Thomas's Community Connection

Community Resilience

The ability to bounce forward by people and the systems they depend on.

So, what is it, really? And how does it relate to communities?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, resilience is “an ability to recover from or adjust to misfortune or change.”

Thinking about children offers an easy and practical example of what resilience can look like. We like to say, “Kids are really resilient.” We say this common phrase when children get hurt by something often out of the control of their parents because we know children easily bounce back. Such resilience is pretty astounding; not all things can as easily bounce back. The resilience of children is more than just being able to bounce back, they also learn from these incidents. Children adapt their actions in similar future situations to not experience the same things again. Kids are indeed resilient – they bounce back and adapt.

Ok, kids are resilient, but how does that relate to communities?

Building on the example, considering that possible traumatic events or hardships happen to children and children both bounce back and learn from them, so too can and do traumatic events and hardships happen to whole cities and regions of people. For these communities to weather these events, they must have resilience. These communities must be able to bounce back from these hardships and adjust and adapt to these hardships and other minor changes that happen all the time. This ability to bounce back and adapt is often understood as being able to “bounce forward.”
2 Resilience is therefore seen as the ability to bounce forward; bouncing back would mean that if the same stressor or disruption were to happen again, the same resulting hardship or trauma would ensue – learning from the event allows the ability to adapt and therefore bounce forward.

Unlike a child, who can learn and thereby adapt fairly immediately, cities and regions have significant social, economic and built infrastructure that is fairly fixed. Cities and regions often cannot afford the harm and trauma that can be experienced from the more immediate “trial-and-error” method of learning. If cities and regions were to adapt on a trial-and-error basis like that of children, vulnerable populations would inevitably take the brunt of all hardships. As a result, processes that allow the ability to learn and adapt – bouncing forward – while not harming populations or ensuing unmanageable financial constraints within communities requires critical assessments to learn what will be needed in the future and to mitigate and lessen extreme hardships and stresses.

Natural and Manmade Disaster Mitigation

The dawn of unsustainable and uncontrollable climate change has resulted in very frequent extreme natural disasters. Once-considered “100-year” storms, floods, and fires are now happening every few years.
3 In some places these disasters are never-ending (as can be seen in rising sea water levels destroying island and coastal communities).4 To make matters worse, manmade disasters such as cyberattacks, terrorism and other weaponized-mass destruction do happen far too often. Whole societies are having to recover from and cope or even drastically adjust in order to solely survive these disasters. Attempting to preserve and protect communities in the wake of continual natural and manmade disasters brings acute awareness to the need for a broad-scale (or a macro-level) community resilience.5

How can we prevent these incidents from occurring? And when we cannot, how can we ensure we bounce-back quickly? Can our built infrastructure withstand the disaster? How about our basic needs like food and water supplies? How will these disasters affect the most vulnerable and marginalized within our population? And, what can we do today to protect against the possible destruction?

These are great questions, and they are a part of community resilience. Because disasters happen and negatively affect the functionality of organizations, most organizations develop their own individual disaster risk and reduction plans. These plans are developed in the hopes they will be prepared and able to bounce back to normal operations in order to maintain service for their clients and customers. Supporting this work, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has developed guides to building community resilience strategies and plans.
6 In their FAQ page, NIST is asked whether this guide is important and needed if cities and organizations already have their own disaster mitigation plans. The answer NIST provides is that the guide is still crucial because most cities and regions do not have adequate disaster mitigation plans in place that incorporate the dependencies across systems. What exists are plans that are often very independent for buildings and other infrastructure systems.7 The community resilience guide by NIST supports developing strategies and plans that identify and build-on the cross-system dependencies within communities.8

Two scenarios to better understand the idea of dependencies within communities.



Scenario 1.
A normal household in a city uses water, electricity and other goods and services in order to maintain a healthy and livable existence. Like most households in the city, they do not have a fireplace, and heat comes from central air. Imagine a disaster occurs that prevents the water company and the electrical company from providing water and electricity to this household and their neighbors. Water is required to sustain life, without it life dies in a matter of days. Let’s say that the household still has access to flowing water outside their house, but the water is dirty and needs to be purified in order to be consumable. Without electricity this family is unable to boil the water to safely drink it.

This scenario depicts the dependent nature of utility services to this household. Even though this is a single household experiencing these events, it can be assumed their neighbors are also experiencing the same disaster – and now this utility service dependent scenario becomes a community-wide issue.


Scenario 2.
A typical middle-class American household has parents who both earn incomes.9 One parent loses their job because of massive layoffs that occur at their work. Like nearly 60% of adults in the US who live paycheck to paycheck,10 this family had not been able to save enough money to afford a layoff. The family can no longer afford paying bills for their home mortgage, food and water. If they wish to remain in the same house and community, they must forgo food and water. If they decide to move, in order to afford food and water, they must break the relationships they have within their communities. Yes, there are governmental programs, like SNAP that can help secure food for this family, but it still takes time to apply, qualify and receive the needed materials to begin utilizing this safety net, time that this typical middle-class American household does not have. Because this family is forced to leave where they live, disruptions happen to so many others – from the loss of the second parent’s job as they can no longer easily commute to work from their new location, to the loss of friends networks and disruptions to their children’s education … to starting from scratch in creating new networks and friends at their new location.

