Theory and Practice of Building Community Resilience to Extreme Events

Dr Sandra Engstrom, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling

Dr Tony Robertson, Faculty of Natural Sciences, University of Stirling

Adaptation and Resilience are key themes of COP26, and will be critical to withstanding the challenges of a climate-changed future. But how can communities build resilience to extreme events? Dr Sandra Engstrom and Dr Tony Robertson explore some key considerations.

Hello, everyone, my name is Dr Sandra Engstrom and I’m here with Dr Tony Robertson, and we are from the Extremes in Science and Society research group at the University of Stirling.  

We were part of a joint project that was looking at the Theory and Practise of Building Community Resilience to Extreme Events. We were looking at extreme events in a wide variety of definitions but considering what’s going on now, we could probably think about this as linking to aspects of climate change. 

So, a little bit of background, we were looking at community resilience, because community resilience represents the ability of communities to use their available resources to prepare for, respond to, endure, and recover from extreme events such as floods or other natural disasters, economic shocks, things like Covid-19 and other large events that would impact a community. 

We believe that communities are working with local resources alongside local expertise to help themselves and others to prepare, respond to and to recover from emergencies. 

It’s quite difficult to define community resilience too concretely. A lot of academic literature has recently moved away from developing a one size fits all definition and instead aims to identify the common elements that make a community resilient.  

In 2017, some other researchers and academics looked at all the literature and research that’s been done around community resilience, and they identified 9 core elements that make up community resilience: they found that local knowledge was really important – local knowledge of the community; the networks and relationships that are already in place; the communication that is around and between the community and all other people that might be in touch with them; the overall health of the communities – physical, emotional and mental health; how the community is governed- the leadership structure of that community; what resources they have available to them; what economic or financial investment is also present; how prepared they are for things like floods or, as we now know Covid-19; and overall mental outlook. There are a lot of other frameworks and definitions out there, but these are just some of them. 

But despite a wide range of definitions and studies into community resilience, there is a lack of clarity about what community practise and policy stakeholders understand it to represent and how communities can practically develop such resilience and some of these elements. What we decided to do was to identify models of good practise and community resilience to extreme events and use that to inform approaches across policy practise and research so that we look to locally, nationally, and internationally for some of these examples. 

We held two workshops with over 80 attendees from across policy practise in academia; attendees were involved with Scottish government, community groups in rural areas, connected to the local authority, or to different local authorities and people WHO have worked overseas. We did a lot of brainstorming and discussion around the meaning of community resilience meant to these individuals, what practise had they seen, what did experiences they have. Different themes were picked up in these workshops and from there, we chose approx. 12 individuals to interview and to go further depth into what they think about community resilience, how they would define it, what they see is good practise, what they think still needs to be done and how to develop community resilience. 

I’m going to pass it over to Dr Tony Robertson who is going to talk more about the themes that came up from the workshops and the interviews. 

Thanks, Sandra.  Based on our workshops, but also the interviews which are currently being analysed, many of the same themes have been emerging in interview transcripts.  We came across seven key elements of what community resilience might be, based on what our respondents in the workshops and interviews had talked about, particularly thinking about the practical aspects of community resilience based on people’s previous experiences: 

First off are social ties and connections. By this we’re thinking about the formation of social ties and bonds based on this concept known as social capital, which are the networks around us that allow societies to function in a better way. What are the things that bring us together? Our interests, our cultures, where we live, where we go to school, our types of jobs, the sports we practice, the spaces we might use, things like community gardens or food banks and sometimes the language that we use, as well as being a bond that connects us.  These ties and connections can be informal: having a gossip, going to the pub, but they can also be more formal too, whereby we have formalised discussions with local authorities or people in positions of power. But at its root it’s about getting to know the people and identifying ways of creating a collective consciousness within our communities.  

