Urban Resilience Research Network

Urban Resilience Education – new International Master Degree

Framing and implementing sustainability and resilience in the broad realm of urban studies is a challenge which few universities are poised to accomplish through their existing educational programs. Sustainability and resilience studies both require a variety of multidisciplinary perspectives that university departments nested in disciplinary silos cannot support. Consequentially, the skills and management tools required by city practitioners and city resilience officers are not easy to find in our universities programs. To meet this need, we, the Urban Resilience research Network (URNet), developed a 1-year master’s program hosted by the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya, entitled City Resilience Design and Management, bridging the educational gap between universities and municipalities.

What, Why and How?   

Thanks to the collaboration and involvement of major international networks and agencies working on urban sustainability and resilience (including the Rockefeller 100RC, United Nation Habitat City Resilience Profiling Program, ICLEI and METROPOLIS among many others), this 1 year master program brings leading scholars and cities practitioners from different parts of the word to teach how to manage and design urban resilience strategies. Indeed, the program title City Resilience Design and Management reflects the need to go beyond the paradigm of “building resilient cities” (which assumes that resilience is a static property of urban systems that can be “built or designed”), to treat resilience as a set of processes or adaptive capacities functional to manage vulnerabilities to shifting and unpredictable impacts.

We will teach this much needed management perspective by offering workshop-based coursework, mentorship for research theses, and internship opportunities for practical, applied education experiences. Illustrated in the figure, courses will last 6 months linking theory to implementation strategies. Courses start with introducing students to theoretical aspects of resilience and urbanization processes. Then, students will explore the 4 main perspectives related to urban resilience: resilience of the built environment, ecosystem based solutions, economic and city services resilience, and community resilience. Finally, students will navigate resilience implementation challenges by exploring governance models and challenges from different parts of the world. These three focus areas will include sub-modules on software and practical skills required for each resilience topic and reflection on real-world lessons learned through site visits in Barcelona in collaboration with the Barcelona Urban Resilience Lab. Upon completion of the initial 6 months of coursework and workshops in Barcelona, students will develop a research thesis and be connected to program-specific internship opportunities among partner cities and organizations sprawled through the world. Download here the pdf with the complete structure of the courses.

Where and for Whom?

The new International Master in City Resilience Design and Management is the first, innovative university education program developed by URNet and partners, and hosted by the International University of Catalunya (UIC). This program brings international networks, organizations, and more than 24 URNet scholars from around the world to Barcelona (Spain) to teach and address the governance challenges of urban resilience. We invite students and practitioners interested in participating in the in-class program (starting October the 1st, 2018) to visit the degree webpage for further  information.

Moreover, since the mission of URNet is to promote and disseminate urban resilience knowledge, we wish to share the thoughts and learning opportunities from the City Resilience Design and Management program to the broader, international community. To achieve this, we will publish short videos, interviews with lecturers, blog posts, and materials from the courses through this new URNet EDUCATION section. Together, we hope participation in this new master’s program and broad dissemination of program content will increase global opportunities and debates about resilience.


Now celebrating its 6th year, the Urban Resilience Research Network (URNet) is leveraging its global network of scholars and partners to promote and co-organize the 11th International Forum on Urbanism Conference with the United Nation HABITAT City Resilience Profiling Program and the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya (UIC).

URNet’s mission is to address the conceptualization and implementation of urban resilience from a multidisciplinary and multiscale approach, highlighted in research, blog posts, and invited contributions engaging with urban resilience of what, how, and for whom. Further advocated by the most prominent international agendas and frameworks for urban development, these resilience questions are now linked to other key urban goals such as sustainability. Unfortunately, many “resilient city” initiatives fail to integrate local communities or sustainability goals within their strategies. In some cases, pursuing resilience and sustainability to reduce specific risks and vulnerabilities leads to undesired outcomes, such as eco-gentrification or reinforcing ‘business as usual’ and unsustainable patterns of development. These problems highlight the need for a more integrated and inclusive approach to designing and managing urban resilience. The 11th International Forum on Urbanism will address this need by bringing together a wide range of global experts to discuss how we can minimize trade-offs and maximize synergies in efforts to enhance resilience and sustainability in the face of climatic, environmental, and socio-economic challenges. To this end, this 11th  International Forum on Urbanism banner will focus on the theme: “Reframing urban resilience implementation: Aligning sustainability and resilience

A global debate linking scholars and practitioners: two nested International Conferences

To maximize global participation in this debate on urban resilience and sustainability, the 11th International Forum on Urbanism Conference will have a special format – it will consist of two linked international conferences: (1) an international forum in Barcelona, Spain, and (2) an international forum in Jakarta, Indonesia. The first forum in Barcelona will take place from 10 to 15 December 2018 (specific times and dates TBD) and will be part of the event ‘Barcelona Resilience Week,’ during which the city celebrates its resilience with a range of public activities. The second forum in Jakarta (Indonesia) will be part of an international research conference tentatively scheduled for March 2019 (subject to change). With the involvement of UN Habitat as co-organizer, and the support of ICLEI, the Rockefeller 100RC initiative, METROPOLIS, the UNESCO IHE, the Global Alliance for Urban Crises, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and ECOLISE among others, we anticipate that the two forums will effectively and internationally link academics and practitioners.

How to contribute?

