Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Building Adaptive Capacity for Resilience in U.S. Coastal Communities

Friday, November 13, 2015 : 1:50 PM
Board Room (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Karen Baehler, American University and Jennifer Biddle, University of North Carolina Wilmington
In the aftermath of too-many high-profile natural disasters in recent years, demand has grown for governance mechanisms that will increase the capacity of the human-built environment to cope with changes in the natural environment. Resilient communities are defined as having the ability to “absorb and/or adapt quickly to change and crisis.” While the concept of resilient communities has emerged largely in response to sudden environmental shocks and fears of future crises, it has important implications for understanding the various forms of steady, gradual deterioration in environmental conditions that threaten sustainability. Building resilience and transitioning into sustainability is a highly complex process that depends on a delicate balance among multiple, interacting elements in the social system (trade, ideas, culture and knowledge), natural or living system (air, water, animals, and plants), and built system (transportation and utility infrastructure, commercial and residential property). Adding to the complexity, interactions between those three systems are mediated through the incentives and powers exercised by the economic and governance systems. The question therefore arises whether or not existing governance capacities are sufficient for addressing “wicked,” socio-environmental problems such as climate change and transitioning toward sustainability.

Research findings to date point to some of the factors that enhance adaptive capacity (social networks, open communication, reduced pollution, cultural diversity), but assessment of the governing structures and processes for building adaptive capacity for resilience is limited. This paper explores what good governance looks like with respect to building adaptive capacity and “social resilience” utilizing a survey of local leaders, including public officials, in three groups of communities: signatories to The Resilient Communities for America (RC4A) agreement, a joint initiative to develop federal policy on climate preparedness; non-signatories from “sustainable cities” identified in previous studies (Portney, 2001; Pierce et. al, 2014; Saavedra et al, 2012); and communities identified as being “at risk” (ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability USA, nd). We explore the degree to which cities’ commitments to resilience are driven from a position that is largely proactive (sustainability focused) or reactive (focused on disaster response). In addition, we explore capacities for adaptive learning (adjusting to changes in internal and external processes) along four paths of resilience identified by RC4A: climate preparedness, energy security, infrastructure renewal, and economic prosperity. Finally, we will study how the resilience indicators relate to indicators of both good governance (based on institutionalization of systems thinking) and capacity building (including networks for social learning and open communication with the community). This paper aims to contribute to an understanding of how communities are (or are not) operationalizing these concepts in practice, and their consequent progress toward resilience.