Community resilience

Like ‘engaged research, the term ‘community resilience’ is not readily defined within the literature. Indeed, there are multiple meanings because resilience has been used in different ways by different disciplines (Reid & Botterill, 2013). However, Brian Walker and David Salt (2012) and Fikret Berkes and Helen Ross (2012) suggest over the past few years there is an increasing convergence in how community resilience is being understood and used across the disciplines. By thinking of communities in terms of social, economic and environmental systems, there is a generally accepted definition of community resilience then as being the capacity of a community to ‘absorb disturbances and reorganise while undergoing change to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks’ (Wilson, 2012, p. 15). That is, community resilience refers to a community’s capacity to respond to, and learn from, adversity. While resilience has been studied from the perspective of various disciplines such as ecology, psychology, engineering and disaster studies, it has been increasingly focused on as an area of government policy and rhetoric in the wake of a series of natural disasters that have impacted on communities, particularly since Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2007. Indeed, it was studies that revealed that those communities within New Orleans that had high levels of social capital and which were able to mobilise their own resources (human and material) that responded and recovered best from the disaster event (Aldrich, 2012; Bava, Pulleyblank Coffey, Weingarten, & Becker, 2010; Chamlee-Wright & Storr, 2009; Chamlee-Wright & Storr, 2011). The recognition that such events are likely to increase in severity and frequency in response to climate change has prompted considerable attention on how those who are most effected by adversities can best be prepared for such future occurrences.

Community resilience is influenced by a number of factors: diversity; openness to new ideas and people; reserves; tightness of feedback loops; modularity; leadership; and social networks and trust. Each will be briefly explored before we consider how community resilience can be increased.

Diversity relates to having a broad spectrum of people within the community: people from different backgrounds and ethnicity; people with various educational backgrounds; and people with different skills and knowledge. As a result of these different backgrounds, skills and knowledge, the ability of a community to respond effectively to adverse events is enhanced because there are wider options available to draw on (Walker & Salt, 2012). Some of the concerns expressed about the ongoing resilience of many rural communities relates to the diminishing diversity found in the mix of those who remain as more families and services leave and move to more urban centres (McManus et al., 2012).

Openness relates to how easily new people and ideas move in and out of the community and how willing the community is to accept and adopt new people and ideas (Walker & Salt, 2012). Clearly openness and diversity are linked in that a more open community is likely to have greater diversity and therefore its ability to adapt to challenges is increased. Saliha Bava and colleagues (2010) found in their study of New Orleans communities that local community resilience was enhanced by collaboration between outsider groups and those working with insider groups. Wouter Poortinga (2012) refers to this sort of collaboration as bridging and linking social capital, that is, social networking between groups that normally have little to do with each other. Bonding social capital refers to the relationships people within a group have with each other. When bonding social capital is so strong that it discriminates against those outside the group - that is when openness is reduced - resilience is also reduced (Aldrich, 2012).

Reserves are natural, social and economic resources that can be mobilised quickly when needed. Such resources can relate to spaces in the landscape, seed banks, social memory or local knowledge as well as material resources such as money and equipment (Walker & Salt, 2012). Wendy Madsen and Cathy O’Mullan (2013) have outlined the importance of social memory in providing communities with narratives about how they respond as a community to adversity; those communities with stories that promote resilience are more likely to respond in a positive way. In the same way, people who have lived in a community for a long time can readily mobilise local knowledge to help in the decision making of local disaster response efforts, enhancing its effectiveness (Colten, Kates, & Laska, 2008).

All systems rely on feedback loops and how sensitive these are in providing information about change within the system and how the system is responding to external pressures (Walker & Salt, 2012). In communities that have multiple and well-developed communication channels, their ability to know what is going on within their communities is finely tuned and hence their ability to act quickly is also enhanced. This was illustrated by Sharon Dawes and colleagues (2004) in their study of human and information infrastructure in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Centre disaster. Where there was previously established open and clear communication and public involvement, trust was generated which resulted in the public being willing to follow directions and take advice from authorities, allowing the response of the whole community to be more effective.

Modularity refers to how tightly interconnected all aspects of a system are to each other (Walker & Salt, 2012). Vulnerable communities have all their components tightly linked such that if failure occurs in one, it leads to a ‘domino effect’ and all aspects of the community are affected. For example, communities that are highly reliant on one industry for all other activity are very vulnerable to any changes that may occur in that one industry and as such, their overall resilience is decreased. Fran Norris and colleagues (2008) acknowledge this aspect of community resilience in their model of community resilience as a set of networked adaptive capacities by highlighting the need for fairness of risk and vulnerability to hazards, ensuring diversity in economic resources, and ensuring there is equity of resource distribution.

Leadership, particularly collaborative leadership that promotes shared responsibility within a community, helps to nurture social networks which are fundamental to the development of trust within a community (Walker & Salt, 2012). Indeed, Jocelyne Bourgon (2010) suggests that resilience cannot be achieved by individuals, organisations or governments alone, but only through active citizenry and solid social networks across community groups. Work undertaken by Kristin Magis (2010) supports this position and she notes that those communities that have taken passive roles and become dependent on governments have a reduced adaptive capacity to challenges.

Because of the complexity of community resilience and the interdependability of the various components, there is a strong emphasis on community learning in a number of studies (Kilpatrick, Field, & Falk, 2003; Zautra, Hall, & Murray, 2009). Community learning provides a conceptual framework that values informal, learner-directed learning, particular within a social constructivist model that situates learning in the context of the community; learning that is relevant and meaningful to that particular community. Community learning also emphasises the importance of community and social networks and partnerships, highlighting collaborative leadership and the use of PAR as a way of increasing individual and community capital, capacity and resilience (McLachlan & Arden, 2009). Community learning does not try to strip back the layers and understand the components of something. Rather, it relates to the whole within the context of a particular community; members working and learning from each other as they interact on a daily basis. Such an approach to learning is being increasingly found in diverse contexts, such as forming the basis of disaster management in Los Angeles (Chandra et al., 2013) and supporting the online presence of community groups in Stanthorpe, Australia (Arden, McLachlan, & Cooper, 2009).

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