From Community Resilience to Climate Justice

  • Danielle Rivera Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning
    Department of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning
    University of California Berkeley

Folks are drowning and Very Serious People are busy describing the water.
Kelly M. Hayes Kelly M. Hayes [@MsKellyMHayes], Twitter Post, August 27, 2020,

Back in 2020, a series of hurricanes battered the Gulf Coast. In the wake of these persistent storms, Kelly M. Hayes, a Menominee organizer and writer, punctured the discourse around these ‘events’ with her profound commentary. Namely, communities of color increasingly state that calls for “resilience” are more expressions of their need to adapt to climate change and disaster than expressions of the need to adapt the physical environment. As Tracie Washington, an organizer with the Louisiana Justice Institute, famously stated: “Stop calling me resilient, because every time you say, ‘Oh, they’re resilient,’ that means you can do something else to me. I am not resilient.” Maxwell Woods, “Stop Calling Me Resilient”: Addressing Environmental Degradation in Louisiana,” Accessed November 5, 2020. Hayes and Washington express what communities of color increasingly feel: “Resilience” is a term frequently applied to communities in lieu of adequate assistance or aid in the face of disaster.

This concern is made apparent through many definitions of “resilience” that place “community” as an axis upon which resilience can occur. As an example, “disaster resilience” is famously defined by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) as:

The ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, UNISDR Terminology on Disaster Risk Reduction (2009), 24

Oppressed communities and their activists increasingly point to the impacts of this definition when communities are exposed to repeated disasters. With climate change, disasters are occurring more frequently and with increasing intensities. United States Environmental Protection Agency, What Climate Change Means for Puerto Rico (Washington, DC: EPA, 2016) As disasters overlap and compound one another Danielle Zoe Rivera, “Disaster Colonialism: A Commentary on Disasters beyond Singular Events to Structural Violence,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, OnlineFirst (2020), the call for communities to “bounce back” becomes increasingly untenable: there is minimal to no “post-disaster” period. Oppressed communities, themselves, are then asked repeatedly and forcibly to shoulder the negative impacts of increasingly overlapping disasters. Definitions of resilience that include “community” as an axis for resilience seem innocuous enough, however, their framing conceals this persistent ask. From this, compounding disasters form slow moving and continuous neglect with detrimental impacts for oppressed communities. Ibid The question becomes: what does resilience and “bouncing back” truly mean when it becomes a near-constant imposition?

In Texas, the persistent ask is reflected in inequitable access to adequate stormwater infrastructure. In Houston, Texas, low-income Black and/or Latinx communities frequently receive open air drainage ditches to handle stormwater; however, these ditches cannot handle even moderate storms. Michael Depland, “The Stunning Difference Between These Neighborhood Storm Drains Is Inequality At Work,” Accessed November 5, 2020. In South Texas, following Hurricane Hanna in 2020, low-income Latinx residents reported “taking turns” venturing into the hurricane to remove debris from their community’s drainage ditches, an effort to keep the water draining. Organizer in San Juan, Texas, Interview (2020) This inadequate stormwater infrastructure can be juxtaposed with the far superior systems in neighboring higher-income communities, revealing the inequities built into the system. Depland, 2020 These examples highlight one of the many ways through which the persistent ask is reified in the built environment; namely, the inequitable distribution of infrastructure and resources. This, then, places an inequitable burden on specific communities to “remain resilient” in the face of disasters.

From this, there are two overarching concerns to consider. First, we need to shift focus away from urban resilience to climate justice Kian Goh, Form and Flow: The Spatial Politics of Urban Resilience and Climate Justice (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021): 9-11 , as Malini Ranganathan and Eve Bratman state:

More than is possible with a resilience frame, […] climate justice opens up room for locating climate as one among many—and not necessarily overriding—intersectional drivers that impede the ability of people to lead healthful and dignified lives. Malini Ranganathan & Eve Bratman, “From Urban Resilience to Abolitionist Climate Justice in Washington, DC,” Antipode, 53, 1 (2021), p. 132

Overall, there is a need to center justice and equity in our approaches to (climate) disasters. Overlooking the drivers of these injustices and inequities (such as racism, patriarchy, coloniality) leads us to replicate them. This is a different orientation to disaster recovery and reconstruction that centers relational (power-based) concerns within these processes. Danielle Z. Rivera, Bradleigh Jenkins, & Rebecca Randolph, “Procedural Vulnerability and Its Effects on Equitable Post-Disaster Recovery in Low-Income Communities,” Journal of the American Planning Association, (2021) To address this, scholars, like Jason von Meding, posit that justice must be pursued “as an obligation.” Jason von Meding, “Reframing Vulnerability as a Condition of Potential,” Accessed December 10, 2021

Second, to make equity and justice an obligation, historical views of inequities and injustices are needed. With no grasp of how previous disasters occurred, and the damages they caused, our responses will not address the correct questions. As Malini Ranganathan and Eve Bratman note, “resilience discourse tends to focus on ‘climate proofing’ the future, rather than ongoing and historical causes of harm.” Malini Ranganathan & Eve Bratman, 2021, p. 119 In this respect, Shalanda Baker proposed the concept of “anti-resilience” or:

The act of engaging in a politics of anti-racism and anti-oppression that exposes the roots of structural inequality and vulnerability, and illuminates the path for system transformation. Shalanda H. Baker, “Anti-Resilience: A Roadmap for Transformational Justice within the Energy System,” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, 54 (2019)

The key element, as Baker states, is that resilience at an individual or community level may often be necessary; however, resilience that reaches a systemic and procedural level leads to further entrenchment of inequities. To address this, current disasters must be viewed within a historical landscape revealing patterns of uneven distribution of resources to cope with and endure (climate) disasters. Without this approach, communities will be repeatedly asked to be resilient, as opposed to identifying the source of this repeated ask; in the case of Texas, the inequitable distribution of adequate stormwater management due to segregation.

Ultimately, “resilience” through compounding disasters too readily reproduces racism and inequity within oppressed communities. To counter this, we need to center equity and justice in our responses to (climate) disasters. To do so requires recognition of past inequities and injustices, examining systemically uneven distributions of aid, resources, and support through disaster. We need to stop the persistent ask and move towards a just distribution of aid and assistance.