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Strong People, Strong Cities

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Strong People, Strong Cities

The conservative case for resilience April 5, 2015

Among those who study cities, “resilience” has become a hot topic, in part because of a major push from the left-leaning Rockefeller Foundation. This association with the Left, and with climate-change rhetoric, may prompt eye-rolls from some conservatives. But conservatism has its own emerging concept of resilience.

Merriam-Webster defines resilience as “the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.” In a civic context, resilience comes into play when cities must recover from major disasters. Some—like Chicago after the Great Fire—bounce back even stronger than they were before. Others—like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina—struggle. Understanding what resilience requires in the face of civic adversity and developing that character in a city is the focus of much of the recent interest.

In addition to underwriting significant media coverage of the issue, the Rockefeller Foundation is funding a network of “100 Resilient Cities” and “chief resilience officer” positions in governments around the world. The foundation has also created a formal resilience framework with engineering consultancy Arup; to conservatives, it radiates an aura of big government. And Rockefeller president Judith Rodin’s recent book, The Resilience Dividend, is sprinkled with references to climate change.

But whatever one’s view of that issue, disasters do strike cities, and disaster preparedness is a core function of government. New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, ably led the city through the aftermath of 9/11, for example. Giuliani believed in less government, but he also believed that Republicans should govern effectively. Republicans, particularly at the state and local level, should take heed. Risk management and resilience planning are not betrayals of conservative principles, and ignoring them cedes the good-government high ground to the Left.

Rodin’s book also makes some conservative points about resilience. She devotes a section to underinsurance, pointing to a SwissRe study finding that only about 30 percent of global economic losses from disasters have been insured. If government picks up much of the shortfall—which, in the U.S., it invariably does—serious moral hazard results. Requiring that communities insure themselves more robustly will boost resilience and motivate developers to avoid building in environmentally sensitive areas.

The failure of New Orleans’s levees—which were the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers—during Hurricane Katrina highlights the shortcomings of big-government solutions. So does a story Rodin relates from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The plucky residents of working-class Telegraph Hill managed to save their neighborhood with a bucket brigade, while the official fire response, led by the army and a mayor who issued shoot-to-kill orders, proved ineffective. “[R]egular people had been more successful at saving neighborhoods—with buckets of water and barrels of wine and collective action—than the Army had with dynamite and shaky leadership,” Rodin notes.

Much discussion of urban resilience focuses on systems; the conservative approach starts with individuals. Former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens’s new book is adapted from letters he wrote to a former SEAL teammate suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. Resilience channels ancient wisdom in support of an approach to living centered on personal resilience. Greitens argues for humility about our ability to control the world. We must recognize that life is unfair and take responsibility for ourselves. Channeling Aristotle, Greitens notes that these habits don’t come naturally, but rather from regular practice. “You weren’t born with resilience, any more than you were born with the ability to use a compass or aim a rifle,” Greitens writes. “Resilience is an excellence we build. We can practice it in the choices we make and the actions we take. After enough practice, resilience becomes part of who we are.”

Charles Murray sounded the resilience theme in his 2014 book, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead. Murray believes that too many people from upper-middle-class backgrounds have had an “excessively placid childhood.” As a result, he writes, they’re “probably approaching adulthood with the elastic limit of a Baccarat champagne flute.” They can be sure that their resilience will eventually be tested, though, and when it is, he advises, “you don’t want to shatter into glittering shards.” Murray recommends that young people develop resilience by doing stints in the military or living in another country for several years.

Resilience, all these authors claim, is developed from adaptation to stress—as in weightlifting. Progressively increasing the load over time triggers an adaptive response that makes us stronger. The same, perhaps, is true in civic terms. When we avoid engaging with stress as a society, we become flabby and weak, winding up with the civic equivalent of Type 2 diabetes. We’ve put enormous societal focus on improving safety and reducing risk—much to the good—but by creating an “excessively placid” environment, we’ve perhaps left ourselves vulnerable.

Last winter, New York governor Andrew Cuomo shut down the subway in anticipation of a blizzard that never appeared. His rationale was “better safe than sorry.” That’s hard to argue with. But if New Yorkers can’t handle getting around in the snow, what can they handle? Engaging with bad weather is a simple way to engage with civic stress in a semi-controlled fashion.

Some are pushing back against the safety-at-all-costs approach. The free-range parenting movement, for example, seeks to build resilience in children by letting them play and live life with the reduced levels of supervision of a generation ago. Transportation activists are fighting rules that prohibit children from walking to school in some places. Foodies want the freedom to drink raw (unpasteurized) milk.

More such advocacy is needed. A healthy society requires resilient individuals and resilient systems. But true resilience is only developed by making contact with stressful disruption. Better to make a habit of doing that regularly—on our own terms—before events force us into a confrontations for which we and our communities are not ready.

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