The urban resilience fallacy: Gaps between theory and practice

Lorenzo Chelleri
Gran Sasso Science Institute, Italy

The concept of urban resilience incorporates a very diverse set of adaptation and risk reduction practices under its umbrella. For example, dam construction, tree planting, slum regeneration, and smart city planning have all been labelled as a way of building more resilient cities. The increasing interest in building resilient cities has also given rise to a number of critical essays (e.g., Albers and Deppisch, 2012; Vale, 2014; MacKinnon and Derikson, 2012; Weichselgartner, J. & I. Kelman, 2015). Just as the normative and holistic messages of sustainability have suffered clashes with, for example, the inertia of business-as-usual practices, the lack of proper system-wide indicators, the un-scalability of proposed innovations, etc., so too has resilience been criticized as a conceptual panacea for urban challenges. I explore here the nature of the challenges facing resilience, which I relate to three main gaps between theory and practice. Building upon the literature (e.g., Lampis, 2015), I discuss these gaps and question whether or not resilience is an appropriate concept for implementation in urban systems.

 The conceptual misalignment

From a metaphorical point of view, resilience generally refers to “dealing with change” by adapting shocks and stresses (Walker and Salt, 2006). As illustrated in Figure 1, most images associated with resilience refer to the struggle to survive in the most extreme situations. For urban systems, this would imply the examination of how cities and their inhabitants survive within resource-scarce or hazard prone environments. However, those images and metaphors support only a limited understanding of adaptation and change, giving only a vague idea about what is it that is worth adapting to, and therefore, confusing persistence with sustainability.

Figure 1. Pictures representing metaphors of ecological and urban resilience. Source: author from Pixabay and own picture.


A social-ecological system perspective (e.g., Folke, 2006) addresses the relationship between change, persistence, and sustainability by conceptualizing resilience as adaptation and transformation across scales (Folke, 2010) for the normative purpose of long term sustainability. Conceptualizations and measurements of system regimes and thresholds help such a framing of change and persistence in social-ecological systems. However, for urban systems dealing with regimes and thresholds, this implies facing: i) the deeply political nature of identifying which among the many overlapping “regimes” is desirable and for whom; and, ii) the theoretical challenge of understanding what a “tipping point” is for an urban system and how to measure it. Given that cities are arguably the most transformative, dynamic, diverse and “complex but incomplete” systems on Earth, this is far from challenging.

Converging and conflicting approaches

Moving from the meanings and conceptualizations to the challenges of operationalization, resilience offers a range of different approaches. Figure 2 synthetizes those approaches (recovery, adaptation and transformation) in relation to shocks and stresses along a timeline. The ball in a basin illustrates the metaphorical meaning for each approach (respectively to bounce back to equilibrium – expand the range of system tolerance –regime change).

Figure 2. Three different approaches for operationalizing resilience. Source: Chelleri et al, 2015a


The substantial differences between recovery (which could refer to either guaranteeing the supply of critical infrastructure services or recovery from a disaster), adaptation (incremental innovations accommodating increasing stresses in order to maintain system functions and structures) and transformation (disruptive innovations implying long-term transitions) have been recognized by different authors in the last few years (see Pelling, 2010; Chelleri and Olazabal, 2012; Elmqvist, 2014). When it comes to operationalizing resilience, the questions of which approach and for what part of the urban system are key and give rise to different critical reactions from the academic world (White and O’Hare, 2014, among others).

Recently, Charles Redman pointed out that “the current political arena favours adaptation because it works to maintain the established order and addresses near-term problems”. This is in line with an increasing amount of critiques of policies that promote short-term goals while mainstreaming business-as-usual practices and labelling them as resilience building. In 2014, Tom Slater introduced the “resilience of neoliberal urbanism” as an example of how highly corrupted, unsustainable, and un-equitable systems can be extremely resilient to change. Indeed, resilience is not the most appropriate concept for enabling transformation of those systems in something more sustainable, or equitable, since resilience per se does not imply power relationship changes. From this point of view, the perceived fallacy of urban resilience induced from different critical essays stands not in the above mentioned approaches per se, but in the lack of critical framing that explores which approach(es) can better respond to each specific urban risk/challenge, in line with contextual needs (i.e., urban services increase), goals (i.e., social inclusion), and practices (i.e., lack of participatory processes in planning practices).

Which resilience principles for urban systems?

A closer look at the gap between resilience thinking and practice also brings forth the issue of the principles or characteristics appropriate for resilience operationalization and measurement. Figure 3 illustrates the complex multidisciplinary network spreading a common understanding of “urban resilience”. Those different nine fields each give different meanings to resilience and provide a set of normative principles, either different from field to field, or similar in name (like ‘modularity’ or ‘redundancy’) but resulting in completely different outcomes if applied to the city.

