Comparing urban resilience governance across cities

Blog by Mary Fastiggi, Sara Meerow and Thaddeus R. Miller

16 Mar 2020, 9:40 a.m.
Mary Fastiggi, Sara Meerow and Thaddeus R. Miller



In recent years resilience has become a buzzword in urban research and practice. Many cities are developing resilience plans, policies, and positions, often supported through initiatives such as the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities or National League of Cities Leadership in Community Resilience. Numerous academic articles in this journal and others have also been published on urban resilience. Yet, few studies have compared how diverse cities – with different populations, resources, challenges, and funding mechanisms – are structuring and coordinating their resilience efforts.


Our new study addresses this gap. This research evolved out of conversations with city officials in Portland, Oregon in the U.S. who were developing their own resilience initiatives and were interested in how other cities were organizing resilience work and what lessons they could learn from their successes and failures. We interviewed city officials (e.g. Chief Resilience Officers (CROs) or Sustainability Directors) from 20 North American cities about how they define resilience, organize resilience staff, programs, and policies, and collaborate internally and externally. We co-produced the interview questions and the list of cities together with staff from Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. We also wrote up a preliminary report for the city based on the first 14 interviews.


In our article, we compare practitioners’ insights from 20 city interviews with theorized characteristics of successful urban resilience governance from the academic literature. We find that theory and practice agree on the importance of clearly defining resilience, leadership, and stakeholder engagement, but practitioners are more focused on limitations and trade-offs related to different governance choices, such which department(s) resilience programs are based in. We identify avenues for future research on urban resilience governance where theory and practice diverge.


While not the focus of our article, we also identify five key findings for practice based on our research:


1. Establish a clear, contextualized definition and scope: Definitions of resilience vary and it is important to establish a definition that is widely understood and supported by city officials and the public. Take the time to negotiate the definition and scope of resilience programs with stakeholders, assess what work has already been started, and seek to understand vulnerabilities with data-driven rigor. Definitions evolve over time, and when they do, they generally seem to incorporate a broader array of shocks and stressors, focus more on equity, and to be more transformational.


2. Bring communities into the process: In addition to working with communities to come up with a contextualized definition of resilience, aim to build trust, listen to residents, and carefully communicate risks to ensure long-term buy in, sustained interest, and resources for resilience efforts.


3. Champion the agreed-upon vision: Strong leadership among city executives, departmental champions, and external organizations are critical to success. Those cities and staff that felt they had been successful in integrating resilience across bureaus had found ways to get city staff and bureau leadership to commit time and staff to resilience planning and implementation and had clearly assigned roles.


4. Balance a centralized and dispersed approach: There is a clear tension between a more centralized (e.g., CRO and resilience office) and dispersed approach (resilience integrated across departments) to resilience governance. Ideally, the coordinating power of a centralized office or position is combined with a focus on collaboration across governmental bureaus and with the community.


5. Recognize tradeoffs in organizational placement: There are political and strategic costs to housing resilience within different existing bureaus. For example, some CROs that were initially in sustainability departments found it difficult to expand the resilience conversation beyond environmental issues. Placing resilience staff at management levels where they can directly engage with city leadership can be helpful, but also makes them more vulnerable to political turnover.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst:



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k k posted at 01:23 17/02/2022

Recently, more has been done to bring people of color into the political game. It is exciting to see the results of a long time injustice finally making headway in large cities and states. You would be surprised to see the amount of firsts for people of color becoming mayors, governors, and senates. Michele Wu just recently became the first woman and person of color to become the mayor of Boston. She is the daughter of Tiwanese immigrants and considered a political progressive. Another example of these great steps forward for people of color is Winsome Sears. She is a black woman to become the first lieutenant governor of Virginia. Not only was she the first black governor, but the first female veteran and first female legal immigrant. Her race for governor highlighted diversity, which is important to add.

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