Collaboration and Community Resilience

About the Author

Rick Morse

Rick Morse is an associate professor of public administration and government at the UNC School of Government.

In the wake of the recent mega-storm Sandy, we hear a lot of discussion about “community resilience.” RAND Corporation defines community resilience as “the sustained ability of a community to utilize available resources to respond to, withstand, and recover from adverse situations.”  Hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires are certainly all examples of adverse situations communities may face. But natural disasters aren’t the only kind of adverse situations communities may want to be resilient in the face of. Public health problems like obesity, persistent poverty, and water pollution (for example) are likewise adverse situations. In other words, all communities should be thinking about resilience, whether the likelihood of a large-scale disaster is great or not.

Judith Innes and David Booher, in their excellent book Planning with Complexity (Routledge, 2010) note that resilient communities build capacity for learning and adaptation to change. Resilient communities are marked by adaptive governance systems that include the following components:

1)      Diversity and interdependence: “diversity provides the many faceted perspectives, and interdependence creates the opportunity for the invention of options for mutual gain.”

2)      Collaborative dialogues: “they…build social capital…can create linkages…[and] can allow shared purpose to emerge.”

3)      Collaborative development of knowledge: “different participants see through different lenses…such jointly developed information is essential to assuring trust.”

4)      Networks: “created and nurtured by public agencies…for joint tasks.”

5)      Boundary spanning: “cross-sector, cross-jurisdictional, and cross-scale activities….enable resilience by creating new flows of information and by developing shared meaning among…actors.”

6)      Monitoring and feedback: “there need to be ways of jointly analyzing…data and selecting appropriate responses.”

7)      Small, diverse working groups: “a major component in…many…effective collaborative processes.” (pgs. 209-211)

So the key to resilience is less about physical infrastructure (though certainly in communities at high-risk for natural disasters, infrastructure is very relevant). Rather, the key to community resilience is in cultivating adaptive governance systems, where actors across sectors are linked together by structures and processes that facilitate collaborative learning and action.

So when communities like Lynchburg, Virginia invest in study circles about racism and racial equality, they are not only engaging citizens on an important local issue, they are building community resilience.

When the Town of Chapel Hill engages citizens and other community stakeholders in a collaborative visioning effort, it is not only producing a comprehensive plan, it is building community resilience.

When a dozen Triangle-area local governments come together to form the Jordan Lake Partnership to advance regional water supply planning, they are not only addressing important infrastructure issues, they are building adaptive governance capacity for the region, and hence, regional resilience.

There are many great examples of building community and regional capacity for adaptive governance and resilience that often are not recognized as such. When local governments, development agencies, and other organizations engage stakeholders in collaboration, there are certainly short-term benefits (e.g., good ideas, buy-in, etc.). But the long-term benefits in terms of contributing to the development of community resilience are equally–if not more–important.



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