by Iain White, Director of the Centre for Urban and Regional Ecology at University of Manchester.
Are you an ‘enemy of enterprise’? No? How about an opponent of ‘progress’ or ‘freedom’? Unless I’ve seriously misjudged the readership of this blog, there would be little support from the largely indeterminate but oddly silent pro- stagnation and fear camp. Concepts that few would disagree with are known as ‘motherhood and apple pie’ statements, associated with the similarly unassailable support for the role of mothers or fruit-based pastries. It is easy to dismiss these utterances as empty political slogans and the rapidly emerging consensus on the need for ‘resilience’ is becoming subject to comparable criticism.
Societies are frequently urged by political leaders to be ‘resilient’, more able to both cope, and recover from, the unexpected economic, environmental or social shocks so prevalent in the 21st century. Superficially the term is a positive, pliable and fuzzy concept that appears difficult to dispute. The case for supporting less resilient economies, cities or infrastructure is irrational, akin to advocating that development should be unsustainable. Resilience appears instinctively incontestable, portraying a desirable, aspirational goal relevant to practically any given issue; traits which have proven critical to its easy acceptance by strategic decision makers.
Within planning the term has gained currency as a way to adapt to various problems, such as climate change, economic downturns or the threat of terrorism. Symbolically, the deployment of this discourse is a valuable political strategy, transforming crises or uncertainty from being subject to prospective allegations of mismanagement to appearing to be in control. For instance, a policy advocating ‘resilience’ to the impacts of climate change provides a positive message to oppose the reality of what may be a political failure to agree mitigation or invest in prevention or protection. Particularly when the state has done little to immunize citizens from risk, resilience – embedded within a language of assurance and comfort – may be used as a strategy to help blunt negative opinion frequently levelled at decision-makers in the aftermath of detrimental events. Significantly therefore, from a political perspective resilience may be described as a mechanism to uphold confidence rather than enforce change.
It is, however, incorrect to label this concept as either superficial or positive – attempts to pursue agendas of resilience may generate significant governance changes or spatial and social inequalities. For example urbanisation and climate change are increasing the financial cost of flood defence and there has been a resultant policy shift toward resilience, and its associated strategies of preparedness and recovery, rather than the simple protection of people and places. Whilst seemingly logical, this move also transfers the costs for risk management from the state toward the private sector, communities and individuals in a largely veiled manner. Resilience in this context emphasises the ability to ‘bounce back’, in effect to experience detriment and recover quickly, and with regard to flooding may relate to the purchase of insurance or products designed to either resist water entering the home or to reduce the damage if it does. Given the opportunity to consider the policy outcomes do you think citizens want to be responsible for being ‘resilient’ or do they simply expect protection? Seemingly agreeable resilience agendas can therefore be used to legitimise the reduction of financial resources which underpins much neo-liberal governance ideology and are often accompanied by parallel narratives of fatalistic complexity, geo-political impasse, private sector stimulation or even increasing personal freedoms.
In much the same way that Sustainable Development captured the zeitgeist of the late 20th century, resilience may prove to be the perfect exemplification of its time: a conveniently nebulous concept incorporating shifting notions of risk and governance, which can facilitate the transfer of responsibility and cost away from the state and toward the private sector, the market, communities and individuals. Those with power and resources may be able to engage with and influence resilience agendas, conversely vulnerable people and communities may find themselves significantly affected by a retreat of the state and a reframing of the services provided. In an ‘age of uncertainty’ where the globalised complexity of our social, economic and environmental systems appears to drive seemingly ‘unavoidable’ shocks, resilience has found a welcoming political home. The effect of this widespread acceptance is as yet undetermined, however. Whilst its ubiquity may suggest resilience is either a motherhood statement or vacuous slogan, there is a real need to analyse policy outcomes to help this potentially useful concept benefit both the city and its citizens.