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Resilience is not enough

Think seven generations, act now for climate justice.

Originally published: Progressive City by Tom Angotti (December 6, 2017)

In “The Other Side of Resilience” Renata Silberblatt and Eamon Tewell (Progressive City, October 2017) raise some important questions about the focus on resilience as a way to respond to floods, droughts, wildfires, and climate change. But they don’t go far enough. It’s not just that resilience is more complex than it seems and has multiple meanings, as they point out.

At best, planning for resilience is simply not enough to address these challenges. At its worst, resilience is being used as a diversion from the real obstacles facing our communities, yet another quick fix proposed by planners and technocrats who are blind to the powerful evolved resilience of poor and minority communities or who, alternatively, try to appropriate it as if it were their own. They create organizations, organize workshops, and produce publications that would train us to be resilient and, more importantly, develop plans for resilience. But they fail to go deeply enough to seriously confront the barriers to resilience.

In the wake of the latest climate-related disasters—hurricanes in the Caribbean, flooding in Houston, wildfires in the West, etc.—it is tempting to follow the calls to double down on planning for resilience. Clearly, if communities are more resilient they are able to cope with natural disasters and would be in a better position to meet future challenges. While we can learn from many communities that have historically been resilient—for example island people from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia that have faced catastrophic threats for centuries—professionals trained in community planning would seem to have a calling, especially for societies that have lived in relatively unthreatening environments for years. This is why local governments all over are doing resiliency plans and incorporating resilience into their growth and development plans. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Maybe not, but resilience is never enough. Environmental and climate justice advocates have long maintained that “bouncing back” to the same old structures of social and environmental inequality insures that communities of color continue to be the most vulnerable to environmental contamination and destruction. Planning that does not disrupt the imbedded systems of inequality sustains the conditions in which the wealthy and powerful protect their privileged enclaves while the most vulnerable are expected to blindly follow empty calls to be “resilient.” The focus on resilience also tends to obscure the role of disaster capitalism, which instead of preventing crises takes advantage of them to protect and enrich the one percent.


The first challenge is to define and analyze resilience in all its complexity.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, resilience is the capacity of systems to absorb disturbances while “maintaining the same structure and means of functioning” and to “adapt to stress and change.”1 A new book from the Post-Carbon Institute (PCI) and Island Press starts with a version of this definition:

Resilience is the ability of a system—like a family, a country, or Earth’s biosphere—to cope with short-term disruptions and adapt to long-term changes without losing its essential character.2

Importantly, the PCI does not stop there. Beyond coping with disasters it identifies four crises confronting societies today: environmental (ecosystems in crisis); energy (dependence on fossil fuels); economic (structures geared for constant growth); and equity (promotion of the worst inequalities). It asks critical questions such as what should be resilient; in reaction to what dangers; how systems should respond; and who benefits? This analysis goes beyond a previous PCI study3 and the landmark Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, which included many of the same elements and became a leading force in the drive to promote resiliency. One of the more attractive aspects of the PCI approach is its emphasis on community as the key to resilience.

However, in the end, the PCI perpetuates the blind spots at the center of the mainstream environmental and community planning doctrines by underplaying the huge disparities between and among communities. The PCI, Rockefeller and similar approaches reflect the views of resilience from the vantage point of the wealthiest nations, particularly the United States. Throughout most of the PCI’s extended narrative the rights and agency of native people and people of color are invisible, submerged or only acknowledged in passing. The analysis and proposals are often presented in the voice of the collective “we.” This harkens to the mythical supposition that, despite inequalities, “we are all in the same boat,” in search of that magical equilibrium promised by the capitalist marketplace and its institutions that will “raise all boats.” While rightfully placing dependence on fossil fuels at the center of resiliency concerns and while criticizing unbridled consumerism, the PCI avoids deep criticisms of extractive capitalism.4

Another important approach to community resilience is found in Daniel Lerch’s Community Resilience Reader, also published by the Post-Carbon Institute. Lerch says there are six foundations for community resilience, which I summarize below:

  • People and the “power to envision the future of the community and build its resilience”
  • Building complex systems
  • Adaptation and learning from experience
  • Transformation, or purposefully disrupting systems
  • Sustainability, or insuring that what is done works for other communities, future generations, and ecosystems
  • Courage to confront problems and make hard decisions.