Although the 11th International Forum on Urbanism Conference is poised to advance urban resilience and sustainability globally, we wish to start the debate now. Addressing tough trade-offs and identifying synergies requires that we as a network take change and move beyond simply delivering a research presentation or publishing a conference proceeding. Moreover, consensus among the Urban Resilience Research Network is that nobody likes to write conference papers per se. Thus, we have created multiple options for conference participation for you to choose from:

  • Do you wish or need to write and have a paper published? We invite you to submit a paper to one of our four special issues in the international refereed journals supporting the conference;
  • Do you prefer to not write full papers, but still want to disseminate your findings, experience etc. and make a global impact with your thoughts? We invite you to contribute a blog post to be published in one of three prominent international blogs supporting the conference: The Nature of Cities (TNOC), the recently released UN HABITAT Urban Resilience Hub, the Association of European Schools of Planning YA or our blog. All blog posts will be considered “short conference papers,” and will also be published as conference proceedings with an ISBN.

To learn more about the event, please check out the new Conference Website. There you can learn more about the four proposed focus areas for the conference and you can then turn one of the proposed research questions (or one you feel is relevant and missing) into a novel abstract for publication in a journal or blog post. We also invite proposals for panels, side events, or orther ideas for how to make an impact in Barcelona and Jakarta and maximize the forum experience.

Abstract submission will open soon. We will keep you posted through our blog about the development of the 11th International Forum on Urbanism Conference and the interesting ideas, proposals, and debates you generate.

For any inquiries about this, sign up for our mailing list here and place your comments/ questions/ideas in the registration box.

Call for Contributions: Launching the Urban Resilience Trade-offs Database

Mounting evidence from a number of case studies points to a paradox: our normative conceptualization of urban resilience belies inherent trade-offs in city planning and policies. For example, green infrastructure may enhance flood resilience through planning and design of new neighbourhoods, but also lead to eco- or green gentrification. A desalination plant may help to reduce vulnerability to drought, but at a high environmental, energy, and economic cost. Recognizing these unintended consequences, we have developed the concept of urban resilience trade-offs, illustrated in the figure below.

A resilience trade-off refers to actions, policies or projects that enhance the capacity to adapt to a threat, or reduce the exposure to a specific risk, but lead to a loss in other adaptive capacities or increase exposure. These trade-offs can occur across spatial scales (one community or city enhances its resilience comes at the cost of increasing the vulnerability of other places), groups (one group’s resilience increases the vulnerability of others), between threats (when a solution to e.g. drought implies increasing social fiscal pressures), or even across temporal scales (when a short-term solution results in the lock-in of a particular unsustainable trajectory).

Due to the growing number of papers addressing this critical aspect of urban resilience, the Urban Resilience Research Network will be opening a new section with short posts exploring potential resilience trade-offs. The aim is to raise awareness about these unintended consequences, to better understand them, and ultimately to build a typology of these trade-offs that can help decision-makers to avoid them and come up with resilience strategies that align resilience, sustainability and social justice.

We are looking for researchers to contribute case studies to this new section. We ask that you complete a short questionnaire (link below) about the trade-off and send it to us along with an image. These case studies will not only be shared on the website, but you will be contributing to a global urban resilience trade-off database.

Case study questionnairehttps://goo.gl/forms/ffRx3hxPLvcQqDkh2



The Fallacy of the UNpossible

Guest authors: Thomas P. Seager, Lucien Hollins, and Marcus Snell

In the popular US cartoon television series The Simpsons, there is a brief scene in which one of the child characters is placed on academic probation.  His response is, “Me, fail English?  That’s unpossible!”  As viewers, it strikes us as ridiculous to witness a character so unaware of his own cognitive limitations when they are so obvious to us.  Yet, we sense that his lack of awareness ensures that he’ll never overcome the deficit.  On a cartoon series, the stupidity of a cherubic elementary school student is comedic.  In infrastructure management, such a lack of self awareness can be tragic.

Sometimes these failures can be attributed to distortions of perception called cognitive bias.  Common human biases, fallacies, and systematic errors are now so well documented that Wikipedia has catalogued an extensive list.  For example, the Normalcy Bias describes the common misconception that conflates unprecedented with impossible.  We often hear the argument that because something has never happened before, it must be true that such a thing could never happen.  While the Normalcy Bias correctly captures this distortion of perception, it is so dangerous, and we see this erroneous reasoning so often, that when we notice it in infrastructure systems, we should give it a more memorable name.  Let us call it The Fallacy of the UNpossible.

The Fallacy of the UNpossible describes the phenomenon we observe when otherwise reasonable people conflate rare, or highly unlikely probabilities, with impossibility.  While there are some things we can imagine that really are impossible, such as traveling faster than the speed of light or violating the second law of thermodynamics, unprecedented flooding, or earthquakes, or stock market crashes, or even election outcomes are not subject to these physical constraints.

For example, consider the flooding of California’s Oroville Dam.  Still the tallest dam in the United States, officials recently ordered a mandatory evacuation of communities downstream of the dam, for fear the 770 foot edifice would collapse due to the simultaneous failure of the main and emergency spillways — an unlikely failure scenario environmental groups predicted back in 2005.  In a public hearing held as part of a relicensing approval process, these groups argued that the emergency spillway was unsafe.  According to them, should the spillway ever be activated, the flow of water over the top would erode the supporting embankment and eventually lead to collapse.

