Resilience in action: Can we build communities that thrive amidst change?

As the coronavirus pandemic creates health and economic challenges around the world, community resilience has become more crucial than ever before.

As the pandemic stretches our response capacity, “resilience” has shifted from a boardroom strategy to a daily activity. But COVID-19 is far from the only challenge that requires enhanced resilience in our communities.

There have been more than 195 major disasters identified in the Canadian Disaster Database that struck Canada between 2008 and 2018. Many were related to climate and extreme weather events, such as flooding and wildfires, while others involved accidents, outages, or health impacts. Combined, these disasters have cost tens of billions of dollars in damages and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.



Asking the right questions

As in many scenarios, much of the work starts by asking better questions. We need to identify opportunities to embed resilience into our built, social and ecological environments.

For instance, how can we design infrastructure that is more resilient to climate risks? How can we accelerate and effectively integrate the shift towards renewable energy resources? How can we increase cyber resilience and be better prepared for cyber attacks? In an age of digital dominance and physical distancing, how can we use design to influence pro-social behaviours and decrease loneliness in our cities? In the context of COVID-19, how can we build more resilient health care and design safer transit systems?


Equity and community resilience

Beyond asking questions and making the right technical, environmental and infrastructure decisions, true community resilience largely resides within people.

Canada’s Emergency Management Strategy has a strong vision of what this may look like:

“Resilient capacity is built through a process of empowering citizens, responders, organizations, communities, governments, systems and society to share the responsibility to keep hazards from becoming disasters. Resilience minimizes vulnerability or susceptibility by creating or strengthening social and physical capacity in the human and built environment to cope with, adapt to, respond to, and recover and learn from disasters.”

In scaling up our response and preparing for different hazard scenarios, it’s important to consider less recognized risk factors as well. A flood may be the face-value hazard at play, but other intersecting risk factors like poverty, social inequity, remoteness or a lack of access to critical support infrastructure are hazards as well.

Community resilience must take a holistic approach to all of these risks, considering how social determinants like income, social support systems, education and gender lead to unequal impacts and vulnerabilities. Partnering with agencies like the United Way can help provide a deeper understanding of how these factors are uniquely distributed in your local community, and assist in building greater social cohesion and support.

Longitudinal research has found that the relationship between social cohesion and community resilience is highly significant, but has a tendency to ebb in the years following the disaster. Moreover, researchers showed that perceived community resilience fluctuates with time following a disaster, showing high scores on the first year, and then a decrease on the second year. That’s why it is of upmost importance to build community resilience that lasts, through both challenges and calm.



There are no perfect answers here — nor are there perfect, one-size-fits-all strategies for embedding resilience into our communities. However, there are certain recommended starting points that appear frequently in expert commentary.

To build greater community resilience, we can integrate the following recommendations from experts in the field.

  • Consider social equity and service gaps by examining who is falling through the cracks and being left disproportionately vulnerable because of social determinants like income, disability, culture, gender, etc.
  • Adopt expert recommendations around localized climate projections, and incorporate these projections into municipal design and planning (including emergency response planning).
  • Build relationships and outreach with Indigenous and remote communities to understand their unique needs, and create mobile response solutions that can be deployed efficiently during a crisis event.
  • Design multi-purpose, adaptive municipal infrastructure and public space that can function to mitigate crisis impacts as well as serve as community-building hubs. (For instance, arenas which can be used as emergency shelter, or parks that can double as flood overflow catchments.)
  • Build social cohesion and empower citizens through the design of public space, placemaking, and frequently soliciting input.

With these shifts in mind, together we can influence and shape resilient communities that thrive — even in the midst of uncertainty and change.

If you’re interested in learning more, we invite you to read our Insights.

Ryan Brain
President and Chief Executive Officer, Canada