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What is community resilience?

You have now been introduced to how the use of the term resilience has developed over the last 40 years, and discussed whether resilience and vulnerability should be viewed as extremes of the same spectrum or as separate entities.

Resilience can mean many things to different people in different professional disciplines.

Community resilience is determined by the capacity of a household, community or society to absorb, adapt and survive shocks or stress. In this sense, resilience is not equal to or the opposite of vulnerability. It is more of a process involving a proactive development of capacities and an ability to adapt to changing circumstances within a framework of supportive relationships and networks (Cutter 2008). This means much more than reducing the negative factors of the social, political and economic context and resulting characteristics that control how badly affected people will be during a disaster (vulnerability). Without community networks and capacities there can be no community resilience.

The degree of cohesion and extent of community networks influence the extent of collective action. In fact, networks and cohesion are inherent attributes of a community. Groups of people that know each other and do not take collective action cannot really be defined as a community – simply people living in the same place. We can see that the strength of ‘community’ is key. Stronger communities are more likely to come together to act, are better able to communicate and coordinate change. Some communities are better able to adapt than others for a variety of reasons. Therefore, it might be impossible, and even undesirable, to design a ‘one size fits all’ model or framework of community resilience.

A community resilience framework for a UK context proposes four key characteristics (or dimensions) of communities striving to be resilient (Wilding 2011):

  • Healthy and engaged people

  • An inclusive culture creating a positive sense of place

  • A localising economy – towards sustainable food, energy, housing, etc

  • Strong links to other places and communities

What is being described in this list is clearly much more than ‘emergency planning’ or ‘disaster preparedness’ in their narrow traditional senses. It is a much broader view of a society’s ability to develop knowledge, absorb shocks, survive, adapt, and thrive.

In the document ‘Exploring community resilience’ (Wilding 2011), there is an emphasis on collaboration between activists, professionals and policy makers. It argues that research into ‘what works’ in building community resilience is more effective when it also supports exchange and learning between communities with diverse experiences.

You will recall that traditional approaches to risk management can also increase risk to extreme events.

As an example, reducing the frequency of flooding through the use of flood barriers or levees encourages more people to settle behind them. It also limits the experience of local people to flooding and reduces the drivers to prepare and develop coping strategies. When an extreme event eventually overcomes the barriers, as occurred with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, more people are more badly affected.

Perhaps as a result of historical hazard-based intervention and the reduction in frequency of events, Dynes (1994) identified that the use of hazard-focused community groups brought together by external agencies are rarely sustained. Long periods of inactivity between ‘events’ can undermine their activities, and regular activity is essential.

Mainstreaming risk awareness through existing community structures is likely to be far more successful. Community resilience is likened to a muscle which, through exercise, builds both strength and flexibility. It ensures a community is ready to face expected and unexpected challenges when they arise because future disruptions may well be unpredictable, greater and more rapid than expected.

Your task

What do you understand the relationship to be between community development and community resilience?


Cutter, S. L., Barnes, L., Berry, M., Burton, C., Evans, E., Tate, E., and Webb, J. (2008) ‘A Place-Based Model for Understanding Community Resilience to Natural Disasters’. Global Environmental Change 18 (4), 598-606

Manyena, S. B. (2006) ‘The Concept of Resilience Revisited’. Disasters 30 (4), 434-450

Wilding, N. (2011) Exploring Community Resilience. Fiery Spirits/Carnegie UK Trust: Dunfermline

Dynes, R. R. (1994) ‘Community Emergency Planning: False Assumptions and Inappropriate Analogies’. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 12 (2), 141-148

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This article is from the free online course:

Community Preparedness, Recovery and Resilience: An Introduction

Coventry University