This scenario depicts the dependent nature of individual financial constraints within this household. Even though this is a single household experiencing these events, the disruptions affect people outside of the original household, and it can be assumed that other households of other employees who were laid-off are experiencing a similar financial disaster – and now this employment dependent scenario becomes a community-wide issue.


Even though these two scenarios are hypothetical, they do happen, and their affects disrupt hundreds, maybe thousands of others. One disaster causes linked disasters and disruptions that make recovery so much more difficult. As NIST highlights in its community resilience guides, community resilience requires planning that recognizes the interdependencies of community systems.11 Individual organizational disaster mitigation plans are great, but without understanding and incorporating the ripple-effects and other dependencies, they do not satisfy ensuring a resilient and safe community.

Community resilience is about more than just responding to and preventing disasters. This is too limited. Change happens all the time, and these changes whether they are small, medium or large impact whole communities of people.

Macro- and Micro-Level Resilience

The idea of community resilience continues to evolve. Three decades ago having community resilience was not a common goal among cities and regions. Following the emergence of sustainability planning, where development meets present needs without compromising future needs,
12 it became evident that sustainability planning did not address responses to disasters.13 As such, resilience on a broader, more macro-level, was identified as needed in preparing for and mitigating disasters among cities and regions.

The practice of strengthening resilience used to be focused almost exclusively around individuals or small groups, within the small-scale, micro-level. Professions arose supporting, treating, and counselling people who were experiencing some form of hardship to develop skills to cope with these stresses and learn how to navigate to better understand why they are happening and how to avoid them in the future. Within the past few decades the ability to be resilient has been expanded onto larger human systems, like organizations and communities.

In common between these examples is the idea that resilience is needed to effectively respond to hardships and other disruptive changes and events. Changes that require resilience are not always disasters or even bad. Technology is a prime example of this. Technology is always changing, and we regularly incorporate technological changes into making our lives better, safer and more enjoyable. People learn and adapt to these changes into our daily routines. People are resilient with technological changes.

Examples like technological advancements and natural disasters are large-scale, macro-level changes. Recall the two scenarios in imagining small-scale, micro-level changes and how an individual household is directly impacted by local changes. These small-scale changes are equally important in creating a resilient community. A person receiving a promotion or losing a job, becoming a homeowner, or even the loss of a loved one – good and bad changes – effects the relationships and networks of other people. What created strong bonds between several people can be shaken or strengthened during micro-level changes.

A truly resilient community is prepared for macro- and micro-level disruptive changes and is able to adapt in a way where everyone moves forward when changes do occur. This requires building and strengthening networks between people. This requires a thriving and secure economy. This requires a healthy and sustainable environment. This requires updating and building needed infrastructure. Most city planners think of community resilience as exclusively relating to mitigating natural disasters. But the recognition of interdependent and linked systems, community resilience requires planning for a lot more.
14 Community resilience links large-scale changes and stresses with small-scale changes and stresses. The ability for cities and regions to prepare for, mitigate and incorporate natural disasters and technological changes inevitability is linked to the ability and capacity of individual people. Large-scale resilience requires small-scale resilience.

Community Resilience in Short

In short, community resilience is the ability for individuals, groups, cities and regions of people and the systems they depend upon to be able to bounce forward from potential and experienced changes, both good and bad. Community resilience incorporates the dependent nature of systems, and how they impact one another in creating a livable and thriving community. Community resilience requires the ability to plan and adapt on micro and macro levels. And, community resilience responds to the great crises of our times (environmental, equity, economics, etc.). Changes can be anticipated, and as such, the resilience of communities can be determined and strengthened through assessments, planning and continual learning.

Until next time,




Endnote Citations

  1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online. Resilience. Accessed 02 August 2019.

  2. June 2019. Enrich Play Learn. “Building Resilience by Bouncing Forward.” Accessed 09 August 2019.
    August 2019. Enterprise Community Partners. “2020 Green Communities Criteria: Draft for Public Comment.” Accessed 15 August 2019.

  3. April 2019. The Natural Resources Defense Council. “Flooding and Climate Change: Everything You Need to Know.” Accessed 14 August 2019.

  4. May 2016. The Guardian. “Five Pacific Islands Lost to Rising Seas as Climate Change Hits.” Accessed 09 August 2019.

  5. May 2016. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Institute of Standards and Technology. “Community Resilience Planning Guide.” Accessed 12 August 2019.
    Interview with Ms. Amanda Blank, Community Resilience Organizations, Vermont, USA. By phone 08 August 2019.

  6. May 2016. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Institute of Standards and Technology. “Community Resilience Planning Guide.” Accessed 12 August 2019.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Jan-Feb 2006. Elizabeth Warren. Harvard Magazine. “The Middle Class on the Precipice: Risking Financial Risks for American Families.” Accessed 19 August 2019.

  10. May 2019. Charles Schwab. “Modern Wealth Survey.” Accessed 19 August 2019.

  11. 2016. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Institute of Standards and Technology. “Community Resilience Planning Guide.” Accessed 12 August 2019.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Ibid.
    Interview with Ms. Jocelyn Groom, Green Communities Certification Team of Enterprise Community Partners, District of Columbia, USA. By phone 15 August 2019.

  14. May 2016. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Institute of Standards and Technology. “Community Resilience Planning Guide.” Accessed 12 August 2019.
    August 2019. Enterprise Community Partners. “2020 Green Communities Criteria: Draft for Public Comment.” Accessed 15 August 2019.

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