Book Review: “Resilience Matters”

Review of new ebook (217pp), free from Island Press: Resilience Matters; Reimagining the Future in a Tumultuous Year.

Reviewer: John Plodinec, Ph.D. He was the technical lead for the Community and Regional Resilience Institute and is now an independent scholar focused on community resilience.  He regularly blogs at

Laurie Mazur’s third compilation of articles on urban resilience – Resilience Matters:  Reimagining the Future in a Tumultuous Year – offers the same combination of polemics and practical solutions found in the first two.  But more so than the previous volumes, this one is distinguished by several instances where authors provide conflicting views.  This is actually a good thing because it forces careful readers to think through what is right for their context.

The authors’ various interpretations of resilience provide a good example of this:

“Bounce forward to a fairer, greener future.”

“We build resilience to be more skillful in confronting the systems that have harmed us.”

“…is as much about social and environmental assets as it is about science…”  

“…environmental justice, safe and affordable housing, community infrastructure and economic opportunities…”

“…resilience is all about keeping the threads of community tight and strong…”

The book is divided into three sections, with an Introduction by Laurie Mazur.  As she points out, “2020 was a “teachable moment.”  I wish that this would have been a more consistent theme:  there are, indeed, many lessons to be learned from 2020, especially from our governments’ responses to covid-19.  Unfortunately, many of these articles are either driven by ideology, or are so focused on past injustices that they offer no discernible vision for the future.

The book’s first section – Climate Adaptation, Climate Justice – offers examples of both the best and the worst in this collection; sometimes in the same article.  The very first article (Climate Justice in Frontline Communities) has some excellent recommendations (along the lines of Brenda Phillips’ “First eat the gumbo”) marred – for me – by its opening phrase “as global warming accelerates.”  This is as factually incorrect as the various versions of “more severe storms” or “intensifying hurricanes” or “A warmer planet has made hurricanes more intense and destructive” or “A warmer climate is also melting glaciers and ice sheets and accelerating the rate of sea level rise” sprinkled throughout the collection.  In fact, hurricane intensity has not increased; if anything, tornado intensity has decreased; and sea level rise has remained relatively constant at ~2-3 mm/yr.  The increasing damage done by coastal storms is human-induced:  caused not by climate change but by our increasingly prosperous populace moving to be near the sea.

As you might expect in a section with this title, there is a heavy emphasis on social activism.  While I’m not into that, there are worthwhile examples of how to help philanthropists better heed the voices of the voiceless.  Unfortunately, too many of the authors seem to believe that this is a special condition of people of color – ignoring the fact that there are twice as many whites living in poverty as African Americans, and who are facing the same challenges of poor food, poor health and poor housing. 

The two articles in this section on water were useful, one on indoor plumbing and the other on water quality.  I found the articles on wildfires and making ag more climate-friendly somewhat ironic:  these are not really urban issues, and the treatments were rather superficial.  However, the take on wildfires as causing urban pollution was good.  The section’s last article on the Trump Administration’s proposals to improve the NEPA process is the type of “Orange Man Bad” rant so typical of the last four years.  Having been a primary author of an Environmental Assessment and a contributor to Environmental Impact Statements, I have seen what was once a useful tool for risk management become an overly-legalistic and bureaucratic barrier to progress.  One can condemn the Administration’s attempt to improve the process, but this article offers no suggestions for improvement.

The first article (It’s Time to Talk about Moving Cities in the Face of Climate Change) in the book’s second section – Sustainable Cities for All – is thought-provoking and worth reading more than once.  It both puts the question and provides context in an even-handed manner.

The second article in this section is even better.  It provides a nicely done look at the Basque Autonomous Region in Spain.  I wish that many of the other authors had read the conclusion (“is another way possible”).  The author points out the progress made – and not made (unusually high per capita incomes, but 9% unemployment, and almost 30% youth unemployment).  One of the key components of the Basque success is its social coherence and shared values.  While I firmly believe that “Today, in the ‘global society’ it is ‘the local’ that embodies real hopes that another world is possible,” social coherence and shared values are prerequisites to realizing that hope.  And in today’s world of identity politics, our social fabric is being stretched and stressed, and there seems diminishing evidence of any shared values.

Overall, I found this the most useful section with its rules for cities bracing for change, a nice discussion of urban waterways and several other useful articles focusing on various infrastructures.  I’m not sure why the article on jay-walking snuck in, however.

Personally, I found the editor’s muddling together of sustainability and resilience a bit off-putting.  Sustainability is about the efficient use of resources (see the Brundtland Commission’s definition), while resilience is about having and using resources to rapidly recover, efficiency be damned.  While the two are not incompatible they’re not the same thing; one’s all about the path and the other about the destination.

The third section – Covid-19:  Threats and Opportunities – was both timely and untimely.  The first article (by Ann Kinzig and Shade Shutters) exemplifies the section’s timeliness, raising important questions about health and health care that the pandemic has brought to the fore.  Untimely, because we are still in the throes of the pandemic, watching it (hopefully) wind down.  In my own work, I have raised several of the same questions, but I’ve tried to take care not to answer them until we’ve seen the final credits of this movie.  

Several of the articles in this section were written a year ago, thus my caveat.  Posited potential impacts have sometimes not been felt; many more lessons have been learned that can point us toward more targeted and nuanced approaches for the future.  The call for more transportation funding here has been more than answered. We have not yet figured out how to weigh the value of green spaces in a time of massive lockdowns.  We know housing is an issue, but we have not yet looked at the impacts of the pandemic on both renters and landlords – in most cases, both are “Little Guys” caught in a bureaucratic system not of their making.  We have not yet teased out the impacts of federal and state actions – and lack of action – on the progress of the pandemic.   

As I’ve said before, I read this sort of book to find solutions I can use or recommend for increasing community resilience.  This is the third of these collections I have reviewed.  I concluded my review of the previous book “I can neither condemn nor recommend this tidy collection (this one’s not as tidy).  If the polemics don’t bother you, there are some valuable nuggets here.  If you’d prefer pronouncements on policy independent of partisanship, then you might not want to bother.”  For good or ill, just as true for this collection.


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