What makes a resilient town?

noelito
6 min readFeb 17, 2024

Our communities are becoming more and more transient — with people from other countries and generations moving in and businesses and classes moving out. Our lives are also becoming increasingly transient — with people having to move from job to job and in many cases from one lifestyle to another. Other people are trapped, in their neighbourhoods, since they can’t afford to move anywhere else, but also because they depend so much on their neighbours for support, or that others depend on them.

We should be mindful of the fine line between trying to preserve a community in aspic and letting it be destroyed by external forces. We should look at what makes communities resilient and how we can help them navigate and influence the changes they experience.

I’ve written about how communities, groups and organisations can navigate change, so I was excited about @clestweets report on resilient towns.

Resilient towns are those which have the ability to respond to challenges they face, to be adaptable and flexible in the face of change.

What are the factors which influence resilient town:

  1. Shared civic identity and vision for the future
  2. Strong relationships between different groups
  3. Access to assets and infrastructure, like physical space & broadband
  4. Diversity of functions and businesses, from office to cultural space
  5. Analysis of the social makeup and changes, demographic or economic
  6. Level of connection of the area with other localities, through transport & broadband

The CLES resilience model explores the assets and relationships which places have between the public, commercial, and social sectors and how that shapes the functioning of their economies. How about using this for local authorities to identify how they build and attract economic growth and dare I say their policy on business rates?

  1. Independent towns have a high number of public, commercial and social economy assets in relation to their population; a strong diversity of jobs; and residents travel shorter distances to travel to work and study. These towns will attract people from neighbouring towns to access their assets and jobs.
  2. An interdependent town will sit somewhere between independent and dependent towns. For some public, commercial and social economy assets it may have a high number in relation to its population and for others a low number. A balance of people will work and study in the town with others reliant on neighbouring towns.
  3. Independent to Interdependent towns have a good number of assets in relation to their population. These towns have a good diversity of jobs; and residents on the whole travel shorter distances to travel to work and study. These towns attract people from neighbouring towns to access some of their assets and jobs.
  4. Interdependent to Independent towns have a good number of assets in relation to their population. They have some diversity of jobs; and residents largely travel shorter distances to work and study, although some travel longer distances. These towns attract people from neighbouring towns to access some of their assets and jobs.
  5. Interdependent towns have a medium number of assets in relation to their population; average diversity of jobs; and residents travel a mix of short and long distances to travel to work and study. These towns are attractors of people from neighbouring towns who come to access some assets and jobs but they are also reliant on neighbouring towns for other assets and jobs.
  6. Interdependent to Dependent towns have a low number of assets in relation to their population. They have some diversity of jobs; and residents travel largely longer distances to work and study, although some travel shorter distances. They are reliant on neighbouring towns for some assets and jobs.
  7. Dependent to Interdependent towns have a low number of assets in relation to their population. They have a poor diversity of jobs; and residents on the whole travel longer distances to work and study. They are reliant on neighbouring towns for some assets and jobs.
  8. Dependent towns have a low number of assets in relation to their population; a reliance on one sector for jobs; and residents travel longer distances to work and study. They are reliant on neighbouring towns for assets and jobs.

If this model maps resilience of towns, how can you create resilience amongst and between the communities that live there? If you consider that every individual has different value modes and capabilities, then there will be people in that community that will cope better with the systems change and others who won’t.

Creating “in-between spaces”

How about knitting and knotting together complementary activities that sit at the intersection between the formal and the informal economy?

Should we value the spaces in between the formal & informal economy to rehearse behaviours and ways of living that foreshadow alternatives. After all, “fiction becomes reality when people choose to invest in it”.

Power as resilience

If we compare this with the “Power Gap”, we can see that a town’s power is an important element of its resilience.

1. How does power can change in times of crisis?

Your level of education can’t drop, but your occupational status and income definitely can. What happens when you get the sack? What’s the relative power of an unemployed graduate versus a shop assistant in work? This links back to power defined as resilience which is a central theme in Sinking and Swimming, with a greater focus here on the sociological aspects of setbacks.

For example, when you’re unemployed, does the aggregate power of your social networks become more important — i.e. graduates living with their parents so they don’t need to pay rent or friends being able to find you a job where they work?

This may explain why household income is used as a measure rather than personal income and plays a big role when you look at the “poverty premium” people pay when their household income is very low.

During the miners strike, the mining communities became very powerful places even though their occupational status and income was very low. Is this because they had a strong sense of belonging with both social networks around them they could rely on and trust?

Individuals and social groups don’t all have the same capacity to formulate and disseminate values that are necessary to them to express their existence.

2. What happens when there is a majority of people experiencing a sense of powerless in a community?

Communities develop a shared memory which grows through shared experiences, particularly through shared suffering — such as powerlessness — which becomes harder to forget.

This “communalisation” takes place when social relations are based on the emotional feeling of belonging. Socialisation on the other hand takes place when these are founded on a social contract. Where the social contract has either been broken or cannot be agreed, communalisation will take over. It is these pockets that populism seeps into.

What the members of any community have in common is less important to them than their relation to other groups. When such a community realises that “we aren’t suffering from excess of civil disobedience, we’re suffering from excess of civil obedience“, its relations with those in power will become conflictual. That community will develop sources of counter-power– whether it’s students against tuition fees or mental health service users against budget cuts.

3. What about communities developing alternative sources of productive power?

For example, Transition Towns provide the space for people to gain power to shape not just their own lives but the destinies of their communities.

Protest movements develop the power to be resilient in the face of shocks and the arbitrary power of others.

Social innovators and community organisers build up the power for others to shape the social world, building the capacity for people to develop the power to redesign the services they work in or use for the former and getting local community groups to demand power from the people that represent them for the latter.

Power to shape the social world is defined as the “ability to shape the wider social and political environment, which affects both the course of one’s own life and the lives of others”. Can those involved in more informal forms of politics also claim to affected the course of people’s lives?

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noelito

Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese