Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Hartmut Fünfgeld, Martin Mulligan, Wendy Steele, and Lauren Rickards

Hartmut Fünfgeld, Martin Mulligan, Wendy Steele, and Lauren Rickards

Harald Fünfgeld, Martin Mulligan, Wendy Steele, and Lauren Rickards are researches at the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, at RMIT University. In the Centre for Urban Research they conduct urban research in eight inter-disciplinary research programs, cut-crossing three intersecting research themes: Housing and Homelessness, Urban and Regional Planning, and Sustainability and Climate Change.

Apr 6th 2016 by Hartmut Fünfgeld, Martin Mulligan, Wendy Steele, and Lauren Rickards

Everyone talks about community resilience, but what do they mean?

Across policy domains, calls are echoing for ‘building community resilience’ or ‘making communities more resilient’ in the face of climate change and global environmental and economic crises. Communities need to ‘get up’ to become stronger and more able to withstand external shocks – or at least that seems to be the tenor underpinning much of the political spin around community resilience. Across the world, people working in government agencies and community-based organizations are being asked to ensure that local communities become more resilient to shocks and stresses, ranging from natural disasters and violent extremism to loss of employment, mounting debts, and largely hidden forms of social isolation.

However, this is more than just reassuring policy rhetoric. When you combine two ambiguous concepts such as ‘community’ and ‘resilience’, you get a linguistic construct that can mean almost anything to anyone. And that malleability is problematic when considering that community resilience really is the word of the day for many governments around the world, including the Australian Government, who are currently investing in developing community resilience as part of various strategies and programs, including the National Disaster Resilience Grant Scheme.

In a recently published paper, we highlight the complexities of both ‘community’ and ‘resilience’ and ponder what happens when both terms are combined in unreflected ways that have the ability to hide and, at the same time, blur political agendas. The term community conjures up connotations of social harmony, where people interact in a given place, join forces towards a public good, and are generally supportive of each other. This interpretation is, of course, hopelessly exaggerated but still resonates strongly with many of us when we do things like organize ‘community festivals’; when we read about ‘strong community spirit’ in the aftermath of natural disasters; or when we move to a new suburb because we believe there is a good sense of community there.

As a key word in the English language, community is a term that ‘never seems to be used unfavorably’. Sociologists, however, have agonized over the multiple and often conflicting meanings of ‘community’ for decades, pointing out that communities are always made up of a diversity of people, with much more diverging interests than the ideal suggests. Moreover, these days, the meaning of community has been extended and stretched by the major processes of social transformation – industrialisation, globalisation, and the global knowledge economy. Communities used to be largely local in nature. In the 21st century, communities exist as virtually connected networks of people, such as professional networks linked by professional standards, conferences and e-mail exchanges, or ‘linked-in’ virtual social communities where members are purely engaging with each other via their smart phone or laptop hooked up to the internet. Communities are no longer identifiable with our eyes; they are increasingly ‘imagined’ – and people are members of multiple communities at the same time.

Resilience itself is an amorphous and highly contested concept that can mean a lot of different things to different people"

What does this mean for understanding ideas about community resilience? First of all, resilience itself is an amorphous and highly contested concept that can mean a lot of different things to different people.

Most commonly it is still used to signify communities recovering quickly (‘bouncing back’) in the aftermath of an external disturbance, such as a natural disaster or economic shock. The widespread rhetoric here is that, first of all, it is good if communities can recover quickly, and secondly, it is even better if they can recover back to their previously held status and functions. Both of these goals of resilience are commonly found in resilience policy documents, yet they are, of course, hotly contested. They, along with other assumptions such as communities needing to ‘take their future into their own hands’, can be challenged as value-based goals that may well be in the interest of some community members but not of others, and most certainly not in the interest of all stakeholders (as often suggested) involved in such community resilience efforts.

In recent years, there has been a lot of critique of the resilience concept, mainly originating from academics, while resilience continues to rise in popularity among policymakers.

#CommunityResilience says that people can and should take their future into their own hands #migration @hfuenfgeld

Community resilience seems to ride right at the top of that popularity wave, and that is no surprise. Community resilience conveys a positive message that resonates strongly and directly with a ‘Yes, we can’ attitude. Among many other messages, community resilience says that people can and should take their future into their own hands, that they can and should be responsible citizens, and that we all need to do our bit to make our city, region or nation stronger, more able to compete within a global market, and ready to deal with ever more environmental disasters triggered by climate change and other forms of global environmental change.

While such a call to arms may indeed be required to tackle global crises, it begs the question who should in fact shoulder the majority of such strengthening work. A community resilience framing suggests that it is groups of people, organized in communities. Yet embracing that view also means being aware of the many different views, values, and voices that exist in any community, which need to be articulated, discussed, and negotiated to find some common ground for building resilience. Not an easy feat at all, but one that all resilience practitioners know is critical if the goal is to make communities stronger and more rather than less equitable.

This blog post was based on the article Keywords in planning: what do we mean by “community resilience”?, which was co-authored by Hartmut Fünfgeld, Martin Mulligan, Wendy Steele, and Lauren Rickards at the Centre for Urban Research, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University.


Image Credit: Community work, Thailand, Till Rockenbauch/TransRe // Ofunato, Japan after a tsunami, March 2011, DVIDSHUB under CC BY 2.0 // Collaborative mapping, London 2015, Neil Cummings under CC BY-SA 2.0 // Watershed Management Project, Haiti December 2011, United Nations Development Program under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0