But the dam, built in the late 1960’s to provide flood control and water diversion from northern to southern California, had never before reached water levels that necessitated use of the emergency spillway.  Over three decades of safe operation at the dam convinced officials that the “facilities, including the spillway, are safe during any conceivable flood event.”

Herein lies the fallacy.  Dam officials were convinced their facilities were safe because they could not conceive of any scenario in which they weren’t.  In the face of criticism of the spillway design, they held to the view that it was safe despite previous surprises, including a 1997 evacuation in response to the failure of some downstream levees.

Six years later, in 2011, water levels climbed within 11 inches of the Oroville emergency spillway. Such a near-miss might drive officials to rethink the security of the spillway, or perhaps conduct tests of spillway performance.  However, in cases such as this officials sometimes confuse near-misses as proof of the graceful extensibility of their system, rather than as a warning that failure is more likely than previously thought.

The lessons of the Oroville Dam and recognition of the Fallacy of the UNpossible might inform other potential catastrophe scenarios.  One may be found in extreme heat.  Temperatures in Phoenix Arizona in the United States recently neared 49 degrees Celsius. While such extreme readings are previously unheard of for a major US population center, a combination of climate change and urbanization might push future temperatures even higher — especially in the desert southwestern US, where Phoenix is a major transportation, economic, and cultural hub.

At the component level, the physical response of infrastructure to such extremes is predictable.  For example, record high temperatures cause record high demand for electric power (for air conditioning), at exactly a time when power plants and transmission lines are operating at lower efficiencies (due to the higher ambient temperatures).  However, at the larger complex systems scale, the consequences become un-predictable, and potentially catastrophic.  Should a cascading power failure occur during an extreme heat event, individuals would no doubt seek refuge in the mountains or towns surrounding Phoenix.  Yet gasoline stations, dependent upon the city’s electrical grid, would be unable to refuel private cars.  For those with fuel, traffic signal and rail crossing outages may result in gridlock, overwhelming taxed emergency response crews.  Water pumps would fail and, when elevated storage reserves became depleted, there would be no pressure in the distribution system for supplying water for drinking, firefighting, evaporative cooling or irrigation.  Sewage pump stations and treatment plants without back up power sources would overflow.  And those with backup generation would be difficult to resupply.  Airborne evacuation would be complicated by the fact that helicopters and jets are not rated for flight in temperatures that near 50 degrees C.

A 2011 power outage in neighboring Mesa, Arizona that left over 100,000 people without power for 11 hours gave citizens and officials a brief glimpse of what such a catastrophe might look like.  However, the fact that the potential catastrophe was contained may result in overconfidence, rather than additional precaution.  When subject to the Fallacy of the UNpossible, people sometimes confuse the worst historical case with the worst possible case, and thus fail to prepare for the unprecedented.  This type of thinking places emphasis on ensuring that the UNpossible event could never take place — i.e., to reduce the probability of the already unlikely.  But recognition of the fallacy demands anticipation of the event rather than forecasting it — as in, “What do we do if… ?” rather than “How can we be sure that… ?”   This reframing avoids the Fallacy by applying resources to minimizing the consequences of the event, rather than the probability.

As climate, technology, and social systems evolve, we have every reason to believe that the future will be, in some characteristic and important ways, a significant departure from the past.  Thus, extrapolation from historical datasets is likely to be less reliable than ever.   Wherever we encounter designers, operators, policy-makers, or others arguing that historical experience has given them confidence in bounding the future, we must recognize the Fallacy of the UNpossible.  Here, we use the ridiculous prefix “UN-” rather than “im-” to remind us that tragi-comedy only exists in cartoon worlds.  Our real experiences will not submit to the fantastic failures of our imagination.



Dr. Thomas P. Seager is an Associate Professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment at Arizona State University and leads a research group of scientists, engineers and students dedicated to creating new knowledge to make infrastructure safer and more resilient.

Lucien Hollins is an Astronautical Engineering Undergraduate Student in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport & Energy at Arizona State University and a resilience researcher under the direction of Dr. Seager. He previously served in the US Navy operating and maintaining machinery for nuclear power and propulsion.

Marcus Snell is a Resilience Engineer who received his MS, in Civil Engineering, from the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment at Arizona State University. He models resilience, as a process, within the built environment.

Further References:

Additional Resources: redesigning Resilient Infrastructure Research Webinar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=632yydH-7pw

Acknowledgements: we are grateful to Jonathan Gao, Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University, for first drawing our attention to normalcy bias and to Laura Maguire, Cognitive Systems Engineering at The Ohio State University, who reviewed an early draft of this essay and provided comments that helped improve it.We are also grateful to URNet editors Lorenzo Chelleri and Daniel Eisenberg for their enthusiasm regarding the progress of our work.

The Pillars of Disaster Resilience and Community Engagement

Guest author: Prof. Edward Blakely

On April the 6th, 2017 Prof. Edward Blakely, the Former Recovery Director Post-Katrina floods in New Orleans, has been invited to deliver a keynote speech held at the Gran Sasso Science Institute, on the occasion of the 8th Anniversary of the earthquake which almost destroyed L’Aquila, one of the biggest Medieval Italian cities. During the seminar he presented the challenges of post-disaster reconstruction and community engagement. This post is a summary of the talk — with his edits – and interview responses regarding  the key research challenges in addressing urban disaster resilience.

Based on his academic and professional experience, Dr.Blakely emphasized the importance of the continuous engagement with the community in order to co-design the re-construction of “the place” after a disaster. Dr. Blakley argues that a recovery director’s key role is to facilitate democracy, or “the difficult art to let people confront each other and build trust” Post-disaster there is a need for discussion among inhabitants, and those discussions should be based on solid facts and data, not speculations. In this context, the principal role of  the scientific community is to develop and provide the necessary data about previous and present processes in order to minimize those speculations.

At the same time,  institutions should play a synergistic role in setting policies through a participative and transparent governance process. Data dispersal to key stakeholders and  policy making to ensure participation will allow  debates to emerge and will ensure  that community restoration occurs prior to physical reconstruction. Neighborhoods social networks should not be scattered through the reconstruction process, but these networks should be further strengthened through a creative process of re-designing the city of the future. Dr.Blakely’s second point for post-disaster resilience, after recognizing the role the community, is that reconstruction should start with framing new rules. There is a danger within the emergency management, which is indeed to fall in an excessively rapid and superficial re-setting of the previous rules, and city forms and dynamics. On the contrary, sustainable reconstructions need a “visionary attitude, a shared dream embedded in a wider plan”, having a sort of “cultural-dependency”, but not renouncing to higher and more ambitious goals. Repositioning and relaunching the city (and its economies, too), is a “better” way of rebuilding it. A central goal should be  retaining skilled, younger and older people (categories which usually leave a post-disaster setting, and which are difficult to attract back) within the community, to be the core recovery workforce.

Relaunching while rebuilding, is key to understand the strategic facets of post-disaster resilience, telling us that “small & better” should be preferable to “just bigger”. Or “insourcing”  better than outsourcing the know-how, processes and functions. Indeed, local resources are the very key assets to leveraging sustainable post-disasters recovery processes, both in time of peace and after a disaster: if “slim governments” outsource their functions, as well as the reconstruction-related activities, the city will lose contractors, investors and skills (either after the disaster, or once rebuilt).

In a nutshell, the four necessarily synergistic pillars of disaster resilience should be:

  • Economic development (working on local assets and values to shape new targets and allies)
  • Housing & community facilities (multifunctional facilities to be extensively used)
  • Neighborhood renewal – health & education (to cure the diseases while preventing them)

Enhanced public institutions and community organizations (through integrated and coordinated activities)
Within those pillars, the role of research is key in insourcing the work to engage local skilled people. Research can substantiate facts and data as the base of a good long term recovery path i) supporting a “realistic visionary” plan, ii) helping the re-shaping of local governance providing integrated and critical views about past and current dynamics, actors and networks, iii) offer tools, methods and innovations for a paradigm shift toward prevention and mitigation rather than just supporting the building back. Therefore, the most pressing research questions to be addressed would be:

  1. How to combine “maintaining traditions” and “developing preventions” under the pressure of a post-disaster reconstruction ? How to feed long-term innovative recovery plans with a necessary “local cultural dependency”?
  2. How to reframe a “thick” local governance (rearranging local institutions, defining new rules, “insourcing”, etc.) and support local capacity building in a post-disaster context?
  3. How to continuously engage local inhabitants in a long-term recovery plan in order to retain the community’s social capital and reduce post-disaster demographic declines?

Biography: Edward J. Blakely is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning Policy and Director of the Planning Research Centre at the University of Sydney, Australia. He was Chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California (Berkeley) while authoring ten books and a hundred articles in the field of disaster and risk management. Blakely is known for having been Executive Director of Recovery Management for the City of New Orleans and recognised by UN Habitat for his contributions to social justice and sustainable planning in disaster recovery in 2012.

Further readings:

Blakely, E. J. (2012). My storm: Managing the recovery of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, University of Pennsylvania Press.

Brewer, J. and Carbonell, A. (2012). Resilient Coastal City Regions: Planning for Climate Change in the United States and Australia. Wiley Online Library.

Blakely, E.J. et al (2011). Urban Disaster Recovery Management Policy, Planning, Concepts & Cases. Crisis Response Press.


Author: Dr. Geoffrey DeVerteuil

School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University UK

Resilience has proven to be a popular yet vexatious concept of late in urban studies and urban geography. Criticisms are many – that it props up the status quo, in this case an inequitable neoliberal order; that it casts off needy people and places by deeming them ostensibly ‘resilient’; and that is has no vocabulary of resistance and transformation. In my own research and thoughts on resilience, cities and societies, I have developed the following key insights:

– Resilience requires a threat, usually external. This makes it different from vulnerability and sustainability – resilience is more about anticipating, living and dealing with threats as diverse as climate change to neoliberalism, rather than suffering from them or avoiding them altogether.

– Resillience can be adaptive, and it more than just ‘bouncing back’ to the same position as before the threat – this is the essence of engineering resilience, but this translates poorly to cities and social orders whereby the original position is marked by vulnerability. Indeed, there is no point in bouncing back to the original position that made the phenomenon in question vulnerable in the first place.

– Resilience is a continuous process, not an endpoint. It is a dynamic property rather than a fixed one, and can be produced by a variety of agents from states to individuals.

– Resilience can be enabled, shared and transferred individually but also in groups, giving rise to not just psychological resilience but also sociological resilience across social groupings, as well as spatial resilience (e.g. the ability to stay put despite displacing pressures).

