The Secret to Community Resilience

Street scene in historic Cabbagetown, a neighborhood in Atlanta. Credit:  Mmann1988 [CC-BY-2.0].

Street scene in historic Cabbagetown, a neighborhood in Atlanta. Credit: Mmann1988 [CC-BY-2.0].

Do you love the community you live in? Have you ever wondered why some neighborhoods last a hundred years while others fall by the wayside? Read on to unlock the secret to community resilience.

Furnace of Affliction

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “resilient” is used to describe the capacity of materials, like iron or cotton.

Resilient: tending to resume the original shape or position after being bent, compressed, or stretched; hard-wearing because of being able to recover after the application of force or pressure.

People playing chess in Tenderloin, a historic San Francisco neighborhood. Credit: jjron [GFDL 1.2].

People playing chess in Tenderloin, a historic San Francisco neighborhood. Credit: jjron [GFDL 1.2].

In the context of communities—neighborhoods or cities—this definition is quite evocative. For you to even gauge the level of your community’s resilience it must first be bent, compressed, stretched, forced, or pressured. You can never know if an object will resume its original shape if it is never stretched.

And so it is with the places we live: community resilience is won by consistently surviving the furnace of affliction. Sounds fun, right?

Resilient Not Resistant

Your community might be bent internally when the city tries to make inappropriate changes to a community center. On the flip side, your neighborhood could be pressured externally by developers seeking to “revitalize” your area by replacing all the old buildings with a newfangled strip mall.

So does this mean that resilient communities are the ones that fight the hardest against change?

This would be a reasonable conclusion since historic preservationists are often stereotyped as hating all community change or progress—“they just want things to stay the same forever.”

But this is a perversion, as preservation principles actually engender resilience, not resistance. For example, regulated local historic districts don’t ban or resist new construction or additions; instead, they bend to allow construction that maintains or enhances the community’s historic character. The practice of preservation is all about people coming together and making compromises for the good of the community, not being dogmatically resistant to change.

Detroit skyline at night. Credit: Shakil Mustafa [CC-BY-SA-3.0].

Detroit skyline at night. Credit: Shakil Mustafa [CC-BY-SA-3.0].

The figurative use of “resilient” helps illuminate the contrast with “resistant,” if you think about it from a community perspective:

Resilient, fig.: tending to recover quickly or easily from misfortune, shock, illness, or the like; buoyant, irrepressible; adaptable, robust, hardy.

When a neighborhood attempts to be resistant—completely unyielding to forces of change—it will always lose out in the end because change is inevitable. But those communities that adapt to changes in their environment and learn to recover quickly from misfortune will stand the test of time. They will be resilient.

How to be Resilient

If resilience is good (and resistance is bad), then how can your community become more resilient?

The secret to enduring community resilience is to make your locale special or unique, to the point that your neighbors have a feeling of authentic human attachment and belonging. In short, resilient communities are true to their heritage and offer a genuine sense of place to their inhabitants.

Although “sense of place” can be consciously manufactured by private developers or central planning by local governments, this phenomenon most often occurs organically over decades and centuries. That’s why saving historic places is so vital—you can’t speed up time and you can’t rebuild history.


This article was originally posted as a guest blog at Resilient Heritage and is reblogged here unaltered, except for the final paragraph.


Clint Tankersley is a Georgia attorney specializing in cultural heritage law. Read his bio here.