Community Resilience and Risk

This commentary was first published in the November 2020 newsletter of the Australia New Zealand Society of Risk Analysis.

Many of the so-called “natural disasters” that devastate our communities represent a failure at the intersection of risk analysis and urban planning. The consequences are clear, but the cause is not the natural event. Instead it is a lack of risk-informed urban development that is required to identify the complex interactions, uncertainties, trade-offs, and potential consequences. The result of this failing is not limited to natural hazards, but many of today’s challenges including COVID-19 in cities, air pollution, chronic diseases (e.g., obesity or depression rates amongst the elderly), and climate change. Addressing these challenges requires building community resilience.

To build towards community resilience, we need to understand what it entails. Traditionally, community resilience is characterised through two lens by two separate research communities: community capacity and infrastructure functionality. The former looks at the socio-demographic characteristics of the community and other factors to determine factors that are used to estimate the community’s ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from a disruption. Infrastructure functionality, on the other hand, has focused on the effect of infrastructure robustness and restoration (e.g., lifelines).

However, resilience can be considered more broadly within the concept of risk. The most general definition of risk is that “Risk is the consequences of an activity and associated uncertainty” (SRA glossary, 2015). Using this terminology, resilience can be considered as the ability to improve the direct and indirect consequences/outcomes of events, now and in the future. In this manner, we can consider resilience as a product of risk analysis that considers the long-term effects and future (potentially unknown) events. Critical to this requires that we throw off the misconception that the concept of risk is suited only to a short time period (Linkov et al., 2018). Understanding the time dimension of risk is essential for interconnected risks and those with cascading impacts. It is not simply first-order, immediate effects (e.g., the injury from the event) but the nth order outcomes that could take time to be realised as they cascade through the system.

Ultimately, to build resilience in our communities we need to take a broader, integrated, and, simultaneously, more rigorously quantitative approach compared to the two traditional, and traditionally siloed, approaches. First, we must remind ourselves that we build cities for people (Derrible, 2019). Then we need to design and evaluate our infrastructure and urban form in terms of its effect on people (Logan & Guikema, 2020; for example how does people’s access to amenities (supermarkets, healthcare, etc.) change due to a hurricane). We can build robustness and plan for speedy recovery, but we also need to foster the social cohesion that enables a community to develop inherent resilience characteristics. This social cohesion requires equitable access to opportunities and equitable exposure to environmental burdens.
Integrating risk analysis tools in an urban planning space can support tackling some of our society’s major challenges and build community resilience in preparation for a turbulent future.
Dr Tom Logan is the co-leader of the University of Canterbury’s Transdisciplinary Research Cluster for Community and Urban Resilience and a lecturer of Civil Systems Engineering in the department of Civil and Natural Resources Engineering.