Resilience & cities: Critical thoughts on an emerging paradigm

Andrea Lampis
National University of Colombia

The issue of cities and resilience has grown increasingly more animated in urban policy and academic debates (Metzger and Robert, 2013). The term has been used to inform political rhetoric as well as a heuristic and operational tool and as a concept within the social sciences. Progressively embedded into the wider torrential flow of academic and policy-oriented discussions on climate change and global environmental change, the term ‘resilient cities’ played, for instance, a central role in last year’s 7th World Urban Forum in Medellín, Colombia.

As the current understandings of resilience are inherited from natural and social science debates, it is one of the most used yet least contested terms. Over the last decade, the use of resilience has increased at an exponential basis in the literature on climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction (DRR). In relation to cities, the shift is so evident that the term ‘resilient cities’ has largely replaced the now old-fashioned ‘sustainable cities’.  As it happened with ‘sustainability’, the notion of ‘resilience’ exerts a sort of hegemonic dominance on those scientific discourses placed at, and originating from, the cutting-edge between natural and social sciences. Resilience permeates the way social and urban problems are framed almost everywhere.

As Giddens (1984) pointed out in the Constitution of Society, importing concepts from the natural to social sciences without questioning the implications produces generalisations of little empirical use. To say that resilience is the capacity of a system to preserve its function and structures in the face of a negative stimuli, or any other definition one may come up with, means basically nothing in the social sciences as geographical conditions, power relations and institutional arrangements are so diverse from place to place that a translation, at least, is needed.

shutterstock_177864893My argument is that the widespread use of the term ‘resilience’ has created a ‘lost in translation’ situation, with many using the term in social science publications without having sufficiently debated and clarified the concept itself.  Here my interest is to highlight this idea of the association between resilience as a positive property and therefore as a positive concept. This is, of course, not the loci for any meaningful revision of the state-of-the-art of the literature on resilience. Rather, I shall attempt to put forward a few provoking thoughts about the trajectory of the term and its implications.

The origins of the debate: Resilience and complexity

As was noted by Thomas (2008), the terms resilience appears in Europe in the 19th century.  Today, a number of scientific disciplines (the physical sciences, psychology and ecology) claim ownership of the term resilience usually referring to the property of a system (biophysical or social, a group or an individual) to recuperate after a shock or a crisis. It designates the capacity to go back to similar performing functions and structures after a harmful event.  In physical science, resilience describes the elastic property of a material to get back into shape after suffering an impact. Within the field of DRR the term has a direct filiation from psychology and ecology.

The precise origins of the use of resilience within mainstream global environmental change-related debates – as it often happens with contended concepts – are not easy to identify. However, the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 represents a major watershed; it placed at its center the increase of the resilience of countries and communities in the face of disaster risk as a key point.  Talking more specifically about cities, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) launched its 2010-11 Worldwide Disaster Reduction Campaign explicitly including the issue of ‘resilient cities’, stating that local governments will need to prepare and turn more resilient in the face of disasters. An initiative that, without really defining what it meant by resilience, even produced a manual for policy administrators, titled “How to make cities more resilient”.

Beyond the notion of resilience, there is the concept of the ‘complex system’, which according to De Rosnay (2000), indicates that a system is made of elements in dynamic interaction organised around a common goal. The very concept of complexity challenges cause-effects relationships and places on the scene of scientific debate the non-linearity of phenomena, the multi-faceted character of many of the processes that happen in the bio-physical world as well as the presence of feedback loops and the emergence of new and often unpredictable properties from change (Bak, 1999). shutterstock_165594884Borrowing the metaphor of the Trojan virus from informatics, complexity and unpredictability are the weapons that resilience took advantage of to become a widely-used concept, also in urban studies vis-à-vis global environmental change.

If society (and therefore cities, infrastructures, the relationship between the city and the environment, etc.) is conceptually recast as a hyper-complex socio-ecosystem, then the problem society must confront is uncertainty in the face of change and the challenge of adapting to that change. But if complexity and uncertainty as properties of the system cannot be challenged or transformed, the only thing one can do is to accept them and adapt to them. That is, to foster one’s resilience!

If this kind of planetary challenge is accepted and recognised a universal need, the corollary is that all communities have to strengthen their resilience. No mayor, urban planner, or social scientist will have reason to argue the notion that increasing adaptive capacity should be a high priority. The horizon for the individual is self-insurance in the face of the increasingly globally produced crises (Sassen, 2014). Individuals will have to approach their old-fashioned vulnerabilities by means of the new concept of resilience, which in practical terms is no different from finding solutions for the new precariousness of neoliberal life and work in the free market according to the purchasing power of each single individual or family unit (Lampis, 2016).

More importantly, within the new resilience paradigm, vulnerability comes to be seen as a negative feature of society. Vulnerability is a concept that, at least in the social sciences, underlines the pitfalls of development (Lampis, 2013), whereas it has historically mobilised the intellectual energy of those who criticise development itself as a societal goal. Resilience, in turn, allows for emphasising the positive aspects of certain definitions of vulnerability such as Blaikie, Cannon, Davis and Wisner’s (1994:14):

“(…) the processes that generate ‘vulnerability’ are countered by people’s capacities to resist, avoid, adapt to those processes, and to use their abilities for creating security, either before a disaster occurs or during its aftermath”.

It is because of a strong emphasis on this positive aspect that society and public policy can be conceptualised anew by adopting the concept of resilience, as one containing a positive, creative and regenerative element. However, the use of the term resilience within social science presents a number of conceptual obstacles.  Social sciences present a historically constructed trend towards the imitation of the natural sciences, particularly biology and, more recently, ecology. shutterstock_1384990This is of course due to questions of resources and prestige and to the whole story of the relationship of social sciences with natural sciences throughout modernity (Wallerstein et al., 1996).

First, as pointed out by Maneyena (2006), there are controversies
regarding the way the terms resilience is used, meaning a property or a capacity, a state or a process. A huge difference indeed. If resilience is a property it can be studied a priori, hence identified and strengthened, but if it is a capacity that springs off when confronting a crisis, than it should be better studied a posteriori.

A second critical issue when it comes to the use of the term in the social sciences has to do with the role played by resilience in the stability or instability of the system. In fact, what does a return back to normal, or to a previous functioning state mean? From what kind of premises are we talking of bifurcation in the case of a social system? What does that mean in the case of a city and/or a community living on the edge of a river or on the slope of a mountain? Is my resilience comparable to that of the infrastructure of my neighbourhood? Finally, and most importantly, do we as a society really function like an ecosystem?  Should that be our ultimate goal?

In spite of the fact that these questions have not been substantively answered, the use of resilience is widespread, and the question of its final goal, perhaps for its teleological nature, remains unanswered. Nonetheless, this void has led to a critical situation. In fact, resilience is a term employed without social scientists, policymakers, politicians or community leaders questioning its goal of assuring the permanence of a given system, nor the implications of its continuity.

The ideological nature of ‘resilience’

In spite of several ambiguities, the polysemy of the concept leads to a great consensus among policymakers and researchers.  Resilience follows the path of other self-performing notions such as sustainable development or governance. The notion of resilience, especially in the way is promoted by international organisation in events such as the World Urban Forum or the like, reflects a basically neo-liberal notion; one capable of neutralising any kind of critique.

The logic of resilience works more or less the following way:

  • We live in a hyper-complex system that is exposed to multiple perturbations across scales and dimensions (e.g., climate risks and disasters).
  • The only way we have to face this new reality is to strengthen our capacity to adapt.
  • This will eventually contribute to make the system a stronger one.

Mainstream discourses based on resilience also put forward another meta-narrative based on the belief in self-organisation as a positive property of complex systems. Recast within the new ethical and philosophical approach to the politics of places, such as cities, the latter becomes part of an anti-state, anti-planning narrative, which sees the former as instances that deprive us of that freedom, which is paramount to achieve a full development of individual initiative and investment.

shutterstock_161894876The perturbations and crises that are today recognised as a constitutive feature of the neoliberal period (Castells, 2013; Sassen, 2012), including social injustices, root causes of vulnerability, etc., are neutralised. Indeed, are not they a constitutive property of hyper-complex systems?

Hence, any crisis, be it social, economic and/or ecological, is constitutive and even necessary for the evolution and for the very survival of the system as a whole. Almost paradoxically, all developmental discourse based on resilience tends to identify adaptation as something that applies to external threats, which is another powerful discursive tool to neutralise any analysis on the social differences that produce enormous differentials in the sensibility of very different units of analysis.  Those who talk about the resilience of migrants, neighbourhoods,  women, the ill, etc., with little doubt all minorities in the face of the hegemonic discourse of those who use the term without much differentiation.

The new rationale, with its paradigmatic aspirations, tends to overlook the fact that it is the very system it tries to make more resilient that is producing the conditions that make the system itself and/or its parts prone to crises and more vulnerable to the impacts of disasters/extreme events or perturbations. Using different conceptual frameworks, classic works such as those by Ulrich Beck (op. cit., 1992), with the idea of reflexive modernity; Foucault (op.cit., 2008), with the idea of governamentality; and Blaike, Davies, Cannon and Wisner (op.cit., 1994), with the pressure-release and the access model, have already made similar claims , and indeed converging on one key point: that vulnerability (and the lack of resilience) is nourished by the system itself.

The implication of this more political approach to the relationship between global risks and local vulnerabilities could be phrased as follows: it is not sufficient to make the units that conform a system more resilient towards the external stimuli. If social systems produce a lack of resilience out of skewed power relations and historically and geographically constructed social injustice (Ribot, 2010), then you must change not only the properties of the units but of the system as well! This is the single most important political difference among those who work on resilience and those who work on vulnerability.

Final Remarks

The fact that resilience might have been perfectly and consistently elaborated within the original scientific disciplines that first proposed the concept it is not the issue at stake here. The real issue concerns the shortfalls related to its translation to other scientific fields or areas, an operation that has been only partially successful, but which has produced a tremendous institutional and political impact, yet has been carried out without sufficient scientific evidence.

As resilience has become one of the most used terms in developmental literature, urbanisation and global environmental change studies have too easily relied on mantras such as “cities are the problem but also the solution”. While this has helped introduce resilience to politicians and policymakers as well as broadened acceptance within academia, a more robust, critical analysis of what resilience means is undoubtedly needed.

As underlined in the introduction of the recently published Untamed Urbanisms:

Seeking action without critical reflection on the dialectics at play between taming and untaming runs the risk of producing and re-producing old and new unjust urban utopias. But equally, theorizing urban change without an axiological discussion of what type of action might be possible or desirable can be purposeless, confining our understanding to multiple readings of complexity while overwhelming any sense of what transformative change might mean or entail. This is, for example, the danger of the conceptually cluttered urban resilience framework (Allen, Lampis and Swilling, 2016:10).

Andrea 3
Dr. Andrea Lampis is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the National University of Colombia in Bogota, Colombia.

Header Image: Tangier, Morocco. Credit: Boris Stroujko/

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