Figure 3. Multidisciplinary network of meanings and principles contributing to the emergence of urban resilience thinking. Source: Di Giovanni and Chelleri (forthcoming)


Redundancy is a clear example of how utilization of a principle could lead to very different applications and outcomes. If applied to infrastructure such as energy networks, for example, redundancy would result in backup systems of two or more powerlines, in order to guarantee that at least one is always working and providing energy in case other lines fail. This redundancy would contribute to making the performance of the existing technology and current infrastructure more robust. It will also indirectly consolidate the mainstream role and power of energy utility companies and providers in managing energy in the city. However, redundancy could also be operationalized through a diversification of the infrastructure itself: in case of failure of the energy network, a parallel and new network of, for example, decentralized renewable solar stations (managed from cooperatives and citizens) could serve as a backup system, providing functional redundancy to the whole energy system.

Contrary to the first option, this application of redundancy would introduce new technologies, new actors and management practices of the energy infrastructures, toward a more sustainable and decentralized transition. Therefore, when it comes to urban practitioners to decide how to put in place resilient cities strategies this could be done through very different approaches and solutions: opening the ground for innovation and transformation, or mainstreaming business as usual practices. In any case, resilience principles (redundancy and others) would support the chosen strategy, justifying the increase of redundancy (or modularity, or connectedness) per se. For these reasons I argue that the uncritical welcoming of normative principles emerging from different fields and trusting the resilience label as an automatic improvement is not consistent with the need of aligning resilience increases with other key goals for urban systems (sustainability or equity just to mention two among others).

Conclusion: From building to managing resilience

The (re)action-oriented message of resilience, and thus its power in the discourse of policy makers, has been recognized by both academics and practitioners. However, I have argued that resilience operationalization is problematic and could imply a set of potential trade-offs while deciding how to enhance city resilience. These trade-offs include:

  1. Actions aiming at short-term benefits versus long-term ones, e.g., the so-called “levee effect” in the case of flood management (Collenteur et al., 2015);
  2. Falling short of comprehensive and multi-dimensional approaches to resilience (the resilience of the whole urban system) by focusing on specific actions or investments in a specific area or sector, such as investing in flood proof infrastructure while ignoring drought adaptation, or investing in greening for heat wave alleviation at the expense of the accessibility to housing because of the rise of property values induced from the enhanced urban environment); and,
  3. Actors who are building resilience and contributing to resilience strategies, while others are excluded. Those trade-offs reinforce in a structural way the main critiques around urban resilience, emphasizing the need to “politicize resilience” (see also Vale, 2014).

Indeed, it has been already demonstrated through multiple case studies that, for example, the transition to decentralized/distributed infrastructure is not a technical issue, but a political one (Chelleri et al., 2015b), or that climate adaptation plans could affect the vulnerability of the urban poor by exacerbating socio-spatial inequalities (Anguelovski et al., 2015). Therefore, since we know that monopolistic markets, inequitable housing development, unsustainable management of natural resources and infrastructure, and corrupted political systems are but the most resilient systems, the question remains: Why are discussions about the need for “reducing resilience” of these (sub)systems still so few and hidden within specific academic niches (Fainstein, 2014 among others)? If there is agreement on the existence of resilience trade-offs and on the potentially negative implications of mainstreaming “resilience per se”, a paradigm shift from “building resilience” to “managing resilience” is necessary in order to align urban resilience thinking (strong linkages with sustainability) with urban resilience building practices (strong linkages with our current business as usual modes of urban management). This alignment is necessary not only to advance the theory, but because the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals are calling for a synergistic framing among resilience, sustainability, and equity, something which on the ground will reveal the need to manage the above mentioned trade-offs.


Lorenzo Chelleri

Dr. Lorenzo Chelleri is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Gran Sasso Science Institute (GSSI) in L’Aquila, Italy, and is Chair of the Urban Resilience Research Network.


6 thoughts on “The urban resilience fallacy: Gaps between theory and practice

  1. Urban resilience is a patch approach….we confront natural systems and when we know we will fall weak we tend to be resilient. The querry is interesting and could explore survival dynamics of the city to become the fittest.

  2. It is common to conceptualise ‘the city’ as an entity in which there are many ‘levers’ to be adjusted in order to improve its resilience to change. It is less common to discuss the city in its broader contexts – geographical catchment for water management; population catchment for demographic political and market analyses, energy and telecommunication networks within bigger regional or national frameworks, the food bowl that feeds its citizens, its ecological footprint – these are just a few examples. And each of these wider contexts have their own goals to pursue greater resilience, but in practice these various viewpoints are not pulled together holistically. I liken each city in the worldwide collection of cities, not to a single entity like a tree in a forest; but rather to a mushroom which is the visible fruiting body of a web of hidden mycelium that permeates the soil of the whole forest. To understand the city we must try to understand all the networks – resource flows, energy, information, political power that coalesce to give the city its role and place in the world.

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