Getting Serious About Resilience in Planning

10 minute read

July 31, 2012, 5:00 PM PDT

By Kevin C. Desouza, Trevor Flanery, Jaimy Alex, Eric Park

Resilience is a term much bandied about these days in the planning and development professions. Buildings, plans, economies and even cities are expected to be resilient to unforeseen externalities in a world of rapidly changing technologies, climates, and cultures. With this in mind, Kevin C. Desouza and his colleagues at the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech would like to engage you, the planning and development community, in a discussion of what exactly it means to be resilient in a planning context, whether this is a laudable goal, and, if so, how we can achieve it.  

There are few concepts that are more popular than resilience today. Pundits have long advised us that we need to design resilient structures. Our cities should be resilient to adverse external events. We have also been told that our plans need to be resilient to changes in the environment (e.g. to cost changes for products and supplies, potential new regulation, etc). In recent times, we have also seen an increase in the number of calls for resilience in communities and localities to crises and disasters.

On Planetizen, recent writings have employed the term resilience (or its many variants, e.g. resilient) in their titles – Chapin on Pocket Neighborhoods, Benfield on Climate Resilience, and Dudley on Housing and Resilience, among others. Foundations, such as the New America Foundation, have even hosted events on the topic of resilience (see Defining Resilience). Government agencies from the National Science Foundation to the federal research labs and even departments within the federal government have programs targeting the concept of resilience across many sectors from resilience of networks [PDF], to resilience of infrastructures [PDF], and even the resilience of soldiers beyond the battlefields!

Turin, Italy, for example, is a city that has shown resilience, when compared to its American counterpart, Detroit. After Fiat abandoned its Lingotto automobile factory in 1982, Turin lost over 100,000 jobs in a decade, and witnessed continuous industrial decline for longer. Yet, today, the city is a symbol of how to be resilient. The old factory plant was repurposed to accommodate shopping malls, hotels, and even a helicopter landing pad. New sectors of the economy, such as tourism and food, received investment and have taken off. In addition, 60% of Turin's once abandoned land has been repurposed, and its residents enjoy a higher per capita GDP than the rest of the country. Turin is a good example of a resilient city, as it not only dealt with the shock, and recovered, but it has defined a 'new normal' for itself, which some might say is even more advanced that its previous state.

Lingotto Factory by flickr user dalbera.

Given the buzz around the concept, we at the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech have begun to host weekly discussions on how planners should treat the concept of resiliency, based on our assumption that resiliency is in fact desirable. We are all in the business of making systems that are resilient (i.e. those that can not only last across time, but can withstand a multitude of stresses). But, can we actually build resilient plans? If so, what are these plans resilient to? Can we incorporate practices (tactics) to make the planning process more resilient? Can we implement (execute) plans in a resilient manner? How should we evaluate a plan, or the planning process, for presence (or level) of resiliency? These are just some of the questions we have decided to ponder. Our intention in writing this feature is to invite you to begin a broader conversation on these topics with the community-at-large.

Here are our main findings to date:

  1. Resilience and resiliency are terms that are used casually in the literature which diminishes their value and obfuscates their meaning. It is common to think of resilience as the ability of an object or entity, to absorb some shock, internal or external, and then recover from it in an effective and efficient manner towards either a previous state (when considering physical objects) or a new normal (when considering socio-technical systems). Resilience is also a function of being operational in times of stress. Can a given entity still maintain operations when under stress? Here, resilience refers to having the capacity to be able to adapt, reorganize, and reroute information for decision-making and use one's resources and capabilities for functions they were not designed for.
  2. Resilience is context-specific. Resilience as a concept is spatially and temporally bounded. Simply put, we cannot be resilient to everything nor have resilience towards an infinite future. As such, it is critical to specify resilience to what and across what time horizon?
  3. Resilience in the context of planning can be viewed as 2X2 matrix (see Figure). Resilience as a verb is tactics that we include within the processes of planning and designing. Resilience as an adjective is how we judge the finished artifact – a given plan or an artifact. Thinking of resilience offers us a way forward towards being precise in our usage of the term. When we evaluate planning or designing for resilience we are really concerned with the features of the process. In comparison, resilience of plans or physical artifacts is a function of the features of the object. There is a relation between the four elements – plans, planning, designing, and physical artifacts – in terms of how the resilience of one impacts the other. However, these relations are not always obvious or simple. For instance, does resilient planning lead to construction of resilient plans? Do resilient plans incorporate elements that allow for resilient designs?
  4. Consider the simple question: why do plans fail? Put another way, why are plans not resilient to their environments? Our findings indicate three common causes for disconnects--between the drivers (planning and designing processes) and the actual outcomes (plans and physical artifacts)--that result in a failure to achieve resiliency: breakdowns in communication, failure to allocate resources appropriately, and a lack of clarity in the decision-making process. Encompassing these basic causes are the challenges presented by time and scale. Often by the time a plan gains approval and is implemented, it is obsolete and no longer responsive to the current environment due to changes within the system. Likewise, the scale of the plan may in itself be too ambitious to achieve resiliency in terms of its capacity to effectively adapt in the face of shocks. Resilient systems must be able to temporally mitigate interactions between its past (artifacts), present (goals), and future (possibility/probability) while maintaining spatial vitality across environmental, social, and economic dimensions of a society.Consider the case of city of the Vienna (Wien), Austria. Over the last several years, Vienna has ranked #1 in the Mercer Quality of Living Survey and has made great strides in becoming a smarter city by focusing on intelligent urbanity. At its core, Vienna's smart city initiative focuses on how to build a city that is resilient to several factors, such as changing demographics.Vienna will become the youngest Austrian city (measured by the age of residents) by 2050 (today, around 25% are 60 years or older). It will also witness a 13% rise in population by 2030 and 22% by 2050. The city is involved in a massive planning effort that is focusing on a number of initiatives that will reduce the city's impact on its environment and account for rapidly changing population demographics. One example is the city's focus on enabling cycling as a clean technology for urban transportation by improving its bicycle infrastructure. The city is also engaged in a social campaign to make biking more 'cool' and educate its populace on the variety of options, both social and professional, around biking. If one was to examine Vienna's approach to cycling, both as a planning process and as outcomes, it would be hard to arrive at any practices that are not temporally and spatially responsible.

