Defining Community Resilience

By Walle Brown


This summer, Willamette Partnership Fellow Walle Brown joined our Health & Nature team to help us better understand the concept of community resilience, and how our work can (or should) contribute. This term is widely used today, but it is not always clearly defined. To better understand how Willamette Partnership and our partners define and support community resilience, Walle conducted 20 interviews with staff, fellows, and external stakeholders as well as sourcing several literary reviews to formulate a cohesive understanding of the term and its use. Below are his thoughts and findings from his fellowship;

Walle Brown was a Summer Fellow with Willamette Partnership in 2020. He is now the Economic Prosperity Manager – East Portland with Unite Oregon.


Defining Resilience

Resilience is most widely seen as the ability to bounce back or “fail forward” to a state where future shocks will be less devastating. It is the application of our memory in the present moment to proactively secure a better, more sustainable future. Resilience requires both memory and the willingness and capacity to act upon the lessons of the past, to be able to gracefully navigate the cyclical turbulence in the future.

This means building the capacity and ability to adapt to shock and to have the forethought to proactively change so that shocks are more predictable, and therefore more manageable, as they arise.

Resilience runs relative to risk. It is defined in juxtaposition to disaster and therefore risk. It is an amorphous concept for any system until it is defined by a challenge. Understanding risk drives an individual, or community’s conceptualization and application of a resilient strategy – which effectively seeks to minimize risk. Similar to the disparate responses to COVID-19, ignoring risks, haphazardly and innately, destroys any concept of resilience for a community.

A responsible practice of resilience is iterative, built upon historical knowledge, context-driven, and place-based. 

Resilience can be measured, retroactively, by the familiarity of processes before and after the impact of a disaster. One does not know just how resilient their community is until a disaster strikes. How familiar the post-disaster scene is compared to the weight of disastrous impact, defines the success of preparations in protecting against risk. Structuring resiliency – its visibility and value post-disaster – is difficult to achieve within American communities. When times are good, it is very easy to adopt a worldview that negates a future any different. This can make proactively preparing for the future seem superfluous, nonsensical, and unnecessary.

Honest, clear, and consistent communication and humble admissions of gaps in knowledge of risks are effective ways to institutionalize an ecosystem of resilience that directly corresponds to an ever-changing climate.

The Community

Community is essential to defining, understanding, practicing, and institutionalizing resilience. Resilience operates on a system scale, not in silos. For example, earthquakes do not discriminate. One new building – that is secure against an earthquake, may not be equally resilient against sliding hillside homes.

Community is identity-based human consciousness in aggregate – often tied to geographic location. Resilience is leveraged by resources, like secure communal space, health, and wealth to fight against risks. This requires both the understanding of what people can give, what they are willing to do, and – most importantly – what risks they consider to be worth caring about.

Because resources like time, capital, labor, and attention are scarce, communities have to play a role in “defining, with precision, what is the right problem. Because there is nothing worse than answering correctly the wrong question.” (Alejandro Aravaena) If one earthquake occurs every 100 years, but 1 quarter of the local community is either unhoused or hungry the latter will undermine the first when attempting to build a resilient system.

A community may declare the unmet demand for housing to be a greater need than securing current housing stock against the increasingly probable risk of a large earthquake.

This is currently playing out in Portland and it essentially comes down to the prioritization of short-term vs long-term risk mitigation. As a community, it is important to coalesce around values and utilize those to prioritize our allocation of finite resources to secure a sustainable future.

Community Resilience looks like the application of a democratic – and inclusive – process of collectively identifying risks and acting as a unit, to mitigate risks to the best of our ability. 

Community Resilience can look like the ability to navigate risks and take chances without risking self-destruction or irreparable harm. In other words, when we take leaps of faith and stumble, we can bounce back with the knowledge of lessons learned to carry forward.

What does this look like in Portland? I think you will have to ask Portlanders to respond to truly find the answer.


Vincent “Walle” Brown

P.S.: Here are just a few good sources that either define or outline resilience in a modern American context:

  1. Carl Folke, et al. “Resilience and Sustainable Development: Building Adaptive Capacity in a World of Transformations.” Ambio, vol. 31, no. 5, 2002, pp. 437–440.
  2. Folke, Carl, et al. “Resilience Thinking: Integrating Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability.” Ecology and Society, vol. 15, no. 4, 2010, p. 20.
  3. FEMA, Notice of Funding Opportunity for Hazard Mitigation Assistance Grants & Hazard Mitigation Assistance Grants, Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities,2020
  4. Mitigation Framework Leadership Group (MitFLG), Draft Interagency Concept for Community Resilience Indicators and National-Level Measures, United States Department of Homeland Security, 2016
  5. Portland African American Leadership Forum (PAALF), “The People’s Plan”, 2017.
  6. Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), “City of Portland Nondiscrimination Notice”, 2017. Web
  7. Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), “Translation, Interpretation and Accommodation”, 2020. Web


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *