What does it mean for a city to be resilient?

Sara Meerow & Joshua P. Newell
University of Michigan, USA

References to ‘urban resilience’ seem to be everywhere these days: The Rockefeller Foundation’s “100 Resilient Cities” program, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction’s “Making Cities Resilient” campaign, New York City’s post-Hurricane Sandy “A Stronger, More Resilient New York” plan, in numerous academic conferences, books, and articles (Figure 1), and indeed even this blog (Chelleri, 2016; Moloney et al., 2016Lampis, 2015).

As cities around the world grapple with economic, political, and environmental risks, policymakers and academics alike are increasingly focused on finding ways to foster resilience. But what does it really mean for a city to be resilient? And how can the fuzzy concept of urban resilience be operationalized?

In this article we begin to answer these important questions by drawing on our recent research on urban resilience (Meerow & Newell, 2016; Meerow, Newell, & Stults, 2016). We review the term’s theoretical development and multiple definitions, delineate six conceptual tensions that impede interdisciplinary collaboration, propose a new definition, and introduce a systematic process to empirically apply it.

The term ‘resilience’ has long been used in psychology and engineering, but the urban and global environmental change literature commonly connects the concept to the seminal work of ecologist C.S. Holling (1973). He defined resilience as a complex ecosystem’s ability to maintain key functions following a disturbance. But this does not necessarily imply a static system. Holling and colleagues went on theorize resilience for complex social-ecological systems (SESs) and established an international, interdisciplinary research network to foster it, the Resilience Alliance (Folke, 2006).

The rapid uptake of urban resilience has led to a proliferation of definitions. Our bibliometric review (Figure 1) revealed 25 distinct definitions (Meerow et al., 2016), which either fail to address or are inconsistent with respect to six conceptual tensions. These are as follows: 1) conceptualizations of ‘urban’; 2) focus on returning to a single equilibrium vs. accepting multiple stable states or non-equilibrium; 3) assumption that resilience is always a desirable trait for cities; 4) extent to which resilience incorporates mechanisms of system change such as transition and transformation; 5) whether it is about adapting to specific threats or fostering generic adaptive capacity; and 6) the timescale of action.

Figure 1. Influential publications in the urban resilience literature based on co-citation analysis analysis (Meerow et al., 2016).

Practitioner understandings of resilience may vary even more widely. Indeed, a survey of local government officials in the US by Meerow and Stults (2016) revealed inconsistent understandings of the concept in the context of climate change. Moreover, some characteristics that practitioners most closely associated with resilience differ from the academic literature. The academic discourse has moved away from single equilibrium resilience as ‘bouncing back’ to ‘bouncing forwards’ conceptualizations. The officials surveyed, however, more often defined it in terms of ‘bouncing back’ and robustness.

Figure 2. Three-step process for enabling a politics of urban resilience (Meerow & Newell, 2016)

Conceptual fuzziness is problematic because urban resilience theory gets translated to policy and this has important implications and tradeoffs. Researchers critique the resilience agenda for largely ignoring the underlying politics and preserving the unjust status quo (Cretney, 2014; Pizzo, 2015). Some have suggested abandoning the concept altogether (Evans & Reed, 2014; MacKinnon & Derickson, 2012). But resilience initiatives and policies proliferate (Weichselgartner & Kelman, 2015). The concept can also serve as a ‘bridging concept’ or ‘boundary object,’ bringing together disciplines and sectors. This fuzziness is part of its usefulness, but implementing it is highly political and needs to be negotiated and contested.

Towards this end, we propose a three-step process for applying the concept empirically, as illustrated in figure 2. These steps include a basic definition and asking resilience for whom, what, when, where, and why?

An integrative definition of resilience

In Meerow et al. (2016), we propose the following definition of urban resilience:

Urban resilience refers to the ability of an urban system—and all its constituent socio- ecological and socio-technical networks across temporal and spatial scales—to maintain or rapidly return to desired functions in the face of a disturbance, to adapt to change, and to quickly transform systems that limit current or future adaptive capacity.

Figure 3. Conceptual schematic of the urban system proposed by Meerow et al. (2016), inspired by Dicken (2011).

This definition is augmented by a conceptual schematic of the urban system as illustrated in Figure 3.

In this definition and schematic, cities are conceptualized as dynamic, multi-scalar complex systems of socio-ecological and socio-technical networks (governance networks, material and energy flows, infrastructure and form, and social-economic dynamics) that cut across spatial and temporal scales. Urban resilience is generally presented as a desirable goal, but we affirm that normative futures are socially constructed and likely contested. We also agree with Chelleri and colleagues that different pathways to resilience (persistence/recovery, incremental transition/adaptation, or more radical transformation) are more applicable to some parts of the urban system than others. A building needs to be robust and persist in a storm, whereas fossil fuel-based urban energy systems or social inequalities should be transformed. Given the emergent and unpredictable nature of complex urban systems, fostering general adaptive capacity as opposed to becoming highly adapted to specific threats is essential (Wu & Wu, 2013).

 The process of operationalizing this definition for a particular city or policy initiative is inherently political. This necessitates difficult choices about resilience for whom, what, when, where, and why? (Figure 3) What, for example, are “desirable functions” in a city, and who gets to make that determination? What spatial and temporal scales are considered as part of the urban system or the focus of resilience policies? Who stands to benefit and who is excluded as a result of these decisions? The underlying politics of resilience can be made clear through thoughtful and transparent deliberation of these ‘five W’ questions and associated trade-offs.

    Questions to Consider













Who determines what is desirable for an urban system?

Whose resilience is prioritized?

Who is included (and excluded) from the urban system?

What? What perturbations should the urban system be resilient to?

What networks and sectors are included in the urban system?

Is the focus on generic or specific resilience?

When? Is the focus on rapid-onset disturbances or slow-onset changes?

Is the focus on short-term resilience or long-term resilience?

Is the focus on the resilience of present or future generations?

Where? Where are the spatial boundaries of the urban system?

Is the resilience of some areas prioritized over others?

Does building resilience in some areas affect resilience elsewhere?

Why? What is the goal of building urban resilience?

What are the underlying motivations for building urban resilience?

Is the focus on process or outcome?

 Figure 4. The five Ws of urban resilience (Meerow et al., 2016)

Bringing the contested components of urban resilience to the forefront makes it possible to examine alternatives and tradeoffs. Meerow & Newell, (2016) use a hypothetical example of green infrastructure planning for Los Angeles to illustrate how different responses to questions of resilience for whom, what, when, where, and why can lead to different siting decisions and this has important social and environmental implications. For example, if stormwater abatement resilience benefits of green infrastructure are prioritized over addressing park poverty (or vice versa), then spatial priorities shift accordingly.

This underscores the complex challenge of translating urban resilience from a theoretical construct and rather abstract goal to specific policies, programs, and plans. Future research will need to critically examine how these decisions play out in different urban contexts, and who wins and loses as a result. We offer our definition of urban resilience and the five Ws as a heuristic to help structure these investigations. How do you define, model, and foster a resilient city?


Ms. Sara Meerow is a PhD Candidate in the School of Natural Resources & Environment at the University of Michigan, USA.


Dr. Joshua Newell is an Assistant Professor in the School of Natural Resources & Environment at the University of Michigan, USA.


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