    Vienna's growing bike infrastructure, by Sir James (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

  5. A major assumption underpinning planning theory is: the more interdisciplinary the planning approach, the more robust or resilient the outcome will be. This notion that diverse sets of stakeholders within a planning process will inevitably lead to resilient plans is widely accepted. However, this assumption may not be as solid. While interdisciplinary teams can potentially bring diverse expertise to bear on a problem, consider a larger set of challenges and potential solutions, and even think more holistically about scenarios; they are no panacea when it comes to resilience in planning.Based on our experiences, here are some reasons why: 1) on average, interdisciplinary teams engage in longer-term planning time horizons – therefore, by the time the plan is actually built, it may be obsolete, 2) on average, interdisciplinary teams build more ‘bulkier' plans as the number of viewpoints to include are greater – leading to plans that are grand, yet lack specifics on implementation, and 3) on average, interdisciplinary teams are often employed in building of strategic (high-level) plans rather than tactical or operational plans – we have already seen a decline in interest to build three or five year plans as predictions of future states is difficult. Consider if you have actually witnessed an interdisciplinary plan or planning process that was actually resilient?
  6. Another highly adaptive collective life form, bacteria, structure their colony resiliency using adaptive processes that utilize collective sensing of changing conditions, collective access to the information, and collaborative and nonhierarchical decision-making and task assignment. We see many systemic improvements in urban infrastructure such as smart city applications as well as collaborative planning as functionally similar strategies. However, some forms of collaborative planning can damage resiliency in planning processes, plans, and physical environments because they use collective processes for only broad, information-gathering or public comment purposes. More resilient planning brings the people responsible for utilizing and living within the results or artifacts of plans (buildings, roads, commercial areas) into direct and flexible experimentation and design for their future adaptations.  The failure of design and planning processes to adequately involve local stakeholders results in less resilient places if basic feedback functions are lacking that support learning, adaptability, and consequent resilience.

Given these points, resilient planning very quickly mimics Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle where it is impossible to simultaneously know a particle's location and its trajectory. With planning we can design resilient processes to adapt to changing conditions and functional needs, but we then give up our ability to stay on target towards a preferred or perhaps optimal outcome. This could potentially prevent any closing of the process or any actual implementation. By contrast, we can hypothesize planning procedures to yield certain target results or parameters, but we must then be constantly reorienting and adjusting the process towards that desired end which limits process creativity, inclusivity, and democracy.

Currently, many U.S. localities have a two tiered system where public planning processes are increasingly inclusive, but the process by which projects are approved are more utilitarian and top-down in actual execution. Feedback systems and information flows as typically practiced are both limited and unable to build and improve performance over time, leaving users unable to adapt built artifacts to better suit present and future objectives. With enough time, overall capacity and flexibility can be embedded in place providing more diversity as a pool of potential change trajectories critical for future resilience.

We would love to hear from you.  Here are some questions: 1) How do you evaluate the resilience of plans and artifacts? 2) What tactics/practices do you think add resilience to the planning and designing process? 3) How do you incorporate the concept of resilience in your daily work practices?

Kevin C. Desouza, PhD is the director of the Metropolitan Institute and an associate professor at the Center for Public Administration and Policy at Virginia Tech. Before joining Virginia Tech, he was an associate professor at the University of Washington (UW) Information School and held adjunct appointments in the UW's College of Engineering and at the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs. He holds a visiting professorship at the Faculty of Economics, University of Ljubljana. Desouza has received over $1.4 million in research funding from both private and government organizations. For more information, please visit:

Trevor Flanery is a doctoral student, Jaimy Alex is a graduate student, and Eric Park is an undergraduate student, in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. Trevor, Jaimy, and Eric are summer research associates at the Metropolitan Institute.

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