Is ‘community resilience’ important?

I first began looking into the concept of ‘community resilience’ with some suspicion. Reassuringly, I discovered that it wasn’t simply another aspirational buzzword, but a term describing an approach and process with documented examples (most from the US) dating back to the nineties. The actual practice of community resilience, it’s obvious to state, began long before the term was invented.

The word resilience is derived from the Latin ‘resalire’ (to spring back). It’s a term well recognised within psychological circles, but the social aspects of resilience were added by ecologists, when they included measures of social capital into their work.

More recently community resilience has been employed to describe community recovery from, and preparedness for, shocks and strains of a more man-made nature, i.e. those which result in significant economic and social impact.

One fairly comprehensive definition of community resilience is as follows:

‘Community Resilience is defined as the existence, development and engagement of community resources by community members to thrive in an environment characterized by change, uncertainty, unpredictability and surprise. Members of resilient communities intentionally develop personal and collective capacity that they engage to respond to and influence change, to sustain and renew the community and to develop new trajectories for the communities’ future.’ (Magis, 2010)

In plain English that translates as communities using their assets to respond to change, prepare for change, and ideally influence the nature of that change.

Community resilience is best understood as a function of an ever-changing system. Luckily, it can’t be pinned down into a standardised set of tick boxes. In fact its success depends upon developing a unique approach that is tailored to the characteristics, strengths and culture of the community in question. It should look and feel different across different communities.

Having said this, examples and references to community resilience always seem to intersect with one if not all of the following principles or practices:

  • An emphasis on building strong, inclusive and resourced social networks
  • Respect for local knowledge (from a variety of sources)
  • Community leadership encouraged from both the ‘usual suspects’ and others.
  • Asset-based community development
  • Grassroots capacity building
  • Volunteering
  • Genuine co-design and co-production – a willingness from statutory professionals to listen and share power

The response to the Cumbrian floods in 2009 (and no doubt the current flooding) is often cited as a classic example of community resilience in the UK. This event saw an incredible mobilisation of local volunteers and VSCE organisations, led by the Cumbria Voluntary Agencies Committee, to deliver support alongside statutory organisations.

Shortly afterwards, the Cumbria Flood Recovery Fund was established, the co-ordinator of which testified that Cumbria’s ‘strong volunteering ethos and density of activists’ had been a very significant factor in enabling the recovery of the region.

It seems obvious to point out, but important to state, that each community is going to have a different ‘resilience starting point’. A paper by the Scottish Community Development Centre, ‘Doing with, not to: community resilience and co-production’, makes the point that: ‘Stable, well-functioning and mature communities are, almost by definition, resilient, healthy and engaged in co-production. It is the divided, the transient and disorganised communities that are most in need of intervention to build their capacity and their social capital.’

I recently watched a powerful illustration of the transformative potential of using an asset-based approach to build more resilience in disadvantaged communities. A TED talk delivered by Hilary Cottam, a proponent of ‘relational welfare’, presents three examples, one being a simple, co-designed project aimed at reducing the impact of loneliness on health outcomes:

http://www.ted.com/talks/hilary_cottam_social_services_are_broken_how_we_can_fix_them

I invite you to have a watch and let me know what you think. I’d also be very interested to hear your views on what community resilience means for Cornwall today. Which examples of community resilience in your area would you wish to highlight (and may I come and visit)? Crucially, and central to the TCA project, what role do you think Cornwall Council should play in helping to build and enable community resilience in Cornwall?

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