Notable Journal Article on Local Government and Resilience

Usually the Diva features book reviews, but recently she read a journal article that piqued her interest and she shared it with another reader who is interested in resilience. She usually posts citations that are in the public domain, but this article is really special. This article is copyrighted, so please see your local university library for a copy.

Review of: Rating the Cities: Constructing a City Resilience Index for Assessing the Effect of State and Local Laws on Long-Term Recovery from Crisis and Disaster, by John Travis Marshall (Tulane Law Review: 90 Tul. L. Rev. 35 (2015)

Reviewed by: Dr. John Plodinec, Associate Director, Resilience Technologies for CARRI

One of the reasons that I follow the Recovery Diva blog is Claire’s uncanny ability to find papers and articles that I don’t stumble across on my own.  A few weeks ago, she pointed us all to an article by John Travis Marshall (Georgia State University School of Law), called “Rating the Cities:  Constructing a City Resilience Index…”  Knowing my interest in resilience, she asked me to take a look at the article and share my thoughts.

It’s a well-written article that focuses on the resilience of local government – the legal framework (laws, regulations and legal institutions) of a community.  Marshall begins by spotlighting the problematic recoveries from Katrina, Rita and Sandy.  He points out that many of these arose because local government was unable – did not have the capacity necessary – to marshal the resources to plan and achieve an effective recovery.  He builds a good case that the problems he identifies were foreseeable and should have been foreseen.

He then posits that a City Resilience Index (CRI) would be a useful tool to move communities to become more resilient.  The CRI thus should “evaluate the range of [local] governmental community capacities that are critical for implementing long-term disaster recovery efforts by states, the federal government,” and other sources of resources.  While he acknowledges that recovery requires the involvement of non-governmental organizations as well and states that the intent is to eventually expand the CRI beyond government, it is not clear how this will be done.  It is also not clear how the CRI is actually calculated.

The great strength of the paper is that it is probably the only attempt to systematically assess the resilience (=ability to recover quickly from crisis) of local government – a very valuable step forward In evaluating a community’s resilience.  However, by looking only at local government initially, there is a real danger that important interdependencies in actual communities will be missed.  While I’m not a big fan of any of the resilience indices that have been developed so far (including the one I developed for CARRI) most of them started with the “Whole Community” concept.  Their creators implicitly or explicitly recognized that, as Betty Morrow has said, a community is only as resilient as its weakest part. If local government is the weakest link then making it more resilient is of the greatest importance.  However, if the business sector, for example, is the weakest link then actions to “fix” local government may be of only marginal value in improving the community’s resilience.

Marshall envisions his CRI fulfilling three purposes:

  1. Evaluating the laws and institutions that would enable a city to recover quickly from disaster.
  2. Measuring the contribution of the laws and institutions to recovery, and thus providing a comparison of communities.
  3. Tracking a city’s resilience over time.

This brings up several questions that I hope that Marshall will address in subsequent papers.  For example,

Who will be the users?  As a citizen of my city I care about both response and recovery – don’t we need to have both represented?  Will the same index be useful for all of potential users identified by Marshall (personally, I doubt it will)?

Marshall seems to implicitly assume that capacities demonstrated during normal conditions are reliable indicators of performance in the far from normal conditions after a disaster.  In my experience, however, bureaucracies that are normally efficient tend to be less flexible.  This is consistent with the observation that the demand for building permits and inspections extremely stresses city housing offices.  How justified is Marshall’s assumption?

How reliable is an index – a roll up of several attributes – as a predictor of resilience?  And even if the index is a good predictor it might be difficult for a government official to know how to correct a low score – the components of the CRI likely would be more informative because they would point toward specific actions to be taken.

How is the role of the state reflected in a city’s actions?  As Marshall acknowledges in discussing eminent domain issues in Louisiana after Katrina,  state laws and regulations can either help or hinder a community’s recovery from disaster.  Some time ago I wrote a post about Dillon’s Rule (the legal basis for state Home Rule legislation) and community resilience.  Given the widely differing amount of Home Rule granted to communities by state legislatures across the US, shouldn’t this factor be explicitly represented in a CRI?

Marshall’s CRI (in this initial version) is focused on a jurisdiction’s ability to successfully implement long-term recovery programs.  There are no convenient metrics for this so Marshall has to use surrogates as indicators of a local government’s resilience.  In this paper he chooses to focus on housing and community development – certainly important parts of community resilience.

Marshall discusses four indicators in detail:  a city’s ability to implement federal community development block grant programs, its ability to pursue redevelopment objectives with federal state and private entities, the capacity of land use banks and vacant property management agencies, and state prohibitions against use of eminent domain.  While Marshall justifies each of these I was left puzzled by what wasn’t chosen:

Leadership:  In times of crisis a community looks to its elected leaders to cut through the “Fog of War” and re-establish some sort of normalcy.    As I have said many times before, there are three important components of community resilience – leadership, leadership, and … leadership.  There are several components of leadership; e.g., trust, confidence, respect, empathy.  If we are to understand the role that local government plays in the resilience of a community we have to assess the contribution of its leadership (And who knows?  That understanding might even carry over into electing better leaders – or at least we can dream that it would!).

Risk:  What is the risk profile of the community?

Building codes:  Lack of appropriate building codes (and especially lack of enforcement) can mean the difference between crisis and disaster.  On a deeper level, enforcement of appropriate building codes indicates a city leadership with an awareness of risk and a willingness to spend to hedge that risk.

People:  How well-staffed are the city offices that will be highly stressed by a disaster?  A city’s office for building permits, for example, may be highly effective and efficient during normal times but may quickly break down and actually hinder recovery from a disaster if it is not staffed to meet the increased demand.

Financial resources:  Getting federal and state assistance is important as Marshall discusses.  However, what is the insurance profile of the community?  The ISO rating of a community subject to wind, flooding or fire would seem to be an important indicator as well.

Marshall’s work is a valuable first step toward understanding how local government contributes to the resilience of the community.  He deserves great credit for trying to climb such a steep mountain where there is no track to guide him.  In this respect, Marshall is a sort of John the Baptist pointing to a new direction in resilience science.  I may find his treatment incomplete but I greatly respect his foray along an uncharted path.

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