Case for Cultivating Community | Adapting to Challenges, Sustaining Hope

Case for Cultivating Community | Adapting to Challenges, Sustaining Hope

Jan. 31, 2017 in Capacity Building

The following article by Sylvia Cheuy explores the idea of community resilience as an ability, a process and an outcome, and examines ways in which communities can become more resilient. Read the excerpt below or dig deeper by downloading the full article from Deepening Community.

"In every community there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart there is the power to do it.” – Marianne Williamson

Communities today are shaped and impacted by a myriad of complex issues – the effects of climate change, deteriorating infrastructure, an aging population, growing debt levels at the household, government and corporate levels, rising inequality, and growing rates of loneliness and isolation in people of all ages.


The concept of community resilience is a multi-faceted one. Most often, community resilience is defined as a community’s ability to “bounce back” after a crisis or disaster. This definition, however, is incomplete. A second important, but often overlooked, dimension of community resilience recognizes the proactive efforts required to build stronger and more cohesive communities.

In a report published by the Building Resilient Neighbourhoods Project of BC’s Capital Region, this proactive form of community resilience is highlighted by several examples. The report also emphasizes that choosing to adopt a “lens of resilience” requires “a focus on community building, addressing inequities that exist for vulnerable or marginalized groups, and strengthening social ties” in ways that increase “a community’s capacity to respond proactively and enhance well-being even while under stress.” (The Resilient Neighbourhoods Project, 2013, p. 5)

In Creating Resilient Communities: A How-to Resource Guide for Cultivating Resiliency in Local Communities, the concept of community resilience is recognized as an ability, a process AND an outcome. When community resilience is present, residents demonstrate the ability to unite community resources (social, cultural, political, physical, economic, material), and collaborate to take collective action. Community resilience stems from and grows through community members working together to develop and build resources and, when necessary, to mobilize those resources in response to change, allowing the community to direct and affect the outcome.” (St. Luke's Health Initiatives, 2015, p. 7)

The number and complexity of issues facing communities, municipalities, and nations today makes a compelling case for the need and value of cultivating communities’ capacity for resilience.

Community resilience offers a useful “lens” or way of looking at community issues. The lens of resilience is rooted in a perspective that views communities as complex and dynamic living systems that should be viewed holistically. After a shock or set-back, resilient communities demonstrate the ability to “adapt and embracedeep change” and respond creatively to the new challenges confronting it.

Communities that embrace the concept of resilience discover that creative solutions emerge from the willingness to move beyond commonly proposed, sector-specific solutions in favour of new solutions that are generated by appreciating the interconnections between community issues. In fact, the holistic view encouraged by the lens of resilience appreciates that, “long-term solutions to a (acute or chronic) city issue may not exist in isolating and fixing just that issue; rather the ‘answer’ might lie in better understanding systemic relationships within the city and working to strengthen ostensibly disparate issues at the same time.” (Sustainable Cities Institute, 2013).

The number and complexity of issues facing communities, municipalities, and nations today makes a compelling case for the need and value of cultivating communities’ capacity for resilience. When a community is resilient, “the resources, relationships and networks that have been build over time can be put to work to promote the well-being of community members and the community as a whole…and how a community responds to those changes may be the difference between adapting and flourishing or floundering and fading.” (St. Luke's Health Initiatives, 2015)


Each community and neighbourhood is unique, and so, there is no single fixed recipe for achieving community resilience. Fortunately, there are some useful frameworks and characteristics that provide some signposts. Research reveals specific characteristics commonly found in resilient neighbourhoods and communities. The Canadian Centre for Community Renewal identifies characteristics of community and neighbourhood resilience under four dimensions (Canadian Centre for Community Renewal, 2000, pp. 15-16):

1. Positive attitudes and values. The social relationships that exist within a community not only contribute to its resilience, they also help define its distinct culture. The attitudes, behaviours, and culture of a community are reflected in: the relationships that exist between people; levels of trust that residents have with one another; residents’ sense of belonging; and respect for diversity and inclusion. When people within a community or neighbourhood speak about “the way things are done around here” they are describing its culture. In A Basic Guide to Community Organizing, John McKnight offers the following tangible examples of a resilient community that has found “its way”:

  • Everything is personal. The neighbours know me by name.
  • I am valued. It is recognized that I have gifts to offer the community.
  • There are opportunities for my gifts to be given.
  • There is informality to Our Way. Order exists, but it is not rigid and allows for my uniqueness.
  • There is creativity and spontaneity. There are opportunities for singing, celebration and eating together.
  • Invention abounds.

