Networks of resilience, resilient networks

By David Maddox

Everyone thinks resilience is a good idea. The problem is figuring out what we actually mean when we say it. That is, how do we take urban resilience beyond the realm of metaphor and into the realm of everyday planning and decision-making — the stuff with which we can build cities?

A first key challenge with "resilience" is that it has so many definitions that emerge from so many areas of thought: economic resilience, ecological, personal, and so on. Each of these areas packs the word "resilience" with its own meaning. The idea that unites all the definitions is the notion of "bounce back." That is, a system — ecological, social, economic, personal — is resilient if it returns to its original form after receiving a shock. A system that isn't resilient responds to a shock by becoming something else, never returning to its pre-shock form. This was the original concept of C.S. "Buzz" Hollings, the famous ecologist who founded resilience theory. Resilient systems are those that can absorb a lot of shock or stress and, while perhaps deforming for a time, return to their original state.

Non-resilient systems are brittle, like glass. They break. Resilient ones are like rubber. They absorb, bend, and return to form.

Which brings us to what, to me, is an essential feature of resilient cities: the richness and integration of social and ecological systems. Mary Rowe talks about it at The Nature of Cities as "granular" resilience, specifically demonstrated in New Orleans in the years since Hurricane Katrina. Communities and neighborhoods are more likely to bounce back after a shock if they, pre-shock, have rich and varied organizations working there, with many connections between and among people, places, and organizations. This makes sense. Complex systems are more stable because in a system with many small connections, the loss of any one connection doesn't cripple the system. The network is rich, complex, with redundant parts that support the whole. When the one-company town loses its company...

Social scientists at the U.S. Forest Service created a way to document and study such networks. They called it StewMap, and in its first application they documented the networks among the almost 3,000 organizations, from large to tiny, that are involved in environmental stewardship in New York, from community gardens to botanical gardens. 3,000! Imagine that! We didn't know there were that many. It's a map with metadata about the groups and who they interact with, so one can ask the database about where organizations are and what they do. StewMaps are being created in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Chicago.

It's a great research tool. It also helps like-minded or neighbor organizations find each other. And it's a fantastic tool for showing the world and the rest of the city who is out there — the richness of the connections.

It's a tool that is useful for any network of organizations, from environmental to social. I spent some time in Altamira, Brazil, thinking that the network of social organizations knitted together by Preservar, Vivir e Proteger and Xingu Vivo would greatly benefit from a StewMap. In cities around the world there probably aren't as many community-based organizations as there are in New York, but the ones that are there need nurturing. And collectively they could gain strength and influence by demonstrating their networks, showing off their richness. There is sustaining power in numbers, and in intertwined networks. And it's the kind of social mapping that could propel the work of otherwise isolated organizations forward, and create more mechanisms to learn from each other, and support each other in difficult times. That's resilience.

Image #2: Local stewardship organizations in NYC, based in and working across the city. Reproduced from the Stewardship Mapping and Assessment Project, USDA Forest Service. Svendsen, E.S., and L.K. Campbell (2008) "Urban ecological stewardship: understanding the structure, function and network of community-based urban land management." Cities and the Environment 1(1): 1-32.


> Resilient systems are those that can absorb a lot of shock or stress and,
> while perhaps deforming for a time, return to their original state.

What you call as resilience looks to me as one of the possible resilient behaviors, i.e., elasticity. resilience may be more advanced than that and include the ability to become aware of the consequences of change as well as the ability to plan reactions and even proactive adaptation. It all depends on the nature of the enacted behaviors. I discuss this in the following article:

On the Constituent Attributes of Software and Organisational Resilience
Vincenzo De Florio
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 38, No. 2, Maney Publishing, 2013.

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