Resilience, a new imperative?

chloe Voisin-Bormuth
Apr 6, 2018 · 12 min read

by Chloë Voisin-Bormuth | La Fabrique de la Cité

We find it mentioned in mechanics, biology, psychology, ecology, economics, as well as urban planning and architecture: the concept of resilience is everywhere. At times it can seem trite — or even downright suspicious. Now that it is used in so many different fields, has the term lost its meaning? Or has resilience emerged as a new imperative?

New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina — Jocelyn Augustino / FEMA via Wikimedia Commons

The popularity of this concept has no doubt benefited from recent events, as we have seen the impacts of various shocks — attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, fires, and even economic crises — and the corresponding stories of renewal following these shocks. We can all remember the images of Houston under water, of New Orleans devastated by Katrina, of Paris staying strong in the face of terror and rediscovering its motto “Fluctuat nec Mergitur” (“She is tossed by the waves but does not sink”), or even of Kigali, which in the 24 years after it became ground zero for one of the 20th century’s bloodiest genocides, has reemerged as a green city with the concerns and well-being of its residents as its top priority. Academic work on the concept of urban resilience[1] and research on the concept’s operability[2] have also seen an uptick.

The vitality of thought in this area is something to celebrate, as shown by the conference on “Resilient Cities and Territories” organized at Cerisy in September 2017 by La Fabrique de la Cité, the Institut Veolia, and Sabine Chardonnet Darmaillacq. However, we should not overlook the need to interrogate this notion and its premises, because there is no guarantee that everyone is talking about the same thing when they talk about resilience. That’s why La Fabrique de la Cité offers a series of five insights on urban resilience, each with a respective focus on: the concept of resilience, reducing urban vulnerability, network resilience, urban resilience in the face of demographic shifts, and finally, two case studies on resilience strategies: Paris and Dunkirk.

Resisting and adapting to a shock

Let’s start with the basics. We have a relatively broad general definition that describes resilience as the capacity of objects, individuals, or systems to resist and adapt to a shock they experience and return to their initial state.

The timeline of resilience — Chloë Voisin-Bormuth

From that definition we can sketch out the following rough diagram. After the time of shock (t0), comes the time of crisis and crisis management (t1), which is characterized by rapid action and the need to protect against the most urgent dangers, notably by getting vulnerable people or things to safety. The next phase (t2) is characterized by a longer timespan combining action and reflection, focusing notably on the reasons behind the shock, how the crisis was managed, and potential actions. Those actions may aim to improve the crisis response to limit the impact, or to change the way the system operates with the goal of targeting the contingency directly and limiting its probability of recurrence. This is the time of adaptation — which can take several forms that vary on a sliding scale between total conservation of the system (protection strategies) to total adaptation (rethinking the system). The final phase (t3) corresponds to a return to equilibrium, which involves implementing appropriate measures and the long-term management of the consequences of the crisis and shock, though without the urgency of the previous phases. The notion of equilibrium does not necessarily imply that the system has returned to its pre-shock state, simply that it has regained sufficient stability to resume operating at a normal rate. It should be noted that the affected system is rarely the only one concerned by the crisis: shock waves vary in size and may impact one or more interconnected systems.

Using this diagram, we can easily see that resilience, which comes from resilere — meaning to jump or to rebound — is opposed to resistance, which comes from stare — to stand. In a way, that brings us back to the classic fable of the oak and the reed. Resilience (the reed) is dynamic, while resistance (the oak) is static; the former accepts loss and change resulting from the adaptation, while the latter relies on its capacity to protect against the shock and to absorb its impact — even at the risk of breaking if the force of the shock is too great.

Resilience takes an alternative approach to risk: we abandon the hope of zero risk and simply accept moments of crisis; we try to lessen the shock and shockwaves by ensuring that the affected system is stable enough not only to avoid a total collapse, but also to execute the necessary transformation. Resilience introduces the idea of coordinated long-term action, taken both before and after the crisis.

It’s an appealing concept — so appealing that many neglect to interrogate its underlying premises: what is a shock? Who defines a shock? Who determines if an event is a shock — or is not? What is the state of equilibrium and who determines whether or not it was impacted? Who designates what is resilient and what isn’t? At what point is something considered resilient? During the crisis? In the immediate aftermath of the crisis? Or can resilience only be determined after a long period of hindsight that places the shock in perspective?

Resilience introduces the idea of coordinated long-term action, taken both before and after the crisis. It’s an appealing concept — so appealing that many neglect to interrogate its underlying premises: what is a shock? Who defines a shock?