The second element of community resilience we identified was this idea around experience and shared memory. This is thinking about whereby we already have quite a decent research evidence and local knowledge about the importance of this idea of shared identity, particularly around value and power and power dynamics – how people often have attachments, particularly to a place, and that’s something that kind of brings them together in something they can share and discuss about what it’s been like in the past and what it might be like in the future. This kind of makes things like communal spaces and symbols of community of particular importance when we’re thinking about building community resilience. However, we still have gaps in this kind of knowledge around what’s the difference between urban and rural resilience and how those manifest themselves, the dynamics of how we create shared narratives or how we can facilitate some of this and how it works over the long term. Typically, we kind of see snapshots of people in their environments and communities. So, we need to kind of follow people for a longer period of time to try to better understand. Best practise that was mentioned a lot was around having clear future plans for communities, helping to create and celebrate the shared identity that we have, but also share and acknowledge the differences as well. We need to learn from failure, and we need to communicate these failures in particular to future generations in order to build that kind of shared memory and have a long-lasting impact. 

The third element is leadership engagement and shared responsibility. While the term leadership can be contested as a term and as a concept, it can be difficult to define who leaders are and what leadership really means; these can potentially also lead to things like power imbalances -so community members and those in the statutory sector, who work for the NHS or the emergency services. This can lead to clashes about who is the leader in the community. Respondents at our workshop were particularly interested in exploring this idea of leadership being recognised and promoted at all levels, focussing on collaboration and community responses. While some organisations can be there to help put actions into place, particularly after extreme events like a flood or some kind of disaster, the communities themselves have to be the core of the leadership model, using the resources that are available to them from these other more statutory organisations, these anchor organisations that exist and surrounding the communities. 

The fourth element was around this idea of mindset and collective thinking and having an openness to adapt and bring in cultural change. This is about encouraging opportunities for everyone in the community to have a voice and be listened to. There must an openness within that to adapt, for example, incorporating new technologies and a willingness to change the existing culture of a community as well – so not just harking back to what it was like in the past as being the best response. Some evidence gaps remain in regard to how new technologies and things like automation may be limiting or damaging resilience through, for example, creating isolation, but as we’ve seen during the pandemic, can also improve the chances of minimising isolation based on things like video technology. 

The fifth key element that we came across was this idea of integration, exclusivity, equity, and diversity. This is the range or variety of people, in the definitions that are classed as community. Communities have traditionally focussed on places and what we call communities of geography. But this has shifted to much wider definitions with things like the Internet and social media bringing people together in many more diverse ways than has happened in the past. Obviously, there are positives to moving to new and merging networks, but also negatives:  we might lose things like cultural heritage, if we move away from the place-based definitions. Resilient communities should have value in space for these differences and value each member’s own identity as well. This can allow more proactive forms of participation and developing change to progress from that.  

Six element was the idea of communication, social support, and coordination – the importance of more cooperation typically from local communities in giving and sharing information typically from those more statutory types of organisations. while many organisations have moved to online communication, particularly during extreme events like the Covid pandemic, particularly the early stages. and currently we’re still seeing that, there can be a level of distrust and disconnect that comes from these means without seeing people face to face and we must be aware of that. Communities need to be trusted to form themselves – we simply cannot automatically create these. They have to become somewhat organic, and we may need more coordination from these kind of statutory anchor organisations and governments, local authorities, to help support that process.  

And finally, there is the idea of training and identifying local needs in particular, probably focussed more on a practical way around thinking about what is it the communities need to learn and how are they able to learn? There’s currently a risk that we do not routinely identify who has the local knowledge and what those local needs are. Considering examples from past events is one way to help develop suitable training for communities and practitioners to identify and act on the strengths and weaknesses of each community. During the discussions that we had with our respondents, gaps were identified, particularly around what we call benchmarking so what are minimum levels of standards that different communities might have, reimagining standard approaches that could be specific to communities, remodelling what we already know and make it specific to those that need it, and also, a lack of resources and access to existing resources to support all of these communities.  

There are strengths and weaknesses across all these seven key elements of characteristics we might have with community resilience. 

If you’re interested in learning more about this project, the work that Sandra and I and the rest of the team are doing, and you can visit our website, which is here on the screen, 

You can email both myself and Sandra if you’d like to get a bit more detail about what we will be doing in terms of research and we’ve also got on our Twitter handles there for myself, for Sandra and for the research programme as well.  

We thank you for your time in listening and watching this presentation. We look forward to any questions that you may have to come into the email or the website or our Twitter accounts. 

Theme by the University of Stirling