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Resilience and Renewal of America’s Small Cities Part 1

Resilience and Renewal of America’s Small Cities Part 1

The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia held its biannual conference, Reinventing Older Communities: Building Resilient Cities, in Philadelphia on May 9, 2012. Attendees gathered to examine the issues behind and strategies for the resiliency of smaller industrial cities. The topics discussed ranged from arts and development to economic development strategies for small industrial cities.

In the opening plenary session, Jeremy Nowak, president of the William Penn Foundation, provided a high-level framework for understanding resiliency. He used the principles of resiliency from other fields to establish a framing principle, noting that “to be resilient means you undergo stress from internal or external forces but are flexible or strong enough to return to the prior state in the same or a better position.”

Nowak explained that although the idea of resilience as a framing concept is used in various fields, it appears most prominently in studies and practices related to the psychology of families and children and to ecological sciences (natural and human). In psychology, the study of resilience derived from studies of the children of alcoholics and schizophrenic parents. In those areas Nowak stressed the need to understand the strengths of individuals who do well under very difficult conditions and the need to understand the social and communal support systems that might enable success.

Nowak further noted that capacity and the enabling social connections favor renewal. Capacity describes qualities that help those in difficult circumstances not only survive but also thrive, and whether those strengths can be the building blocks for renewal. In cities the concept of capacity can refer to the question of how we can be guided by the authentic strengths of institutions, leaders, firms, and markets of various kinds; with the most basic strength being human capital (or capacity) and the web of social networks within which it develops.

In enabling social connections, trauma and crisis always require a healthier context for growth. Inputs from other sources, whether institutional, interpersonal, financial, or ecological, are the basis for reconnection to a former or better state. In a similar way, city building and recovery always involve increasing the flow and connections of capital, people, and institutions—and with them, choices and opportunity. Places that have experienced the most severe economic decline are often those most cut off from other influences or opportunities by any of several isolating characteristics: from the physical to the legal, from the psychological to the cultural; through an absence of social networks or institutional affiliations.

Ideas about resilience have also developed in the field of ecology, said Nowak. Ecological studies have focused on the lack of predictability, or nonlinearity, of change and the connection between periods of seemingly gradual change and sudden or disruptive shifts, some of which lead to wholly new systemic forms. A great deal of this work centers on climate change and sudden ecological disturbances such as oil spills. Nowak explained the relevance to urban policy and practice, noting the importance of diversification, the role of self-organization, and the potential for disruptive change away from the resilient norm.

He pointed out that resilience literature’s analyses of periods of both sudden and long-term stress teach us that there are points in evolution or development when the future can no longer look anything like the pre-stress past. Systems do not just snap back through strengths and alterations around the edges; they must be altered into nonrecognizable forms. They become new systems with new rules, arrangements, boundaries, and expectations.

An urban policy or development practice that follows the logic of this literature, Nowak stressed, would have to think about how to build on authentic strength; how to allow for the movement of social connections across barriers that prevent renewal; and how to invest in ways that favor diversification and self-organization. Nowak noted that there is often a lack of political imagination and courage to make such change. He emphasized that success will necessitate that communities work from the strength of local innovation and leadership. Discussion of the Reinventing Older Communities: Building Resilient Cities conference will continue in the next issue of The Edge with a summary of Shaun Donavan’s speech on the partnership between the federal government and small cities and communities to restore resiliency.