These questions allow us to issue the following two caveats:

  • Resilience is often associated with the idea of improvement. By this logic, the shock and crisis would provide an occasion to rebuild a better system… Here we find the idea of shock therapy, which is supposed to galvanize and unify energies, as well as creative destruction. Surviving is not enough, the goal is to become even better. That means a set of norms and powers underlie resilience. As observed by Samuel Rufat, HDR Senior Lecturer at Université de Cergy-Pontoise and junior member of the Institut Universitaire de France, isn’t resilience just one step away from casting social Darwinism as a desirable state of affairs?
  • Resilience is often understood as a process for ensuring consistency among the actions of various parties. However, resilience is premised on accepting shock and loss — meaning that it is premised on a choice. So before ensuring that each party’s actions are consistent, it is necessary that these parties agree on a shared definition of vulnerabilities as well as an acceptable level of risk and loss for society. That means resilience is less a technical project, and more of a political project.

Insights from psychology: beware of gold stars and playbooks

Resilience is a central concept in psychology, which is where the concept of urban resilience finds its roots. In psychology, resilience focuses on the ability of individuals and communities to overcome the various challenges they must face in order to continue building their lives. Several definitions of the term have been proposed over the years and now coexist– leading to a divergent range of proposed actions and support, as pointed out by psychiatrist Serge Tisseron. Resilience was defined in the 1960s as the “capacity to build a good life for oneself in spite of an unfavorable environment” (Tisseron). At that time, less attention was paid to the factors that hinder individuals (unfavorable environment, for example) than to factors that protect them. Resilience was thus seen as a quality that is intrinsic to individuals. In the 1980s, resilience was defined as a process: anyone can become resilient as long as they get help from someone who is already resilient — a resilience mentor. That shift brought resilience out of the purely individual sphere (you either have it or you don’t) and into the collective sphere (a support system). In the 2000s, resilience came to be seen as a force that everyone possesses, but in variable quantities, and which therefore must be developed, notably by overcoming the obstacles that stand in the way. Today, resilience is starting to take on a collective dimension that shifts from “me” to “us,” a move that encompasses the whole of society, extending well beyond interpersonal relationships with resilience mentors. In that way, it has become inseparable from risk culture.

These different definitions highlight the two principal pitfalls concealed by the concept of resilience, namely the pitfalls of gold stars and playbooks. If we consider resilience as a quality that is intrinsic to the person, then the effect is to divide humanity into those who possess this quality and those who do not, handing out gold stars and demerits accordingly. If we consider that everyone can acquire resilience with a little help, then we end up creating “playbooks” and “recipes for resilience” that a person need simply follow in order to become resilient.

That is why Serge Tisseron champions the idea that these different notions of resilience are in fact three complementary facets that define a resilient system. By proposing three orthographic variations of the same term (resilience, as a set of personal qualities; resiliance, as a collective process that favors resiliencies; and Resilience, as an inner strength), he describes reciprocal action feedback loops which form a resilient system through a triple formula: “Resilience favors resilience through resiliance,” “resiliance favors resilience through Resilience,” and “resilience favors resiliance through Resilience.” Stepping outside the arena of psychology, the formula proves just as pertinent and effective when applied to cities and territories.

This detour by way of psychology is, in fact, a useful route towards thinking about resilience for cities and territories. The reason for this is that it highlights the importance of the human factor — both in terms of managing crises after they happen and anticipating their occurrence.

The example of C. Sullenberger, cited by Éric Rigaud at Cerisy, offers a telling example: in 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 struck a flock of Canada geese just minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport, while flying over the Bronx. Just 13 seconds after losing power from both engines, Captain Chesley Sullenberger took control of the plane. After a flight time of 5 minutes and 8 seconds, US Airways 1549 crash-landed on the Hudson River, where teams were able to rescue all passengers and crew. Although birds pose a well-known risk to air travel that is already managed by air traffic systems, that risk can still present surprises that overwhelm our standard procedures. In the case of Flight 1549, the operation’s success depended neither on following procedure nor on any specific pilot training for emergency water landings. It relied in part on seamless communication between the pilot, copilot, and air traffic controller, as well as the individual decision-making power of Captain Sullenberger who, when faced with an unforeseen situation, quickly analyzed the available resources (plane, engines, time, etc.) and the necessary actions to execute (emergency landing on the ground or on water, saving passengers, etc.)… all while acting contrary to standard procedure — for which he was later answerable.

What this example shows is that resilience comes into play especially in unforeseen and/or highly uncertain situations that exceed the capacity of routines, experience, or protection systems developed on the basis of this experience. That’s why it is essential, on one hand, to design technical systems that do not overlook the human factor, but instead rely on it as an efficient relay in case of system failure; and on the other hand, to empower individuals to protect themselves and others (empowerment). In order to do this, it is necessary to prepare residents for crises by informing them of existing risks and training them to adopt pertinent behaviors to avoid risks and take adequate measures if a crisis occurs. It is in that sense that we must develop and share a risk culture (Tisseron). Both technical systems and human factors, collective systems and individual decisions, must go hand-in-hand and achieve a form of synergy in order to promote resilience.

