The Secrets of Resilient Communities

Whether urban, rural or suburban, our communities are in a state of constant flux.

Many changes are gradual and predictable. A new store opens on Main Street. Newcomers arrive to town. But some change arrives abruptly. A natural disaster occurs. A major industry leaves town. How do you prepare for the types of disruptive changes that have become part of life in the 21st century? Here are some characteristics of trailblazing communities that are proactively planning for a more resilient future.

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What is a resilient community?

Resiliency. The ability to successfully adapt to and/or recover readily from a major disruption.*

A resilient community takes the idea of emergency preparedness and expands it to include disruptions to our physical environment, but also to social and economic change.

*Source: the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure

They are coordinated and collaborative.

Resilient communities are tight-knit communities filled with people who work together to solve problems and help each other. In Norfolk, Va.—one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities—the City hosted an Agenda-Setting Resilience Workshop. The workshop brought together community leaders and members to discuss the interconnected impacts of local stresses and shocks, including rising sea level and recurrent tidal flooding. Feedback from the workshop will inform the City’s resilience plan.

They aren’t afraid of new technology.

Crowd sourcing, data visualization, social media—resilient communities don’t shy from the potential of new and emerging technology. For example, officials in Boulder, Colo., are using an interactive website to get feedback and input from the community. They’re harnessing a new tool to tap the community to find out where past, current and potential issues might lie.

They plan, systematically.

The secret to getting ahead is getting started, and that begins with a plan. Planning for resiliency is no different. On the shores of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, Wis., the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, which provides water reclamation and flood management services for about 1.1 million people, is using tools like ENVISION™ to proactively plan for the future as they design new infrastructure. By incorporating ENVISION (a tool much like like LEED, but for infrastructure projects), decision-makers have a practical framework for incorporating the concepts of resiliency into the actual design of infrastructure.

They practice.

Even the most comprehensive emergency plan ever written will fail if no one else knows how to implement it. Resilient communities do more than prepare, they practice. Still recovering from Superstorm Sandy, the community of Red Hook, N.Y., decided to set one day aside each year to walk through the resiliency plan and visit local response stations. Called “Ready Read Hook Day”, the event serves as a practice run for the entire community.

They are ready to communicate.

When a disaster strikes, will your community know about it? How will they let others know they are okay, or that they need assistance? While undertaking this includes having your crisis communications plan in hand, it also means ensuring you have considered all populations in the community.

For a neighborhood in San Francisco, grassroots resilience planning helped develop a simple system for the elderly to communicate with the outside world. A green door hanger indicates everyone got out of the home safely. Red means help is needed.

They have robust infrastructure in place.

Of course, proper infrastructure plays a major role in a community’s resiliency. This might mean building an invisible flood wall, increasing your use of green infrastructure, or making sure that your future infrastructure projects are the right projects for your community.

They are investing in the future.

The cost associated with positive change should not be seen as a cost but as an investment in the future. In New Jersey, they’re investing in an Energy Resiliency Bank that promotes development of distributed energy resources.

By building back up energy sources such as combined heat and power, fuel cells and off-grid solar inverters with battery storage, they are guarding against failure of any one system. This ensures that certain critical facilities, such as hospitals, wastewater treatment plants and universities, can remain operational if and when the electric grid is down.


Our future depends on how well our communities manage big challenges over the coming decades. Will they be complex? Yes. But at the same time we’ll see unparalleled opportunities for innovation and growth. The secret to resiliency, then, becomes a simple matter of opening yourself up to new possibilities.

About the Author

Andrew Dane

Andrew Dane, AICP, ENV SP, NCI is a Senior Community Development and Sustainability Specialist who brings successful sustainable development experience assisting both rural and urban communities, as well as private businesses. Contact Andrew

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