Urban resilience for whom?

A view of downtown Seattle from Kerry Park. (Diana Robinson/Creative Commons)

"Urban resilience” is a hot term being thrown around within the environmental community. But what does it mean?

I sat down with professor Josh Cousins at SUNY-ESF and talked about this topic. Cousins, who has a Ph.D. from the School for the Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, teaches Community Planning & Sustainability, Sustainable Urban Development, and an Environmental Energy auditing course. Urban resilience, according to Cousins, is “ultimately a social concept. We developed it, we created it, and we use it as a metaphor to describe something we see in the natural world.


Josh Cousins

“It has this positive connotation along with it in terms of applying that metaphor to a city; thinking about how a robust ecosystem is able to bounce back from certain shocks and stresses. So when applied to a community or city, how can a city respond to different shocks and stresses? Whether it’s a hurricane or an economic downturn, etc.”

This resilience is really important when we’re thinking about what we want a sustainable future to look like. With rising sea levels and more extreme weather-related disasters, resilience is crucial in how our cities can bounce back from these shocks and stresses.

The main question isn’t if we should make strides for our cities to be more resilient, but rather: resilience for whom? With any policy or social change, certain groups always seem to be excluded. Obviously we want our cities to be able to bounce back from environmental stresses, but if this happens only in more affluent areas of the city, for example, is the city truly resilient?

An important way to combat these disparities within urban resilience, according to Cousins, is to “start at a local, grassroots level and try to incorporate (a diverse group) within planning processes. Give them the resources at the grassroots level to do that, rather than initiating that from a top-down drive.”

Many cities are implementing a resiliency leadership position, which Cousins argues isn’t a bad idea, but there needs to be an emphasis on encouraging citizen-led change through local movements. Those who live within a particular area of a city are the most knowledgeable about the day-to-day resiliency strengths and weaknesses, since they are witness to it every day. This aspect cannot be acknowledged and utilized enough.

A lot of general greenspace development, according to Cousins, has been linked to gentrification and displacement because as more projects work to make an urban area appear more green, certain groups are pushed out of their familiar urban environments. This also plays into that question of: resiliency for whom? The adverse effects that green space planning might actually have can be significant. Sometimes certain amenities can bring certain disservices. For example, something like tree planting might result in added labor for a community that might not have the capacity to maintain new trees. The result is an environmental benefit that may turn into a disservice to the community in the long run.

Resiliency is crucial in order to create societies that thrive and react to growing environmental concerns. But resiliency also must be sure to include low-income communities and communities composed mainly of minorities.

Said Cousins: “Resilience is here to stay whether you like it or not. You have to engage with it. Overall, more resilient futures are better futures.”

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