Resilience comes into play especially in unforeseen and/or highly uncertain situations that exceed the capacity of routines, experience, or protection systems developed on the basis of this experience.

Cities at the epicenter of risks

The history of cities stands as a testament both to their impressive capacity to resist shocks and crises, as well as their capacity to adapt and be reborn. All throughout their history, cities have always had to confront and cope with slow and deleterious transformations, as well as sudden and brutal shocks. Géraldine Djament, Senior Lecturer at the University of Strasbourg, delivered a perfect illustration of this fact in her thesis on Rome, which she calls an eternal city: Rome now stands as the archetype of the “sustainable city” — as much for its capacity to overcome a vast array of upheavals all throughout its history, whether brutal or deleterious, as for its capacity to foster a discourse that emphasizes the city’s continued existence in the face of any hardship. Sudden and brutal shocks, often reaching a spectacular scale, leave a strong impression on people’s mindsets and mobilize massive responses (fires, floods, attacks, hurricanes, etc.) — just look at the international commemorations paying tribute to the cities and victims affected by terrorist attacks.

The Sydney Opera House lit up in the colors of the French flag following the Paris attacks on November 13, 2015 — Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, slow and deleterious transformations (economic crisis, social exclusion, climate change, etc.), which extend over a long period and undermine the system from the inside, with no easily identifiable or sudden catastrophe requiring an emergency response, can long go unnoticed and make it harder to mobilize a response — socio-spatial inequalities aggravated by a context of metropolitanization do not make the news beyond the occasional flare-ups that generate eye-catching headlines but little long-term or substantive action. Two different time frames play into this situation: a sense of urgency on one hand, and latency on the other. However, they both point to the need to carry out long-term and substantive action — without which the system will not regain its equilibrium and become resilient. That is where we find the most important and most interesting challenge posed by resilience, in this capacity for long-term alertness and mobilization — which goes beyond urgency and against latency.

This challenge reaches its full extent in cities. Not only are cities the subject of risk, they can also serve to aggravate that risk. That’s why they play such a central role in conversations about resilience and risk management in today’s world. Fueled by a continuous process of urbanization, cities contain ever growing populations, economic hubs, and political centers, meaning ever more pressing challenges… Moreover, globalization exacerbates shock waves by connecting cities into networks and fueling their interdependence. Furthermore, cities can amplify and even create risks: their planning and organization, the ways in which they operate, and the activities they contain can all aggravate climate change. Finally, as a corollary to these aforementioned reasons, cities are now more than ever the primary agents in charge of risk management and contingency planning, since they offer a pertinent and efficient scale of action and governance.

Cities now face shocks and deleterious upheavals that vary in nature, timespan, and scale. Resilience abandons the hope of zero risk and the goal of maintaining a territorial or social system in an identical state: instead it aims to develop the capacity to bounce back, organize, and adapt. The city must be conceived as a system that is at once complex, flexible, and agile. How can cities achieve this target state of dynamic equilibrium? What skills, resources, and tools do we have at our disposal to reflect on resilience, depending on the discipline approaching it, the society reflecting on it, or the context, timespan, and scale in which it is applied?

There is no doubt about the relevance and pertinence of the notion of urban resilience — nor about the need to interrogate the concept and understand its operability.


La Fabrique de la Cité would like to thank Maya Cohen, PhD student at the Université Paris Diderot, for contributing to our work on resilience.


[1] See for example Reghezza M, Rufat S (2015), The Resilience Imperative. Uncertainty, Risks and Disasters, Elevier-ISTE, 262 p.; Quenault B. (2015), “La vulnérabilité, un concept central de l’analyse des risques urbains en lien avec le changement climatique,” Annales de la Recherche Urbaine, “Ville et vulnérabilités” special edition, no. 110, September, p. 138–151, http://www.annalesdelarechercheurbaine.fr/la-vulnerabilite-un-concept-central-de-l-analyse-a720.html.

[2] See for example Lhomme S, et alii (2012) “La résilience urbaine : un nouveau concept opérationnel vecteur de durabilité urbaine ?Développement Durable et territoires, 3 (1); Thomas I, et alii (2017) La ville résiliente. Comment la construire ?, “PUM” collection, pp. 322.

La Fabrique de la Cité

A think tank on urban transitions and innovations, La Fabrique de la Cité reveals key trends and promotes pioneering initiatives by encouraging discussion between urban stakeholders.

chloe Voisin-Bormuth

Written by

La Fabrique de la Cité

A think tank on urban transitions and innovations, La Fabrique de la Cité reveals key trends and promotes pioneering initiatives by encouraging discussion between urban stakeholders.

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