This approach fills in some of the gaps left wide open by the other technocratic approaches to resilience. However, in practice it may well become no more than a small part of the arsenal of ideas used by powerful institutions that are vested in the continuation of the existing economic system through resiliency planning. In the end the central role of economic and social inequality in sustaining the whole system are lost. In the end, resilience means going back to the same unequal system.


What does all of this mean for urban planning and the development of local resiliency plans? An answer to this question may be found in a popular book on resiliency planning for cities. Just out is the second edition of Resilient Cities, edited by Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley and Heather Boyer.5 The authors outline ten steps towards the resilient city:

  1. Develop a strategy before implementation
  2. Learn by doing and planning
  3. Focus on “green icons” such as public buildings and transportation
  4. Use “TOD, POD and GOD”—transit-oriented, pedestrian-oriented and green-oriented development
  5. Move towards resilient infrastructure with gradual and transformative steps
  6. Use pricing to promote change
  7. Re-think rural areas
  8. Regenerate households and neighborhoods
  9. Promote and facilitate localism
  10. Change the rules and laws

Resilient Cities’ ideas certainly include important tools that community planners can and should use in planning for resilience. However, the overall approach feeds into a pragmatic, professional interest in developing plans that will produce immediate and middle-range results—like TOD and changes in infrastructure design—that do not solidly engage fundamental long-term structural issues such as fossil fuel dependency or seriously challenge economic and racial inequalities. When focusing mainly on the local scale they can easily distract attention from the huge regional, national and global transformations necessary to deal with climate change. For example, the track record of TOD in the United States shows how it can easily enhance inequalities, lead to green gentrification and do little to challenge the dominance of the car culture. While local urban planners can help with many small steps forward, help change the way of thinking about the urban environment, and trigger discussions of larger issues, too often planners in our pragmatic society stop with the small steps. In a nation sharply divided by race and class since its birth, making cities resilient requires incorporating environmental and climate justice in the foundation of any long-term strategies.


The thinking behind resiliency planning is in line with mainstream planning, not a fundamental departure from it. Resiliency is about protecting the basic structures of the failed system, solving problems through innovation while salvaging the basic systems of economic and political power. This reactionary impulse is imbedded in the history of urban planning.

The first modern town planning in late nineteenth century Europe sought to fix the disastrous environmental and health conditions of the nineteenth century industrial city while enhancing capitalist development. In the twentieth century, this produced many “beautified” cities (via the City Beautiful movement) and many orderly suburbs (via the construction of suburban new towns and neatly planned subdivisions). The newly planned cities preserved and improved upon the system of class oppression, enhancing the separation of classes in urban space and, in many countries, institutionalized segregation by race and ethnicity.

Just as modern town planning was a reaction to the problems of the nineteenth century city, planning in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century is a reaction to the unregulated, poorly planned growth of large metropolitan regions in all parts of the world. The by-products of profit-driven metropolitan expansion include chronic and unmitigated air and water pollution, widespread dependence on fossil fuels, the unprecedented plunder of rural areas for natural resources, industrial agriculture and the loss of food sovereignty, the expanded pace of species extinction, and global warming. The pragmatic, technocratic response in the last century was to give up on the notion of strong government-led planning and management regimes in line with neoliberal capitalism. This is especially the case when it comes to the “less developed” nations where the massive expulsion of people from rural areas created urban majorities living in so-called “informal” neighborhoods. Ignoring the many examples of resilience in these neighborhoods (where the majority of the world’s people live) professional urban planning has forever sought to pacify, ignore or bulldoze them, or replace them with new “planned” communities.