There is tragedy, and it is acknowledged that tragedy is a part of life. So we mourn and move on together, always finding Our Way.” (McKnight J., A Basic Guide to ABCD Community Organizing , 2013, p. 20)

2. Proactive and ongoing leadership development and planning. Resilient neighbourhoods and communities proactively engage residents to build consensus around a shared vision. Leadership is shared across a diversity of citizens and groups within the community and collaborative action is embraced as a means of accomplishing projects to realize the shared community vision. At the core, this characteristic of resilience is demonstrated in a willingness to learn and experiment with innovative approaches to making positive change happen.

3. A localized economy. This dimension of community and neighbourhood resilience highlights the importance of promoting locally-owned businesses over externally-owned ones. It also involves engaging residents in the need and value of “shopping local” to support community-based enterprise; encourage local employment opportunities; and, ensure that the local economy is diversified. Tool-shares and barter between neighbours are encouraged and valued within this dimension of resilience as well.

4. Infrastructure and resources. This dimension of community resilience considers the physical infrastructure and resources that the community has access to. It also encompasses considerations about community design. Access to shared green space and community gathering spaces such as parks, community gardens etc. can play an important role in fostering social connections between residents, and providing places and spaces for community celebration. Another key element of this dimension is an emphasis on ensuring local access to food, shelter, and renewable energy for all residents.

Ultimately, community resilience is cultivated by focusing on assets and emphasizing "... the existence, development and engagement of community resources by community members to thrive in an environment characterized by change, uncertainty, unpredictability, and surprise." (St. Luke's Health Initiatives, 2015, p. 10)


Place plays a significant role in the creation and shaping of community resilience. Embracing a “place-based” rather than “issue-based” approach encourages work to unfold within the boundaries of a particular geography and results in resilience being built at a very local level. This aligns well with the growing recognition that promising solutions and strategies to many global issues can be found at the local level. A neighbourhood focus emphasizes people’s connection to place, and provides a manageable scale where people can often see first-hand the impacts of their actions. In this way, the neighbourhood scale often engages and excites people by demonstrating that change at this level is “far-reaching, yet feasible.” (The Resilient Neighbourhoods Project, 2013, p. 9)


The report, Resilience: Health in a New Key, published by the St. Luke’s Health Initiative makes a powerful case for the cultivation of community resilience and acknowledges it as central to addressing the social determinants that impact the health of individuals and communities. This report shares 10 rules which its authors have discerned as central to building resilient communities. (St. Luke's Health Initiative - Vitalyst Health Foundation, 2003, p. 24) These are:

1. Be Prepared for Long-term Commitment. Building resilient communities takes more time than three or five-year initiatives. Be prepared for a long-term commitment.

2. Nurture Natural Caring Relationships. Resilience grows through the support and extension of natural caring relationships. Notice and nurture these wherever possible.

3. Build from the Bottom Up. Resilience starts with strengthening the natural helping institutions in neighbourhoods and other geographic settings. Build from the bottom up.

4. Be an Ally, Not an Expert. Be a coach and an ally, not an expert.

5. Invest in Organizing. Social change requires confrontation as well as collaboration. Don’t be afraid to invest in organizing.

6. Invest in Advocacy. Power responds to pressure. Be an advocate and invest in advocacy.

7. Focus on Strengths and Assets. You can’t motivate others by focusing on what they lack. Start with an emphasis on strengths and assets.

8. Support Peer Learning. Build social support by nurturing peer-to-peer learning networks.

9. Surrender the Need to Control. Don’t be a control junkie. Community resilience arises from self-organization, active learning, surprise and adaptation. Self-control arises from mastery. Develop that first.

10. Nurture Shared Leadership. Disappear into leadership. Encourage the light in others. The world will roll at your feet.

Community engagement and participation are essential to building resilience. A shared, aspirational vision as well as a comprehensive and holistic view of the community's assets are both important elements needed to create realistic and achievable plans for shared action. However, once these plans have been developed, there is no end to the creative ideas and strategies available to make community and neighbourhood resilience a reality...Learn More, download the full article.

Find the full article of The Case for Cultivating Community Resilience | Adapting to Challenges, Sustaining Hope by Sylvia Cheuy on Deepening Communities.

Credit: Sylvia Cheuy, Tamarack Institute