Monthly Archives: April 2016

How to frame relevant research questions? Introduction to Urban Resilience Viewpoints

The Urban Resilience Research Network is pleased to present a new section titled “Viewpoints”, in which a variety of scholars from different disciplines will introduce their perspectives on urban resilience in order to help framing relevant research questions.

One of the main challenges in dealing with research is indeed framing the right questions. Einstein quote “if I had one hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution” highlighted that before jumping into solutions we should step back investing time and energy in the definition and understanding of the problem. One of the first questions posed addressing resilience was “resilience of what to what?” Such inception, simultaneously with a sprawl of resilience within the policy arena, already suggested the volatility of the concept and its potential fuzzyness, needing a proper framing. Nowadays dozens of urban and community assessment tools are freely available, and different frameworks have been proposed worldwide while Chief Resilience Officers are managing projects addressing urban vulnerabilities. However, there are still huge gaps between research and practices. How to overcome these gaps? Which are the right research questions to pose, and how researchers could contribute to frame critical but useful research contributing to both theoretical advances and a more coherent, just and sustainability-oriented application of urban resilience?

This new section will offer a rich variety of short essays presenting thoughts and perspectives on how research should be framed in order to overcome the most pressing challenges and critiques related to resilience and urban systems. It opens with the contributions from two invited authors, namely Ilan Kelman and Jon Coaffee, who will introduce respectively a critique on the concept of resilience (how distant it is from the reality of our world practices) and the challenges posed by operationalizing a “holistic urban resilience”.

In the following months we will publish different essays, introducing also viewpoints from practitioners and the principal organizations to explore both the academic and non-academic perspectives about how to frame problems. In case you would like to contribute to this debate, presenting your perspective, you’re welcome to write to us. In the meanwhile, we hope this new section will help framing interesting research.

How resilient is resilience?

Guest Author: Prof.  Ilan Kelman (University College London)

So much has been written about ‘resilience’ that it could mean almost anything. How useful (or not) is resilience for people affected by development concerns such as disaster risk, including climate change challenges and opportunities?

Let’s head out to an affected community. After all, they need resilience and I can provide that. Let’s gather them together to listen to me. First, I must define the word. In doing so, I alienate those who disagree with my definition. I disaffect even more who do not speak English or any language in which the word ‘resilience’, and the cultural construct of it, exists. Having turned off a large proportion of those whom I am here to help, I proceed with popular interpretations of implementing resilience. Popular, at least, within certain, narrow, academic confines. I launch into detailed expostulations of panarchy, consilience (is no one pro-silience?), adaptive capacity, integral theory, social-ecological systems, and transformation–followed by the many limitations and numerous criticisms of those terms. People wander off, back to their fishing, crops, and livestock. They post on Facebook and twitter that they do not understand what ‘resilience’ means or achieves, nor what exactly I am doing in their community.

Confound it, now what? Did none of THESE people read my papers? Don’t THEY realise how important I am, I mean, how important my work is? Now what?

Unfortunately, nothing to do except to fish with them and join them in the fields. I might even be forced to learn some of the local language and culture, to glean a sense of their needs and perspectives. I learn that the school destroyed by the landslide was sited there because a rich person from the capital (with a doctorate in development studies) funded it, insisting that their own land be used as part of their generous gift. I see that the hazard map in the town hall was altered so that the land owned by the mayor’s friends, now suffering from inundated houses, would not lose value or be zoned differently. I would blame my observations on local culture, typical corruption, and different standards. I realise that the situation here mirrors political machinations back home. Yet the people manage. They build back the school away from the slopes (is that build back better?). They re-house those who lost homes to floods (but why not the pre-disaster homeless?). They still earn income and put food on the table, albeit less than before. They are poor and they lost a lot, but they bounced back to normal. They smile at me and seem happy. Perhaps I should transfer this resilience to my own community where a bunch of whiners always wants someone to do something for them. I am soon told that continuing the daily routine, despite having lost half their family and half their income, is not so much resilience, but necessity. They are hungry each day and do not wish to lose more of their family. They know the value of education, so they need a school. After fishing, farming, office work, and other jobs, they put in a few hours of reconstruction each evening, because no one turned up to assist. They buy building materials with loans, savings, and remittances because over half the relief supplies and donations were siphoned off before arriving. They are exhausted, frustrated, and grieving. They deal with it because they have to. Is that resilience? They have little time to reply to my emails and online survey asking them.

Numerous good practice examples exist, far different from the scenario here. Yet in all our abstruse vocabulary, erudite debates, and reams of publications, what is concealed or bypassed by resilience? Our research agenda must investigate this question and more. Resilience for what/whom, to what/whom, of what/whom? Who sets the agenda, who acts or is forced to act on the agenda, who reaps the rewards, and who pays the costs?

We must research these questions before communities suffer, asking the people what they seek, what roles resilience does and does not play, and how meaningful or meaningless the academic discourses are. It is not about dictating use or avoidance of ‘resilience’, but about discovering when it does and does not contribute alongside the helpful and damaging roles of academia–including for our own communities, not just for those ‘others’. ‘Resilience’ has been moulded to be a powerful discourse. Writing in plain English and dealing with real people, this discourse does not seem to be particularly resilient when confronted by reality. Our research agenda should put first reality and people.


Biography: Ilan Kelman ( and Twitter @IlanKelman) is a Reader in Risk, Resilience and Global Health at University College London.