It would be foolish for us to rely on this technocratic and reactionary planning to confront the problems of the twenty-first century, including global warming. Today more than half the world’s population lives in cities and, if current trends continue, by the end of the century virtually everyone in the world will live in a city. There is no indication that the urbanization to come will be any more environmentally sound or socially just than existing urbanization. The world’s one percent may well create sustainable enclaves for themselves but so far they seem unwilling to raise anyone else’s boats. Planners are not likely to alter this trajectory, certainly not by themselves. Instead of locking arms with the social movements that are advocating for resilience with environmental and climate justice, they seem to spend most of their time selling quick technocratic fixes that leave inequalities untouched.


In his encyclical on climate change, Pope Francisco identified capitalism as the source of this tendency towards technological fixes.

Technology, connected to finance capital, pretends to be the only solution to problems. In fact, it is incapable of seeing the multiple relations that exist between things, which is why it sometimes resolves problems by creating new ones.6

New technologies must be profitable to investors; indeed they are excellent generators of profit. Capital is not interested in financing alternatives that do not produce profits. Reducing consumption and waste, making products that last longer, producing public transit instead of cars, creating public goods and public space—these are of only marginal interest because their profit margins are lower (unless there are massive state subsidies, which of course create other problems for capital). According to Francis:

The alliance between economics and technology ends up leaving aside everything that is not of immediate interest to them. Thus all that can be expected is some superficial proclamations, isolated philanthropic actions…7

Technological fixes are the methodological foundation of twenty-first century urban planning. The deep positivist bias that notoriously undergirds capitalism in the United States has become hegemonic in the latest surge of globalization, challenging the very foundations of the European welfare states and post-colonial national regimes. It has led to the hegemony of new technocratic tools that aim to promote planning and development, usually advanced by the World Bank, other multilateral agencies, and international financial institutions. These technocratic tools are increasingly popular, but they too are not enough.

The drive for the technocratic fix to resolve environmental disasters took off after Rachel Carson’s path-breaking exposure of the negative effects of pesticides in her classic 1962 book, The Silent Spring.8 Carson rang an alarm bell warning that the unregulated use of chemicals was having catastrophic effects on human health and the environment. The establishment response, however, was to implant a relatively weak regulatory regime that allowed continued expansion of the use of many new and exotic chemicals in the environment. Environmental legislation in the US was a step forward but left relatively untouched the power of most corporations and their ability to evade responsibility for the damage caused by their products.

The environmental impact statement (EIS) became a major technological instrument available to planners in government at all levels to deal with the potential negative impacts of new urban development. The EIS, however, only requires disclosure of potential negative environmental impacts and does not prevent new projects or products from being introduced, even when they may have severe negative impacts and those impacts are widely acknowledged. Subsequent reforms such as Superfund cleanup, for example, use inadequate government tools to partially remediate some of the worst environmental contamination caused by corporate irresponsibility. Even this inadequate mechanism is under attack. Today powerful economic interests in the US are allowed to undermine scientific evidence by presenting “alternative facts” about toxic use based on research they fund and endorse.

The reactive approach imbedded in the US contrasts with another major model, the precautionary approach, which was formally adopted by the European Union and others, even if it has not been fully exercised in practice. The principle behind this is that if there are any substantial doubts about the long-term effects of a product then it is best to limit or prevent their production. This approach puts greater value on potential long-term impacts and long-term planning. Yet we have to strain to hear the voices of any planners in the US demanding a paradigm shift towards adoption of the precautionary approach.

Imagine what the urban world would look like today if a century ago when the private automobile was invented there had been a precautionary planning process premised on a projection of what cities would look like seven generations (over a century) later if the automobile became the main means of urban transportation. Imagine if a century ago when oil and gas production exploded there had been a precautionary approach limiting their use in heating and cooling, the production of construction materials and the mechanization of agriculture. Imagine if industrial agriculture had been limited by strict regulation of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and the construction of dams and irrigation systems. These three sectors—transportation, energy and agriculture—now account for three-fourths of global greenhouse gases. It is impossible to turn back the clock but it would be possible to stop the short-term thinking and follow The Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy: “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”


