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How Do We Bounce Back? Defining and Measuring Community Resilience

Monday, June 17, 2019
Sierra Killian

Sierra Killian

Research Associate

Rebecca L. Kihslinger

Rebecca L. Kihslinger

Senior Science and Policy Analyst

With climate change actively intensifying impacts from natural disasters, it is now more important than ever to design and implement community resilience plans and actions that will minimize damage when disasters occur. To prepare for an increasingly uncertain and fraught future, communities are identifying vulnerabilities, planning for forthcoming disasters, and taking action to become more resilient. But what exactly does resilience mean? What does it mean to be a resilient community? And, importantly, is there a concrete way to measure a community’s progress toward resilience as it is defined by the community so that its members can ensure they are taking appropriate steps to be better able to respond to a new normal?

According to the dictionary definition, resilience is the “ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” The word comes from the Latin verb resilire, meaning to jump back or recoil. When used in the context of climate change, resilience broadly refers to a community’s ability to respond to and cope with disruption and change brought on by a changing climate. Beyond these basic parameters, however, there is little agreement about the specific attributes that make up resilience.

A literature review in PLOS Current Disasters surveyed 80 papers and found no agreed-upon definition of community resilience. The authors categorized definitions into “(1) ‘process’ definitions (i.e., an ongoing process of change and adaption); (2) ‘absence of adverse effect’ definitions (i.e., an ability to maintain stable functioning); and (3) ‘range of attributes’ definitions (i.e., a broad collection of response-related abilities).” The paper lists nine elements of community resilience: local knowledge, community networks and relationships, communication, health, governance/leadership, resources, economic investment, preparedness, and mental outlook. 

In our review, definitions of community resilience in the context of disasters emphasize different kinds of shocks, time horizons, and resilience capacities. Definitions variously refer to disruptions, as in the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit; multi-hazard threats, as in the Fourth National Climate Assessment; turbulent change, as defined by the Community and Regional Resilience Institute; and chronic stresses and acute shocks, as in the 100 Resilient Cities Urban Growth Handbook. Climate-influenced natural disasters, like wildfires and hurricanes, represent a subset of these events; deliberate attacks and accidents are also generally included. The term used can influence a community’s approach to measuring resilience in the face of climate impacts. Chronic stresses and acute shocks, for example, could encompass both slow-moving changes like sea-level rise, as well as immediate events like hurricanes.

Resilience definitions describe actions that take place before, during, and after disruptions, and they too vary significantly depending on the organization that provides the definition. Definitions from leading institutions in the field describe that resilient communities prevent, protect against, prepare and plan for, resist, and anticipate risk from these events before they occur. During disruptive events, resilient communities are expected to respond to, absorb, withstand, and survive the change. After events, resilient communities recover rapidly from, successfully adapt to, accommodate to, and bounce back rapidly from disruptions. Different definitions mix and match these verbs to describe the various aspects of resilience. For example, Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative, published by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 2012, defines resilience as “the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, or more successfully adapt to actual or potential adverse events.” These semantic differences may have practical consequences, as the nuances and connotations of each action description determine the metrics by which resilience can be measured.

Definitions of community resilience also emphasize different elements of communities. The National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST's) Community Resilience Planning Guide for Buildings and Infrastructure, for instance, focuses on the interactions between a community’s social dimensions and built environment. Drawing on NIST’s expertise in the built environment, the guide addresses “the role buildings and infrastructure systems play in assuring the health and vitality of the social and economic fabric” of communities. The adaptation chapter of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, on the other hand, centers its definition of resilience around minimizing damage to “social well-being, the economy, and the environment,” that is, around social, financial, and natural capital.

The term “community” in definitions of community resilience also covers a range of sizes. The NIST Community Resilience Planning Guide provides one of the more concrete frameworks, defining communities as “places (such as towns, cities, or counties), designated by geographical boundaries, that function under the jurisdiction of a governance structure.” Initiatives established by various organizations to support resilience in communities provide examples of efforts across these different scales. The LEED green building certification program, for example, offers pilot credits for resilient design at the scale of individual development projects. At a larger scale, the 100 Resilient Cities Initiative aims to increase the capacity of all actors within cities. Resilience at a national scale, while geographically broader than what is typically understood by community resilience, is an area of focus outlined in the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy.

Measuring the result of any one resilience action in any one place is challenging. The challenge is multiplied when developing a measure of community resilience at a larger scale, both across relevant time frames and geographic scales. NAS in its 2019 report on Building and Measuring Community Resilience summed up that “no single measurement tool fits the resilience measurement needs of all communities.” However, the report emphasizes that the difficulty in tailoring metrics to individual communities does not change the fact that measurement is an integral component of bolstering community resilience. Developing measurement processes helps communities “[e]stablish their baseline resilience to enable them to monitor their progress toward specific goals,” “[i]dentify their risks,” and “[c]ompare the benefits of increasing resilience to its costs,” among other purposes.

NAS and other organizations have dedicated significant thought and effort to developing widely applicable methods of measuring community resilience. A 2012 report from NAS, titled Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative, laid out six characteristics of a resilient nation. The report identified as characteristics easily accessible information on risk and vulnerability; well-designed and -implemented resilience plans; proactive investments to reduce future damage; strong community coalitions to undergird communities after disasters; rapid disaster recovery; and a safer, healthier, and better-educated national population. Although the report outlines characteristics of national resilience, it leaves the task of creating a national resilience scorecard to the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies. By breaking up the multiple facets of community resilience into discrete, observable components, the report tackles the complexity of community resilience one part at a time.

In 2016, the Mitigation Framework Leadership Group (MitFLG) published the Draft Interagency Concept for Community Resilience Indicators and National-Level Measures. MitFLG comprises representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other federal agencies who bring diverse perspectives on resilience. The draft concept proposed a suite of capabilities that mark resilient communities, including housing, health and social services; economic recovery; infrastructure systems; natural and cultural resources; threats and hazards identification; risk and disaster resilience assessment; planning; community assessment; and long-term vulnerability reduction. The team also proposed national-level measures within the indicator framework to help quantify at least some aspects of each indicator. The report lists publicly available federal community-scale datasets that were used as source data for the development of these national-level measures or that may be used to develop additional measures. For example, MitFLG recommended using the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy Housing Conditions Data, including the percentage of households with at least one of four severe housing problems and the percentage of households that are cost-burdened, to measure the housing core capability. Like the 2012 NAS report, the MitFLG report disaggregates community resilience into discrete and more easily quantified components, like housing and infrastructure, to make the process of measuring community resilience more manageable.

Measuring community resilience is both extremely challenging and extraordinarily important. The abundance of definitions and resources available to communities can make this important task daunting for local governments. To navigate the maze of information, decisionmakers must take stock of their local needs and capacities to choose the best definitions and metrics to assess their communities’ levels of resilience. At present, there is inadequate guidance available to help local community leaders decide between available resources and tailor them to their needs. As difficult as it is to measure community resilience, it is a crucial aspect of anticipating and avoiding worst-case scenarios in a future of increasingly frequent and destructive disasters.

ELI is working with partners around the world to develop legal, policy, and institutional solutions to address the impacts of climate change and create more resilient communities and ecosystems. To learn more, visit: https://www.eli.org/climate-energy/climate-resilience.