– Resilience can be critical, but perhaps not transformative, in that it acts as a stopgap to confront and sometimes outlast negative change but does not necessarily lead to the upturning of inequitable structures that create such change – this is more the domain of resistance.

– Resilience is neither inherently negative nor inherently positive; it depends on the context and to what political aims it is being used for, which means that despite the present meshing of resilience and neoliberalism, the two are not necessarily co-dependent.

My empirical focus has been on the resilience of service hubs (conspicuous clusters of voluntary sector organizations serving vulnerable populations such as the homeless) faced with the displacing tendencies of gentrification across the inner cities of London, Los Angeles and Sydney, and which forms the basis for the 2015 book Resilience in the Post-Welfare Inner City: Voluntary Sector Geographies in London, Los Angeles and Sydney. In a follow-up article in City with Oleg Golubchikov (Open Access) on the uses and misuses of resilience, I have attempted to construct an argument that, while being critical of the shortcomings of the concept, emphasize its long-term usefulness for a more critical urban geography and urban studies, as well as more generally to understand cities in the 21st century. Essentially, I advance a ‘critical resilience of the residuals’, that is how resilience can be deployed to defend previous gains, rather than being used to prop up the current neoliberal order. In the context of the book, ‘previous gains’ are taken to be the residuals of a more redistributive era (the Keynesian era in particular) when the state was more interested in reducing inequalities through welfare and social services for the most vulnerable populations, what Michael Dear deemed the ‘public city’. Resilience acts as a bulwark against the encroachment of new, increasingly polarizing and unequal forces working on city space, including gentrification. Case studies in places like Hollywood, Skid Row, Westminster, Southwark and Surry Hills demonstrated a variety of resilience strategies were used to ensure that service hubs did not fall prey to the displacing logics of an increasingly post-welfare city – receiving direct and indirect support from the local state; buying property or having a supportive landlord, such as a church; and using the spatial clustering of voluntary sector organizations in service hubs itself in order to ward off incursions through sheer density and solidarity.

Resilience remains a remarkably open field of inquiry. One area of future research in particular is linked to the limits of resilience in terms of transformation – seeing how these (resilient) service hubs may be recast as ‘commons’, that is the promise and practice of life beyond marketization, privatization and commercialization, non-capitalist rather than ostensibly anti-capitalist. Given that service hubs are non-commodified spaces of help for populations who usually cannot pay for services, it is imperative to better understand how they work on the ground, for both service providers but also the vulnerable clientele whose ability to hold on to gentrifying inner-city space is increasingly precarious. Other areas of future research may include:

Should local governments buttress the resilience of other ‘residuals’ of more equitable times, such as social housing built in the 1960s and 1970s, and if so, how?

How can resilience become a ‘verb’ like resist and rework?


Biography: Dr. Geoff DeVerteuil is Senior Lecturer, School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University (UK).

Further references:

DeVerteuil, G. (2015) Resilience in the post-welfare inner city: Voluntary sector geographies in London, Los Angeles and Sydney. Bristol UK: Policy Press.

DeVerteuil, G. and O. Golubchikov (2016) Can resilience be redeemed? City 20(1): 143-151. Open access.

DeVerteuil, G. (2016) Pace and place: Resilience in an age of urban and theoretical churn. Geoforum 68: 69-72.


There are different ways that you can join our brainstorming and research activities.

The easiest is just to subscribe to our mailing list, through which every member can initiate a debate, ask questions, solicit advise, look for collaborators or project partners, disseminate news about urban resilience, or share research and publications.

Another way to get involved in our activities is to send us your request to publish your own point of view on urban resilience research, which could be published in our new section “resilience shots”. If you want to get more involved, you can apply to join our board (which is revisited annually) by proposing new ideas or website sections – content that will upgrade our network.

Because all the work we do here is on a voluntary basis, and completed during our free time, we are extremely grateful for any help and collaboration. So don’t be shy, you are welcome!


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The Resilience Machine

Guest authors: Prof. Simin Davoudi1, 2, Prof. Jim Bohland1, Prof. Paul Knox1 and Dr. Jennifer Lawrence1

1Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience at Virginia Tech and 2Newcastle University

In 2012, the headline in a New York Times article suggested that we should “Forget sustainability” because “It’s about resilience”, indicating a shift of emphasis to what is perceived to be the dominating discourse of our time. In the last three decades resilience has become a prominent, albeit sometimes problematic, concept across natural, physical, and social sciences. It has engaged scholars from a wide range of disciplines including engineering, economic geography, psychology, urban studies, political ecology, urban planning, public administration, and disaster risk management among others. Moreover, instrumentalist modes of resilience have effectively colonized multiple areas of public policy and decision-making which seek to secure systems of provision. A growing number of think tanks, philanthropic organizations, government institutions, NGOs, and corporate entities have made ‘resilience’ thinking and ‘resilience’ building a top priority.

As a result, there are now multitudes of toolkits and guidelines on how to achieve resilience as well as indicators and evaluation criteria about how to measure and monitor the resilience of cities, communities, individuals and ecosystems. However, the widespread currency of resilience is by no means a sign of common understanding of the concept or the desirability of resilience as a public policy objective. On the contrary, resilience risks being an empty signifier which can be filled with multiple meanings and which can serve conflicting political, economic, and social interests. While some advocates indicate encouraging possibilities for resilience as a new way of thinking about and governing risk and uncertainty, we would argue that resilience risks becoming another carrier of neoliberal ideologies, policies, and practices with negative implications for social justice and democracy. These are issues that are often lost or hidden within the discursive ambiguity of resilience as a concept.

