Can cities be resilient?

You can’t live at Meadowcreek if you are totally in love with city life.  One resident is “perfectly happy to stay in the valley all the time and come out only to go to church on Sundays.”  You have to love country life, solitude and Nature to live at Meadowcreek.  Yet most at Meadowcreek realize that being connected to cities provides benefits to Meadowcreek.

photo-manipulation-of-03_green-city-035_city_in_futureWe market food, mushrooms, herbs and crafts to people in the cities.  We cater events in the city. But when people talk about cities being resilient, it’s hard not to smile.  Part of the smile is because we are glad they are interested in resilience.  Part of the small is almost a laugh that they understand so little of resilience.

Resilience is a property of systems.  A subsystem cannot be resilient by itself, it’s ability to survive and thrive is totally dependent on the larger system it is a part of.  Though cities can seem powerful and independent, they are very dependent on all the inputs they suck in.  From an ecological resilience perspective, no city can be resilient because of this dependency.  A resilient system, though well connected, must be independent.  No city will ever be independent.  Cities always depend on the surrounding ecosystem to supply what they need.

Cities have a horrendous history with their surrounding ecosystems. How many times do cities have to destroy everything around them for us to learn this lesson?  The abandoned cities covered by sand in once lush ecosystems from Africa to the Middle East attest to the destructive lack of resilience of cities.  Resilient city is almost as much an oxymoron as military intelligence, deafening silence, serious joke, sweet sorrow and business ethics.

Realizing the destructive power of cities, we must work with those who love cities to improve their impact on their ecosystems.  Some contend the entire planet will be urbanized by the end of this century.  So city people either learn to contribute to resilience of their ecosystems or they never learn and destroy most of the planet.  Maybe.  And that might not be the worst thing.  A mass extinction would include nearly all humans.  If we can survive that apocalypse at Meadowcreek and a few other isolated spots, maybe we could create a new society which would be based on the natural laws of resilience and not on man-made laws (of which sustainability is one).

Most of us don’t want to chance that apocalypse, so we are happy to work with those trying to develop more resilient cities.  Rockefeller Foundation [1] has developed a City Resilience Framework which posits seven qualities of resilient systems: reflective, robust, redundant, flexible, resourceful, inclusive and integrated.  These qualities are consistent with those of other frameworks for predicting and encouraging resilience, but notably lacking in two areas.

This framework addresses the dependence of cities of their surrounding ecosystem first with the quality of being integrated (where exchange of information between systems enables them to function collectively and respond rapidly through shorter feedback loops).  Instead of using modularity or independence to moderate connectedness or integration, they use the term robust.  Systems are robust if they actively avoid over-reliance on a single physical infrastructure, cascading failure and design thresholds that might lead to catastrophic collapse if exceeded are actively avoided.

Rockefeller is most explicit about the need for physical physical infrastructure.  They cite the importance of well-conceived, constructed and managed physical physical infrastructure, which enable a system to withstand the impacts of disturbance without significant damage or loss of function.

Though Rockefeller fails to explicitly mention the quality of diversity in their 2014 index, in 2015, their website included diversity as a characteristics of all resilient systems.

The Rockefeller framework needs improvement in three main areas: local self-organization, transformation and ecological integration.

They only imply the importance of local self-organization in the quality they call  inclusiveness.  Top-down initiatives can fail if the timing is wrong, if the needs are misinterpreted, or if there is no buy-in from the stakeholders.  All resilience of higher scale systems depends on the resilient of its subsystems.  Rockefeller does not seem ready yet to devolve control to the local level.


Innovation is a necessary quality of resilient systems in nearly all resilience frameworks.  Carpenter et al. discuss it under their term opennessl  Cabell and Oelofse discuss innovation under building human capital and reflected and shared learning; Stockholm Resilience Center under encourage learning; Frankenberger et al. under responsiveness/flexibility and learning and innovation.  Rockefeller  promotes innovation under three qualities: flexible, resourceful and reflective;

Innovation within a system is transformative on a smaller scale.  Most frameworks don’t make the leap to recognizing that sometimes the innovation required may be so extensive as to transform the entire system.    This limited embrace of transformation is illustrated by Rockefeller’s emphasis on reflective systems which notes that resilient systems have mechanisms to continuously evolve, but does not go so far as to say they are periodically totally transformed.

We hope that the Rockefeller framework and other work of the foundation will help cities to become promoters instead of destroyers of resilience.

However, the major flaw in the framework reveals the same blindness which has doomed cities too numerous to count.  Integration with the surrounding ecological systems is not addressed in the framework.  Cities must recognize they are not islands, they are joined at the hip with the surrounding ecosystem.

Any approach to resilience of cities must overcome a tendency to focus on the city instead of on the ecosystem of which it is a part.  Until cities begin to see themselves as just one part of a larger system–all of whose components must be resilient–cities cannot contribute to resilience.

When cities give as many useful inputs back to the systems from which they take outputs, there is the possibility of resilience.

Until then, we have to admit that the most sensible approach is to just hunker down at Meadowcreek and try to ride out the apocalypse.




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