Why Resilience Matters

At the Institute for International Urban Development, resilience is core to our work. But what is “resilience,” really? Where did this term come from? Why is it so frequently discussed?

The ubiquity of resilience in development circles has led many to believe it’s a meaningless buzzword, a crutch used to denote some magical solution to the problems of climate change and urbanization. The proliferation of frameworks and theories on resilience over the last few decades, however necessary, create a sort of numbness around the term. It’s important, therefore, to reorient ourselves with the idea of resilience – not just what it means, but where it comes from and why it exists – before diving back into its practical usage.

A Brief Etymology

Resilience, as we know it today, originated outside the realm of traditional social science. In 1973, CS Holling formally introduced his conception of resilience into the field of ecology. Applied to natural ecosystems, Holling’s resilience “determines the persistence of relationships within a system” and their “ability to absorb changes of state variables, driving variables, and parameters, and still persist.” Holling’s conception of ecosystems that persisted by absorbing and adapting to changes was in direct opposition to contemporary mainstream ecology, which held ecosystem sustainability meant preventing change altogether. Holling also challenged the traditional notion of equilibria-based ecosystems. He argued there was no singular, stable equilibrium ecosystems fought to maintain. Instead, he proposed a dynamic model, one where constant transformation replaced the paradigm of equilibrium.

Soon, this idea of resilience became the foundation for ecosystem and natural resource management. Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, ecologists, ecosystem managers, and public policy specialists contributed to a resilience-based theory of management. This perspective emphasized the following principles: surprise and uncertainty within an ecosystem is inevitable; human institutions play a dynamic role within ecosystems; and resource and ecosystem management requires governments to manage by change – in other words, the ability to adapt should be embedded into institutional structures.

Climate Resilience

Since the 90s, climate change has captured the attention of the international community. It’s a unique problem because of its scope and complication. Whereas many ecological concerns are local and specific, the causes and effects of climate change transcend national boundaries and involve multiple issues (air pollution, deforestation, coastal erosion, flooding, etc.).

This required a more integrative theory of dealing with environmental issues. Indeed, it implicated concerns that previously were not considered in an environmental context. For example, how do we reconcile the fact that a growing economy necessarily produces a larger carbon footprint? Solutions now needed to consider the interplay between social, economic, and environmental outcomes. The language of “sustainability” rose from this reality. In 1994, John Elkington famously proposed the triple bottom line of sustainable development, the full integration of social, economic, and environmental value.

Sustainability is obviously still in vogue, but it’s become less of a doctrine and more of a universally accepted value. You cannot talk about development without mentioning sustainability. Resilience, then, is about how cities progress towards sustainability. Before resilience, ideas of climate adaptation were implemented to achieve sustainability, and adaptation, though connected to resilience, is slightly different in scope. Adaptation refers to the processes undertaken when a threat is imminent or already realized. It is, in other words, reactive. Adaptation is an integral part of resilience, but resilience itself refers to a more inherent quality of dynamism communities need to sustain themselves.

Climate resilience, therefore, is not about singular policy decisions (capping carbon emissions, building coastal defenses, etc.), but about the structural ability of human and environmental institutions to absorb climate threats in an iterative and sustainable way. Climate resilience is integrative, implicating more than just climate policy; it involves the very structure of governments, businesses, and local communities, and their ability to respond positively to threat – or better yet, to view threat as opportunity.

Resilience in Development

The broad social-ecological implications of resilience produce its ever-expanding reach in planning and development today. Yes, resilience means talking about climate change and its impact. But it also inevitably carries considerations regarding the health and sustainability of political and economic institutions. If governments cannot effectively react to natural disasters or sea level rise, if banks and businesses cannot foresee and adapt to potential ecological threats, one coastal defense project is not going to make a large enough difference.

Resilience’s broad applicability is exemplified throughout development today. The OECD defines resilient cities as “cities that have the ability to absorb, recover and prepare for future shocks (economic, environmental, social & institutional).” They also note four areas that drive resilience: economy, governance, society, and environment. The 100 Resilient Cities project, launched by the Rockefeller Foundation, recognizes and awards cities throughout the world that most exemplify resilience today. 100RC notes a broad goal for city resilience, centered on “making a city better, in both good times and bad, for the benefit of all its citizens, particularly the poor and vulnerable.”

Key in this quote is the focus on vulnerable populations. Increased rural-to-urban migration into developing cities forces people to live in unsafe conditions, which are exacerbated by ecological threats. These urban dwellers, who often live in disaster prone areas, face the most danger from flooding and other climate threats. Any resilience perspective is woefully misguided if it doesn’t center this segment of the citizenry in its application.

Cartagena and Condega

From 2012 to 2014, I2UD conducted a comprehensive study on two Latin American cities: Cartagena, Colombia and Condega, Nicaragua. Though the two cities are largely different (Cartagena a port city and a popular tourist destination, Condega a much smaller inland agro-urban town), each faces significant threats due to a changing climate. Before delving into the specific issues of each city, we established a framework to ground our resilience perspective.

Our framework stemmed from conclusions made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but with a greater focus on the most vulnerable urban populations – namely, those living in informal settlements. The framework considers three areas of risk: location-based hazards, socioeconomic vulnerability, and lagging systems and institutions. Again, this highlights the nature of resilience; it’s a goal that requires a holistic approach. In order for a city to become more resilient, it has to implement a confluence of solutions that addresses all three of the aforementioned risk areas.

In Condega, significant locational hazards resulted from an increase in rural-to-urban migration, which caused a growth of informal settlements in landslide and flood prone areas. Populations living in these areas have the highest incidences of extreme poverty, adding significant socioeconomic risk factors. Finally, though Condega has disaster risk management plans, it has no formal group or policy built to address climate change adaptation.

In Cartagena, we found related issues. Due to a burgeoning population, areas previously used for run-off retention and flood control are now used for housing. This, combined with an inadequate drainage system and increasing rainfall, has multiplied the risk for flooding. Considering 80% of Cartagena’s development has occurred via unplanned processes, along with the city’s massive inequality, flooding risks primarily affect vulnerable citizens living in neighborhoods that lack basic services like sanitation and electricity.

For both cities, we proposed solutions that took into consideration each type of risk factor. In Condega, we proposed better water management techniques, controlled spatial economic development, and efficient land relocation. In Cartagena, we proposed green buildings that act as flood buffers, family relocation to safer urban environments, and redevelopment by capturing increasing land values.


It’s sometimes difficult to remove resilience from abstraction, but when we do, we see the purpose of the term: to make us reconsider what “change” ought to mean. Cities are never stable or steady entities. Resilience forces us to accept change not simply as inevitable, but necessary, the only way a city can adequately look out for the shifting needs of its people. Academic frameworks and theories surrounding the term, as profligate as they might seem, help incorporate this mindset into institutional decision-making.

Beginning in 2009, when i2ud presented a paper at the 5th World Bank Symposium titled “Climate Change in the Local Development Agenda: Promoting Resilience through Enhanced Understanding of Early Threats,” our projects have promoted resilience in a wide range of contexts. Along with our work in Cartagena and Condega, our research includes assessments of resilience strategies in vulnerable Belizean coastal communities and an analysis of financing mechanisms for resilient infrastructure in Cali, Colombia. For information on research and lessons learned in these projects and more, please visit our projects page.