That is why, in a forthcoming book, we argue that there is a ‘resilience machine’ in the making. The book is the outcome of a number of workshops and exchanges among us (the editors) and other authors, facilitated by the Global Forum for Urban and Regional Resilience, based at Virginia Tech. It draws on our previous work on resilience (see examples below).

Inspired by Harvey Molotch’s seminal 1976 paper, The City as a Growth Machine, we argue that in the face of radical uncertainties resilience has been portrayed as a value-neutral goal which enables its machine-like deployment and operation on multiple scales from individuals to cities and regions. Although the metaphor of the machine is apt in capturing the growing consensus about resilience as a taken-for-granted public good, our understanding of the concept of machine differs from Molotch’s thesis in important ways. First, the urban growth machine is based on an agency-centred perspective which puts the emphasis on actors’ observed action rather than the social relations that give rise to their action. We argue that while resilience machines are activated and mobilized by the agency of actors and institutions, their actions are shaped by the dominating neoliberal social relations. Second, growth machine operates in relation to one form of urban politics, i.e. land and its commodification. Resilience machines are pervasive. They are active in multiple forms of urban politics ranging from citizenship, to community relations and to access to welfare services. Third, Molotch’s thesis is uni-scalar and relates primarily to late 20th century American cities. Resilience machines not only operate at multiple scales from international to neighbourhood levels. They are also actively engaged in the strategic and contingent construction of scale; they are at the centre of the politics of scale. Like Molotch, we also see language and discourse being a critical intellectual currency in the co-option of actors and interests into the machine’s operation and understand language not just as a communication device for convincing the public about the benefits of growth for their wellbeing, but also as a form of highly politicized representation. Mechanistic language is used to normalize resilience discourses and socialize resilience practices in everyday life. Through significations, people come to comprehend a particular form of resilience and motivated to aboard the machine. Finally, Molotch considered the feelings and concerns of ‘residents’ for localities as a ‘counter coalition’ force that fights against self-serving, profit seeking developers and growth entrepreneurs. Resisting resilience machines and their subjectification intents is not exclusive to a particular group of people based in a particular locality. It is diffused across time, space and social groups, and is embedded the structural power relations of resilience politics.

While resilience might be understood as a machine in the making, we do not assume that its anatomy, driving forces, constellation of actors, institutions, discourses and practices, and goals and objectives are necessarily the same as those of the urban growth machine. Instead, the book advances the idea by drawing on the contemporary Deleuzian understanding of machine as assemblage. The concept of assemblage is used to make sense of, rationalities, imaginaries, technologies and materialities of resilience.

We argue that the concept of ‘resilience machine’ provides a way of raising critical questions for future urban resilience research; questions such as:

  • How is the concept of resilience appropriated in discourses, policies, and practices? For what purpose?
  • What assumptions are made in the applications of resilience?
  • What features of resilience narratives mimic characteristics of the growth machine or assemblage?
  • What ideologies and rationalities are carried by the concept of resilience?
  • What meanings and values are inscribed and prescribed in the name of resilience?
  • Who are the actors and what are the institutions that deploy the resilience machine?
  • What are the social/political and moral/ethical implications of the different understandings and applications of resilience?
  • What pitfalls and opportunities are embedded in and implied by various interpretations of resilience?
  • Whether and how might resilience be used for the pursuit of democracy and justice?


Biographies: Simin Davoudi is Director of the Global Urban Research Unit (GURU),  Professor of Environmental Policy & Planning and Professor of Environment Policy & Planning at the School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape at Newcastle University, UK.

James Bohland is Principal Research Associate for the Socio-Political Dimensions of Resilience research cluster at the Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience at Virginia Tech and is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs.

Paul L. Knox is a University Distinguished Professor and Founding Dean of the Honors College at Virginia Tech. Recent books include Metroburbia: The Anatomy of Greater London (Merrell, 2017); London: Architecture, Building and Social Change (Merrell, London, 2015), and Atlas of Cities (New York: Princeton University Press, 2014).

Jennifer L. Lawrence is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate at The Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience at Virginia Tech.

Further references:

Forthcoming book: Jim Bohland, J., Davoudi, S., Knox, P. and Lawrence, J. (eds.) (2017) The Resilience Machine, London: Routledge, with chapters by Julian Reid, Jonathan Pugh, Kevin Grove, Rebecca  Hester, Lauren Rickards, Wendy Steel, Martin Mulligan, Timothy Luke, Peter Rogers, Susan Fainstein, Thilo Lang, Chris Zebrowski, Raven Cretney and Brendan Gleeson.

Davoudi, S. (2016) Resilience and Governmentality of Unknowns, in M. Bevir (ed.) Governmentality after neoliberalism, New York; Routledge.152-171

Davoudi, S. (2012) Resilience, a bridging concept or a dead end? Planning Theory and Practice, 13(2) 299-307

Further resources:


A Social-Ecological Research Lens on Urban Resilience

Guest author: Stephan Barthel (University of Gävle, Stockholm University and Stockholm Resilience Centre)

Social-Ecological Research has approached the city as a living ecosystem, an approach that really begun with the urban scholars of the early 1900s. But new developments in this line of research started during the 1990s to study various social-ecological relations in a web of life reaching far beyond the built environment of any city. Such research argues that it is in such social-ecological relations where the resilience of cities ultimately rests, for example in a food system consisting of the chain of activities connecting food producing ecosystems, processing, distribution, consump­tion, and waste management, as well as all the associated regulatory institutions and activities. Contrary to popular belief, it is in such social-ecological research traditions, where the most prolific authors on urban resilience are found.