Relevant work:

Kelman, I., JC Gaillard, and J. Mercer. 2015. “Climate Change’s Role in Disaster Risk Reduction’s Future: Beyond Vulnerability and Resilience”. International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 21-27. Free at

Lewis, J. and I. Kelman. 2010. “Places, people and perpetuity: Community capacities in ecologies of catastrophe”. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 191-220. Free at

Weichselgartner, J. and I. Kelman. 2015. “Geographies of resilience: Challenges and opportunities of a descriptive concept”. Progress in Human Geography, vol. 39, no. 3, pp. 249-267. Free at


Operationalising the Generational Challenge of Holistic Urban Resilience

Guest Author: Prof.  Jon Coaffee (University of Warwick)

This century, more than any other, is the century of the city, where rapid urbanisation and greater global connectedness present unprecedented urban challenges. Such increased urbanisation also concentrates risk in cities making them increasingly vulnerable to an array of shocks and stresses. Under such circumstances, city managers are increasingly having to plan for risk, crisis and uncertainty: they have to enhance urban resilience by providing an operational framework for reducing the multiple risks faced by cities and communities, ensuring there are appropriate levels of resources and capacities to mitigate, prepare for, respond to and recover from a range of shocks and stresses.

Increasingly, the ideas and principles of resilience carry tremendous influence in modifying and, in some cases, significantly changing international urban agendas, whether this is dealing with the unique needs and characteristics of places, looking at the short-, medium- and long-term issues, advancing knowledge, objectives and actions or recognising the wide range of stakeholders (who should be) involved in resilient planning.

Urban resilience has not only become a highly popular policy metaphor but also an increasingly politicised concept, incorporating a vast range of contemporary risks, underpinned by an orthodoxy that has pre-eminently focused upon managerial and technical aspects of ‘crisis’ response and environmental management. As a result of momentous events (e.g. the devastating events of 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington DC and the release of the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2007 highlighting unequivocal evidence of a warming climate) resilience has increasingly become a central organising metaphor within both the urban policy-making process and, more broadly, the expanding institutional framework of national security and emergency preparedness. As policies which incorporate principles of resilience have evolved and been adopted internationally, the ideas underpinning resilience have additionally begun to infiltrate a host of further, more loosely connected, social and economic policies, which impact at the urban and regional scale. This growth in both the scope and importance of resilience has been strengthened by the political prioritisation of the safety and security of organisations, communities and individuals, and the need to enhance preparedness against an array of perceived hazards and threats, including terrorism, earthquakes, disease pandemic, global warming-related flooding, economic crisis and social breakdown.

2015 was a key year for urban resilience with three core and integrated dialogues deploying the discourse of resilience – explicitly and implicitly – in the advancement of international agreements: first, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 which was adopted by UN Member States in March 2015 at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction held in Sendai, Japan; second, the UN Sustainable Development Goals released in September 2015, and third, the Conference of Parties (COP) in Paris that signed up to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in December, with the aim of achieving a universal agreement on climate change adaptation.

Notably, within these international dialogues the so-called ‘urban Sustainable Development Goal’ (Goal 11 is dedicated to Make(ing) cites and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable) marks the UN’s strongest expression ever of the critical role of cities in the world’s future, and in so doing raises the profile (and power) of urban areas in global discourse. Overall, these three post-2015 dialogues highlight the importance and utility of ideas and practices of resilience in tackling the integrated and complex urban issues of reducing the risk of disasters, advancing sustainable development and mitigating and adapting to climate change.

These core agendas, and their framing in resilience ideas, will ensure that urban resilience will be a vital area of study for years to come (see for example project websites HARMONISE and RESILENS). Key priority issue underpinning the future study of urban resilience should revolve around the extent to which core agendas can be joined up or amalgamated. It is clear that both operationally and in financial terms, that, for example, advancing schemes for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation simultaneously makes much sense. Concomitantly, the key role of training and skills development to raise awareness of options that are available to all built environment professionals involved in the decision making process, or that hold a stake in developments is vital. What is clear from debates about urban resilience is that institutional inertia within a range of built environment professions is often a barrier to such collaborative working thus there is a key role that education and training can play in better aligning effort in this crucial area.  This can come through student-centred courses or through continual professional development, where adaptive capacity skills can be forged in a multidisciplinary and multi-professional environment, mirroring the complex reality of urban resilience problems on the ground. Orchestrating such a coherently joined-up approach to meeting the challenge of building comprehensively resilient cities will perhaps be the most significant challenge confronting all built environment professionals over the coming decades.


Biography: Jon is Professor in Urban Geography in the Department of Politics & International Studies at the University of Warwick, UK and director of both the Resilient Cities Laboratory and the Warwick Institute for the Science of Cities (WISC).

Relevant work:

  • Coaffee, J. and Lee, P. (2016) Urban Resilience: planning for risk crisis and uncertainty, Palgrave Macmillan, in press
  • Coaffee, J., Murakami-Wood, D and Rogers, P. (2008) The Everyday Resilience of the City: How Cities Respond to Terrorism and Disaster, Palgrave/Macmillian
  • Coaffee, J. and Clarke, J. (2015) On securing the generational challenge of urban resilience, Town Planning Review, 86, 3, 249-55
  • Coaffee, J. (2013a) Rescaling and Responsibilising the Politics of Urban Resilience: From National Security to Local Place-Making, Politics, 33:4, 240–252
  • Coaffee, J. (2013b) From Securitisation to Integrated Place Making: Towards Next Generation Urban Resilience in Planning Practice, Planning Practice and Research, 28:3, 323-339