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The Problem with Resiliency: How Resilience Planning Can Marginalize Vulnerable Populations


Resilience planning has become the rallying cry of city planners, architects, engineers, conservationists, NGOs, policy makers, and other diverse stakeholders in cities around the world. Much has been said for our communities’ need to develop resilience strategies in the face of an ever-growing host of climate, economic, and terror-induced threats. What has been overlooked are the implicit ways in which resilience planning affects the communities, particularly those members of the population characterized as “vulnerable,” that such strategies profess to protect.

Image courtesy of Pixabay, © 2017.

Over the past decade the concept of resilience has entered into the lexicon of varied and disparate fields and applications, from climate change and conservation to urban planning and design. Researcher Nicholas Fisichelli and fellow ecologists trace the evolution of the word across the climate change literature, highlighting that the concept of resilience has become more, not less, confusing and ambiguous over time, developing an “elastic quality” that allows for its multiple and divergent interpretations.

Today, the idea of building resilience applies to virtually every sector–across communities and infrastructure to the economy and natural resources–and to every conceivable threat–climate change, extreme weather, terrorism, economic shocks, and urbanization. Indeed, the definition of resilience given by the American Planning Association (APA) states that urban resilience entails “the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.” The APA’s definition goes on to differentiate between chronic stresses—high unemployment, poor or overtaxed infrastructure, water shortages—and acute shocks—earthquakes, floods, disease outbreaks, and terrorist attacks.

While a lack of consensus on what resilience means in which contexts necessarily inhibits a clear understanding of the concept and its desirability in practice, there are more severe ramifications in its widespread application that stem from a part of the resilience planning process involving the identification of vulnerable populations. This practice pinpoints segments of a community that are deemed more vulnerable because they have a higher risk exposure to and are less able to absorb and recover from climate change and other shocks or stressors. The 2017 National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Community Resilience Guide Brief provides best practices on how to “characterize social functions and dependencies” and imparts information on why and how resilience planning should “characterize the population.”

This “characterization” involves the systematic gathering and analysis of data on a community and its inhabitants for the purpose of determining its “capacities and vulnerabilities with respect to the social environment.” Those members of the population that are understood to be vulnerable–low-income families, single parents, seniors, youth, ethnic minorities, non-English speakers, those with chronic physical or mental illness–are correlated with experiencing a higher exposure to risk and a diminished ability to avoid or recover from the potential harm of a shock or stressor. This vulnerability may be compounded by the population’s physical location and place within the built environment, as those deemed especially at risk often live in flood-prone areas, old or unsuitable housing, or otherwise threat-compounding settings.

In order to assess the vulnerabilities within a community, the brief advocates for the collection and analysis of data on a range of population demographics such as age, income, employment, and education, as well as social vulnerability indicators, including mobility issues, proportion of renters versus homeowners, percentage of the population living/working in hazard-prone areas, community engagement, and levels of community trust and connectedness. While campaigning for the collection and targeted use of this sensitive data, the brief does not devote any space to considering how to, or even if, this information should be used and stored so as to safeguard individuals’ privacy rights.

Beyond data privacy concerns, the practice of identifying vulnerable populations carries with it more implicit concerns on a structural level. As Wageningen University Disaster Studies professor Georg Frerks and colleagues demonstrates, the label of “vulnerable” is externally attributed to those groups it is applied. As such, it serves to victimize and disempower those people under its designation, while removing their agency and engendering a fatalistic view of disaster recovery for such populations. The potential affect is akin to one of path dependency, in which a group of people is labeled as vulnerable and thereby fall into a self-fulfilling prophecy doomed to repeat itself as each post-shock recovery effort seeks to return the state of affairs to the status quo, a status quo of vulnerability.

In seeking to preserve the steady state or “business as usual” post-disaster, resilience planning may also preserve or reproduce existing inequities and societal marginalizations that exist within a vulnerable population and are, at least in part, attributable to the population’s vulnerability status. As critics like Coaffee and Rogers assert, it may even lead to the formation of new inequalities, as state and local authorities and planners instrumentalize resilience to determine how borders between safe and unsafe, resilient and vulnerable, communities and spaces are designated and administered.

Rather than imposing strategies that seek to preserve the status quo and thereby lock communities into a specific pathway, planners should work to institute resilience frameworks that are more transformative, iterative, and forward-looking in nature. To make our communities truly “resilient,” we should shed our current zero-risk, steady-state end mentality in favor of one that endeavors to provide individuals with the tools and resources they need to be secure, not only when faced with a crisis, but in their pursuit of a high quality of life and well-being.

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