Urban Resilience Planning: From Theory to Practice

Date: 3/31/2019

Author: Cassie Oswood

          The term ‘urban resilience’ has become more popular in publications over the past decade. As it gains popularity though, the question is raised, “What exactly does `resilience’ mean?” Dr. Sara Meerow, professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University, developed a research objective that focuses on just that.
          Dr. Meerow found that there were two main critiques of the use of resilience in academic literature. The first being the ‘conceptual fuzziness’ of the term. The definition has become so broad over the past thirty years that the term is almost meaningless. To give the term value it seems that the multiple definitions must be steered towards a common ground.
         The second critique of the term ‘resilience’ was that it is mainly used to maintain the unjust status quo. The term is commonly viewed as conservative, with its central focus being on “bouncing back works against more profound change” (Brown 2013). To reconstruct the view of the term, resilience needs to move towards “planning as a technocratic, risk-focused agenda that… has little to do with building a more just city” (Brown 2018).
          Part I of Dr. Meerow’s research worked to define ‘urban resilience’. Her team of researchers analyzed academic literature and surveys from practitioners and the broader public to better understand how urban resilience was defined and characterized in these different groups. From this data, she would be better able to study the implications from the different conceptualizations and develop a plan to minimize conceptual confusion.

          From the resilience research, 7 main themes emerged:

  1. Resilience as a system trait, process, or outcome
  2. Resilience as a strategy for dealing with uncertainty
  3. From understanding resilience to building resilience
  4. Increasingly normative concept
  5. Incorporating transformation
  6. Interest in monitoring and evaluation
  7. Emerging critiques
These themes were then developed as a system trait or condition, a process/set of processes, and an outcome/set of outcomes.   
          The final definition of resilience Dr. Meerow and her team of researchers developed was:
“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.”
          Part II of Dr. Meerow’s research on resilience focused on how cities are operationalizing resilience. The research looked into how cities are organizing their resilience work, how cities resilience plans compare with climate adaptation plans and address equity, and to what extend resilience planning is transformative.
         In looking at how cities organize resilience, the research found that the departments of planning, public works, and sewage and water showed a centralized structure for resilience work. Meanwhile the departments of education, transportation, housing, economic development, environmental/sustainability, and budgeting exhibited a dispersed structure for resilience work.
         This research determined that definitions of resilience vary and broaden over time, there are  tensions between centralization and a more dispersed approach, collaboration and integration across departments key to success, and there are pros and cons to housing resilience within existing bureaus, including sustainability, emergency management, mayor’s office.
          Finally, Dr. Meerow researched equity in urban resilience plans to determine how, and to what extend, are cities incorporating social equity into their resilience plans and strategies. The findings determined that there was a huge variation in extent to which plans focus on social equity, plans are mostly focused on distributional equity, and they do not question economic growth or capitalist system. It was also found that many plans do emphasize public engagement, but not strategies for reaching marginalized populations, and they do not recognize structural drivers of vulnerability and inequality.
         Dr. Meerow’s research concluded that the concept of resilience is fuzzy as the understanding of resilience varies and are constantly evolving. It is unclear if and how resilience planning is transformational, though there is some initial evidence of increased collaboration. Dr. Meerow and her team’s research is important for the academic and public sphere to understand resilience and how it is conceptualized by different audiences. Understanding the term and what it entails will be integral as cities and stakeholders make efforts to move towards urban resilience.

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