Jane Jacobs critiqued modernist city planning in the now classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). She proposed that a city must be understood as a system of organized complexity, in other words, as a designed ecosystem—or as a cyborg—–and that any intervention in the urban fabric with a lack of such understanding is bound to result in unexpected surprises. This approach really begun with the urban scholars of the Chicago School that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, which was inspired by thinking in systems ecology of that time, but where the city was viewed more as an ants nest, where humans interacted with the ‘artifice’ in a sort of socio-technological ecosystem (Barthel 2016). This line of thought did not for long, however, adequately address complex human-nature systems relations of urban resilience.

It is safe to argue that most urban populations, at least in the Global North, are more distant from their life support systems now. Urbanization is now in a second wave of space–time compression driven by the Internet, jet travel, and the global economy. The accelerating pace at which urban life proceeds and the decreasing importance of geographic barriers and distances are qualitatively different in terms of their intensity and scope compared to the 1960s. Space–time compression is an outcome of a surplus of fossil fuel energy of diminishing returns, which enables cities to sequester natural resources and ecosystem services from the farthest reaches of the planet (see Deutsch et al. or Seto). What would happened to the resilience of a city if it where divorced from such global trade flows?

Novel thinking with roots in modern systems ecology emerged in the 1990s with the concepts of ecological footprints, extended versions of urban metabolism, and urban ecosystem services. This line offers an important new perspective, since it assumes that humans are integrative parts of a complex web of life in the Biosphere even as they live in modern cities. The world’s ecosystems are gradually being eroded by urbanization, with a subsequent loss of both ecosystem services and urban resilience, not only due to rapid conversion of land per se, but also due to tele-connected consumption behaviors, which ultimately will be shaped by environmental attitudes among city people. When Jacobs wrote her influential book 1961, the plethora of benefits that ecosystems in metropolitan landscapes provided for human well-being in cities were simply not known (see McPhearson or Haase). While Jacobs’ thinking is based on ecosystem logic, she did not see the benefits humans obtain by sensory interaction with other species and with diverse ecosystems, such as their role in shaping learning and meaning-making, nor for the development of attitudes, health or cognitive performance. For instance Giusti et al., showed that pre-school children that experience nature environments in their daily routines develop significantly stronger environmental attitudes and better ecological knowledge that those that do not. This literature argues that cities must offer civic stewardship possibilities for people to engage with ecosystems inside and outside of cities and must improve the routines that enable for people to psychologically connect with nature. Scholars of this kind of thinking came to argue for the missing role that local and regional ecosystem services, such as metropolitan produced food or water retention by peri-urban wetlands, hold as sources for building resilience in cities towards unusual external disturbances, such as hurricanes, armed conflicts or spikes in global food prizes. Such social-ecological thinking has proven to be influential in the wider literature on urban resilience.

As important as the deviation in an ecosystem based understanding of the city in the 1990s have been, it is now time to again re-unite the two dominant lines of thought for a more holistic understanding about urban resilience: the socio-technological line of thought with the social-ecological line. This is deemed necessary to meet our grand challenge to transform urbanization to stay within planetary boundaries. In separation they are actually producing piecemeal design and planning solutions. Now as we must innovate our thinking to find solutions for a low-carbon economy while dealing with social segregation, we must simultaneously not erode sources in the human habitat for social, mental and physiological health and for cognitive resilience building.

Biography: Stephan Barthel is Senior Lecturer at the University of Gävle and Team Leader of the Urban Social-Ecological Systems group at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University.

Further references:

Barthel, S. Social-Ecological Urbanism and the Life of Baltic Cities. In The Nature of Cities

 Barthel, S. Parker, J. Ernstson, H. (2015). Food and Green Space in Cities: A Resilience Lens on Gardens and Urban Environmental Movements. Urban Studies 52(7), 1321-1338.

 Barthel, S. and Isendahl, C. (2013). Urban Gardens, Agricultures and Waters: Sources of Resilience for Long-Term Food Security in Cities. Ecological Economics 86, 224-234.

Rethinking everyday resilience in the built environment of the city

guest author: Prof. Stefan Bouzarovski (University of Manchester)

Adaptive capacity and resilience are now seen as desirable qualities for a wide range of social actors and dynamics: from individuals coping with personal stress, to cities that may be vulnerable to disaster or terrorist attack. Resilience has assumed a normative character, entering the vocabulary of decision-making organizations across the world. From a concept aimed at encapsulating how people cope with change in the contemporary and historic sense, resilience has become a decision-making matrix and a tool for supporting policy choices.

Climate change and security concerns have made resilience a central discursive and strategic component within the context of urban spatial, social and political transformations. However, this framework has rarely been applied to the understanding or management of everyday changes in the social and built fabric of the city. Although the dynamics and properties of adaptation, adaptive capacity, and flexibility are frequently brought up in policy and scholarly debates on this topic, they have seldom been seen through an explicit resilience lens.

