obstacle to resilience.
The coronavirus crisis has emphasized that resilience requires not only working to eliminate poverty, but also working to bring stability along with opportunities to build assets and reserves for the large majority of households. Even those who have the reserves to weather a few months of unemployment and uncertainty will be challenged by the year or two that it will take to recover from the Covid-19 outbreak and its economic havoc.
And yet, all of our communities, from the poorest to the wealthiest, have strengths and are capable of taking action to change their situations. A resilience strategy is best built around an asset-based change model where governments meet communities where they are, in their own space, and use collective-impact approaches to work in partnership with them. This also requires us to consider how to understand physical, financial, and social capital in their myriad manifestations. Bringing resilience to many different communities means respecting and understanding their commonalities and differences and working in harmony with communities to design paths forward.
From all indications, Seattle has done a good job of reaching out to communities and engaging them in the Covid-19 response. And our community engagement through the Department of Neighborhoods, Neighborhood Planning, the City’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, and our 135 designated Community Emergency Hubs has built resilient connections that can be mobilized in these times.
San Francisco has been a model for responding to low income communities in this crisis, pioneering the strategy to move homeless out of crowded shelters and into hotels, and developing a specific outreach and management strategy for the vulnerable Latinx community.
No point in trying to return to “normal.”
We are all longing for things to return to “normal”. There is no normal. There is only a future that is shaped by where we have been in the past and the large disruptions we are experiencing now. Instead of hoping to go back, we should be dreaming big – and blending our dreaming with science and reality. We all know there are things that should be better. Now is the time to design them, to absorb this shock to the system and release the phoenix from the ashes of the fire. We will get through this, and as we do, we can shape a new course towards a better, more just, and more sustainable world. And one that embodies resilience at its core.
Resilience requires maintenance and must be developed in a way that includes practicing continuous improvement and adaptation. The characteristics of a resilient community include both physical qualities and “soft infrastructure,” such as community knowledge, resourcefulness, and overall health. Successful resilience strategies depend on strong community organizing and individual and community empowerment as well as programmatic initiatives that will maintain and restore ecosystems, family and individual health, and social and economic diversity. Our situations are complex, and we have to design elegant systems and address them as inquiring minds, ready to accept new data and nimbly adapt as we have to in order to sustain our communities.
There are many models for what we can do to shape this future, from the Green New Deal ideas to the visions of community and social empowerment that are emerging from our evolving recognition of our systemic failings around ethnicity, gender, social justice, and inequality. We have many leaders in our local governments and state who are deepening their understanding around these issues. At the international level, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development lays out 17 Sustainable Development Goals that embody a sensible and resilient approach to the future.
As the saying goes, we are now up to our neck in alligators. But we need to change the metaphor: we don’t need to drain the swamp; we need to restore the ecological health of the wetlands, give the alligators their space, and create a new harmony for our future. We know that there will be other emerging pandemics that we will have to deal with. And that looming over all of us is the long emergency of climate change, which will require an exceptional commitment to resilience and collaboration with nature to address.