Resiliency planning today is in fashion. In the era of neoliberalism urban planning lost a great deal of legitimacy. When long-term comprehensive planning became unwieldy and unproductive in the twentieth century because cities became giant metropolitan regions, strategic planning, an innovation that started in the Pentagon and business schools, became the favorite tool of urban planners. Sustainability and resiliency plans are both forms of strategic planning. They are generally filled with technological fixes, framed in the context of broad aspirations and good intentions. They often take the form of “best practices” that get marketed as solutions. As in the business world, the future horizon never goes far beyond a few years or at most a decade or two—the time horizon for a return on investments.

Climate change is epochal. Racism and economic exploitation have even deeper roots that will not be eradicated by a technocratic fix. Strategic planning for sustainability and resiliency, if successful could very well leave in place all of the structures of inequality or even expand them. The technocratic approach to climate change is unable to challenge a global economic and political system that is producing islands of environmental protection for the one percent and leaving the rest of the world to fend for itself, inevitably reinforcing environmental and climate injustice.

Urban planners can forcefully reject reliance on the quick fixes. They should also take a lead in recognizing the legacy of modern urban planning which was driven by colonial exploitation and industrial capitalism and failed to challenge them. The earth and oceans are warming and sea levels rising, and the largest cities in the world are located on major bodies of water because they were put there to promote the extraction of natural resources for global trade. The comprehensive planning that responded to the problems of the poorly planned nineteenth century industrial city was not enough. The pragmatic accommodations developed to deal with the problems of the twentieth century city are not enough. Once again, a new set of pragmatic accommodations and technological fixes are in fashion and appear to respond to the environmental crises in the world. However, these are creating and consolidating enclaves of privilege that are protected from climate disasters while increasing the vulnerability of the most vulnerable. Regardless of the high-sounding humanitarian rhetoric imbedded in many resiliency plans, they are green-washing social injustice.


Restoring the old system leaves unchecked all of the inequalities and structural problems that were undisturbed or even worsened by disaster. “Bouncing back” means going back to the system that exposed the most vulnerable people and species to catastrophic conditions. It means that the next round of disruptions will produce unequal results, albeit in different configurations. In the end, there is no guarantee that the whole thing won’t collapse (as Jared Diamond reminds us in his classic book, Collapse).9 Capitalism reproduces catastrophic conditions. Then it expands by making money on quick fixes. They aren’t solutions but part of the problem. What happens when a lot of individual, local systems survive but throughout the world many species become extinct due to the “external” effects of the internally resilient systems, and in the long run it ends with a massive extinction?

Planners should start with the principle that land, water and fire (energy) should not be for sale. Planners should help build the commons. They should stop talking about “land use” and start talking about the quality of life. They need to help humanity learn how to live with land and other species on the earth, not how to exercise monopoly control over them.

Planners need to spend as much time dealing with time as they do with space because they have for too long conspired to make the fast city instead of the just city. They look at the immediate future instead of seven generations ahead. They promote the environment without environmental justice. They must advocate for the right to the city and, just as important, the rights of nature. To do all of this they should engage and ally with community and environmental justice movements, and help generate real dialogues across geographical, race and gender boundaries while rejecting phony strategic planning exercises. They need to be the first to declare that resilience is not enough.


  1. Bulkeley, Harriet, Cities and Climate Change. Routledge, 147.
  2. Daniel Lerch, ed. Community Resilience Reader: Essential Resources for an Era of Upheaval. Island Press, 2017.
  3. Post Carbon Institute, Six Foundations for Building Community Resilience. 2015.
  4. Naomi Klein. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Simon & Schuster, 2014.
  5. Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley and Heather Boyer. Resilient Cities. Island Press. 2017.
  6. Laudato Si’ Papa Francesco. Bologna: Edizioni Dehoniane 2015, 21.
  7. Laudato Si’, 45.
  8. Rachel Carson. Silent Spring. Houghton-Mifflin. 1962.
  9. Jared Diamond. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking. 2005.
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