There is, therefore, a clear need to enrich the analytical vocabularies of urban policies with a unified and critical conceptual approach focusing on the relationship between urban resilience, on the one hand, and the everyday practices undertaken by households in response towards or anticipation of externally-induced change, on the other. Such an endeavor may also help reclaim resilience from the increasingly technocratic, reactive and mechanistic policy interpretation of the concept.

Over the past 10 years, I have undertaken field research across several European countries – with a special focus of the cities of Gdańsk, Budapest, Ljubljana and Skopje – to explore how people practice resilience in their everyday life, in response to wider economic, social and cultural shifts. I have been particularly interested in illuminating the wide range of creative and largely informal strategies that arise at the nexus of relations between households and their residential dwellings. Much of my work has focused on inner-city areas where change takes place via gradual and deep-seated processes such as gentrification, residential upgrading, and in-situ adjustments.

Many of the people who I worked with have been affected by various forms of social exclusion, principally due to being of an older age, lacking stable or adequate employment, or having low incomes. Due to a range of historic and geographical regions, many inner-city districts in Central and Eastern Europe host disproportionately high number of pensioners and income-poor households.

My research has examined the manner in which inner-city households ‘practice’ an alternative and bottom-up form of urbanism by making physical alterations or additions to their apartments over time. I have thus focused on the adaptation of seemingly rigid housing structures in line with the fluid everyday needs of different household members.

I have argued that resilience can be connected to the notion of ‘retrofit’ – understood in very broad terms, as adding a component or accessory ‘to something that did not have it when manufactured’. In current policy and academic debates, retrofits are often understood within the growing effort to improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings in light of the policy challenges posed by climate change. While there is a significant amount of engineering-led work on the subject, it has become increasingly apparent that policy-led retrofits can only work if they are implemented within a comprehensive effort that recognizes the complexities associated with enacting change among consumers and local authorities, as well as the role of wider socio-technical systems, institutions, innovation, and multi-stakeholder collaboration.

Many experts emphasize the importance of retrofits to the broader dynamics of ‘urban sustainability transitions’, involving a systematic re-engineering of the built environment and urban infrastructure. In line with such debates, my work has sought to explore the different forms of social, technical and political resilience that allow for retrofits to happen on a grassroots basis during extended periods of time.

I found that the forces and interventions that allow buildings to be upgraded and transformed by their residents are rarely guided or supported by formal state policy. In many ways, this process can be captured by the notion of ‘bricolage’, as it the outcome of a patchwork of unco-ordinated actions, and results in a tapestry of forms that extend both within and beyond the built confines of the home.

Figure 1: Bricolage at street level: selective renovation of apartments in historic buildings in Gdansk


The resulting landscape of ‘do-it-yourself urbanism’ encompasses a fragmented array of domestic and neighbourhood spaces. It is associated with the emergence of a new mobility and consumption patterns, which in turn interact with the uneven geography of economic development and infrastructure provision in the city to privilege some social groups, built tissues and temporal horizons over others.

Figure 2: A landscape of do-it-yourself urbanism – additions and modifications in a 1970s apartment block in Ljubljana


The degree to which residential buildings may be transformed via different types of alterations hinges on the internal features of the households such as income or education, in addition to the structures of the built environment: the technical characteristics that facilitate or prevent the transformation of tenement buildings from the 1930s will be very different from those of a prefabricated panel block from built the 1970s.

It has also transpired that households and individuals value resilience in different ways, and may not necessarily behave in rationally predictable ways when it comes to transforming their residential environment in response to externally-induced pressures. This relationship can be linked to emergence of social exclusion, because socio-political changes in production and governance systems can lead to the ‘entrapment’ of disadvantaged households in non-flexible spaces that embody the mismatch between social and built infrastructures.

I also uncovered the existence of a plurality of perceptions and understandings of resilience and flexibility. While some individuals see the ability to change or adapt their everyday spaces to new circumstances as a key priority in everyday life, others have emphasized the attachment to place, habit and stability. In the low-income post-industrial Gdańsk district of Nowy Port, the economic and residential precarity of many households was be countered by conscious efforts to appropriate public spaces in the neighbourhood. Through this process, local inhabitants were able to build a dynamic relationship with their everyday space, without having to accept the dominant logic of capitalist consumption.

If there is one ‘take home’ message from my research, it is that national, urban and neighbourhood authorities need to develop more sensitive policy tools and systematic knowledge about the different forms of housing dynamism in the built fabric, as well as the mobilization of informal and alternative economies towards in-place transformations of the built environment of the home. A deeper understanding of the diverse mechanisms through which residential buildings and people may embody complex processes of adaptation can lead to a radical rethinking of existing understandings of urban resilience in relation to external and internal shocks and stress.

Biography: Stefan Bouzarovski is Full Professor of Geography and Director of the centre for Collaboratory for Urban Resilience and Energy at the University of Manchester. Follow Stefan on twitter at @stefanbuzar

Further references:

Bouzarovski, S. (2015). Retrofitting the City: Residential Flexibility, Resilience and the Built Environment. London: IB Tauris.

Bouzarovski, S. (2011). Skopje. Cities, 28, 265–277.

Bouzarovski, S., Gentile, M., & Salukvadze, J. (2010). A socially resilient urban transition? The contested landscapes of apartment building extensions in two post-communist cities. Urban Studies, 48, 2689–2714

Further resources: