Design Resilient Cities. Don't Assume Resilient People.

Greg Hewgill/CC BY 2.0

"The question of people’s toughness in the face of these repeated blows to their financial and social security is glib, irrelevant and insulting."

Lara Strongman, a resident of Christchurch, New Zealand, is sick to death of the term "resilience". It is, she suggests in an article for Australian Design Review, a sleight of hand that is used to mask the social and cultural crisis that the city has faced since the devastating earthquakes.

And she may have a point.

Lloyd and I have been writing a lot about resilience of late. From lessons in resilience from a zombie apocalypse to resilient green building, there's a sense that we can't just lessen our impact on our environment—we have to lessen our environment's potential impact on ourselves too.

A Linguistic Sleight of Hand
But, just as "sustainability" can be watered down until it becomes unsustainable, resilience can also be misused and abused. Strongman suggests in her article that it is being used by politicians and the media to sweep the scale of the social destruction under a rug:

‘They’re tough, in Kaiapoi…’

Except they’re not. And the people of nearby Christchurch are not. They’re the same as people anywhere, in Ponsonby or Temuka or Karori or Murupara. The people of New Zealand’s second-biggest city are not a sturdy-legged race of dour peasants with a high pain threshold. They’re you, and your mum, and your neighbours, and the guy in the dairy, and the people you went to school with. Just New Zealand people. No tougher, no weaker than anyone else.

The problem, as usual, is that one word is being used to mean two totally different—and in some ways diametrically opposite—things. On the one hand, we hear resilience being used as a measure of a person, or community's, toughness—a static quality that is somehow inherent in their genetic make-up or cultural heritage. This, of course, is nonsense. As Strongman suggests, a devastating earthquake is a devastating earthquake. Don't try and minimize that fact by suggesting "those people" are somehow better able to cope than the rest of the world.

Resilience As a Dynamic, Cultivated Quality
On the other hand is a deeper discussion of resilience as a dynamic state of being—something that we must aim for, cultivate, and nurture—not just celebrate as an inherent quality that abdicates responsibility for the rest of us. This is the resilience that must be designed into communities as they rebuild from earthquakes. It is about building earthquake proof buildings; designing distributed, resilient energy and food systems, and investing in social capital so that neighbors can help each other when they need to. And, ultimately, it is a resilience that can only be found once you accept and undestand the vulnerability and fragility (and the strength and ingenuity) of the people who make up that system.

I've written before that many marginalized communities can teach the rest of us about resilience, but let's not let such memes be used to ignore the ongoing crises that many of these communities must face. Resilience is a collective pursuit. We're all in this together. And none of us are as "tough" as we might think we are.

Tags: Activism | Architecture | Communities | New Zealand | resilience