One of the buzzwords in the planning profession over the past decade has been the concept of resiliency - the notion that our cities should be designed and operated in a way that makes them more resilient to natural disasters or man-made disruptions. Recent events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, extensive wildfires on the west coast, or even the storming of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. have made me focus on this topic a little harder than maybe I otherwise would.
On the surface, it is pretty hard to argue against resiliency. Who wouldn’t want their community to bounce back quickly after some catastrophe? But what I see most cities doing, and what I experienced in my 30+ years in local government, is a pretty half-hearted effort that doesn’t really advance the concept of resiliency very far. In fact, many cities have development policies that I would argue do the exact opposite -- they increase the fragility of a community rather than its resilience.
Most cities are reasonably good at dealing with the types of disasters that are fairly common. In the midwest, that would be things like floods and tornadoes. Many cities have an emergency operations center where a coordinated response can be planned and executed to minimize the loss of life and to provide temporary food, shelter and medical assistance. That is wonderful, but I think that true community resilience needs to be able to address negative events that have more complex causes, are much broader in their impact, and have a much longer duration.
The Municipal Black Swan
In his influential book, Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about the impact of highly improbable and highly disruptive occurrences that he labels “black swan” events. According to his definition, black swan events have three characteristics:
They are outliers. They are outside the realm of normal expectations because nothing in the recent past can convincingly point to its occurrence.
They have an extreme impact. Not just another minor eruption of Kilauea, but a Pompeii-destroyed-by-lava-and-ash kind of event.
Retrospective predictability. No one sees it coming ahead of time, but after the fact people concoct various explanations which make the event appear predictable. (1)
Fortunately, there aren’t very many events that truly qualify as a black swan. Even the recent pandemic doesn’t really meet the definition because although its impact was extreme, it was something that experts had been warning about for years. For the sake of this post, I’m going to focus on extreme events that have a broad and long lasting impact, and which are rare or unprecedented if not totally unpredictable.
Part of the problem with trying to build resilience for extreme events is that they are rare enough that people don’t take them seriously. Humans are biologically programmed with a series of cognitive biases that, while useful in some situations, tend to inhibit our ability to accurately assess severe or long-term risk. We tend to assume that tomorrow will be similar to today or yesterday, and that bad events happen to someone else or will happen with enough warning that we will be able to adjust.
Taleb sheds some light on this tendency by telling the story of the turkey. Every day of the turkey’s life, the farmer carefully fed and cared for the turkey. Every day was the same until the turkey logically assumed that this was the way things were always going to be. Until, of course, the day before Thanksgiving when the farmer chopped the turkey’s head off so that he could be someone’s holiday dinner. From the turkey’s perspective, this was a black swan event -- catastrophic and unpredictable! To the farmer, of course, it was totally normal. The point is that relying solely upon observations of the past from our own limited perspective can blind us to what the future might hold.
I don’t want to be an alarmist, but it is not too difficult to imagine scenarios where the scale of the disaster is far greater than the typical flooded river. For example:
Government institutions are incapacitated or overwhelmed. Think of the devastation in Haiti in 2016 caused by hurricane Matthew when over 25% of health care facilities were destroyed and cholera was widespread because fresh water was unavailable to thousands of people. How would people react if the institutions we depend upon in a disaster were no longer functioning or severely crippled?
Power and communication systems have long-term outages. We are used to occasional outages of a day or two caused by winter storms, but California had weeks of rolling blackouts caused by just high winds and fire risk. What if a malicious attack on the power grid or a key component failure left large sections of the country without power and with limited communication for weeks at a time? How long would it take for our electricity-reliant society to begin to panic?
Distribution of essential goods is disrupted. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the potential problems that our distributed system for supplying food and other daily essentials could cause. Yes, it is efficient, but it is also very complex because of the large number of moving parts. Some people were panicked enough by COVID-19 to hoard toilet paper, but what would have happened if daily deliveries of food to supermarkets were interrupted for weeks because too few truckers or factory workers were available?
I’m fairly confident that most communities don’t address these types of scenarios in their disaster preparedness exercises and yet they are not outside the realm of possibility. How resilient would your community be if an event of similar scale and impact took place?
I suspect that many communities simply assume that action by the state and/or federal government would bail them out should something really catastrophic occur. To a degree, that assumption is likely correct -- witness the federal response to the pandemic or Hurricane Katrina. But actions by state or federal agencies are likely to be slow in coming, and designed to address only the worst impacts rather than really return a community to prosperity. In my opinion, the strongest cities will be prepared to take local action so that their communities recover more quickly and more completely.
The Example of College Towns
Resiliency planning should also consider things which are not actual events but more of a rapidly spreading social trend or economic shift. Consider, for example, college towns which are common throughout the midwest (and the rest of the country as well). These are often small to mid-sized cities dominated by a large university. For the last several decades, college towns have lived a fairly charmed life as a steadily growing influx of students spent lots of money and funded lots of good-paying jobs. But recent experiences with remote learning have shown that universities are ripe for change.
One of the primary factors is money. The ever increasing cost of a four-year education and the mounting horror stories of graduates looking for a job during a recession while buried with student loan debt are causing many to rethink the value proposition offered by traditional universities. Yes, a college degree does improve lifetime earning potential, but is it worth $50,000 per year or more? Aside from the very top-tier institutions, students are going to increasingly insist upon value which means that universities are going to have to cut costs since endowment funds and state legislatures are not likely to make up the difference.
The second primary factor is technology. Universities responded to the pandemic by cobbling together off-the-shelf technology from Zoom, Google, Microsoft and others, and the result wasn’t always pretty but it was reasonably effective. What happens when virtual-reality teaching tools are released in the next couple of years which make remote learning more immersive and engaging than sitting in a large lecture hall? We already know remote learning is possible, what if it became preferable? And if I am learning remotely, why would I need an obscure professor at my state university when I could watch a lecture by a world renowned professor at Harvard, MIT or Stanford?
In short, learning is going to be largely disconnected from location and the best content will become widely distributed. And when that happens, students are going to start re-thinking the entire college experience. Yes, there are socialization and maturation benefits of going away to college, but people will find alternatives that don’t involve tens of thousands of dollars per year.
What would the impact on a college town be if the resident student population dropped by 50 percent and university employment fell by a similar amount? I think it would likely be devastating. Many businesses would close, construction activity would evaporate, and there would be a huge housing surplus which would depress rents and home prices significantly. These impacts (and more) would ripple throughout the community for years. And yet I would be willing to bet that only a small number of college towns have explored this scenario as part of their long-term planning activities or disaster preparedness plans.
Does this scenario seem highly unlikely? Several experts would probably accuse me of understating the impact. Take, for example, Scott Galloway who has founded his own virtual classroom start-up and currently teaches marketing at the NYU Stern School of Business. He estimates that hundreds, if not thousands, of brick-and-mortar universities will go out of business and those that remain will have a student population composed mainly of the children of the very rich. He envisions the top universities partnering with big tech companies -- think Apple and Stanford creating an “iUniversity” -- that can now enroll 30,000 students instead of 16,000 and still not dilute the learning experience because of technology advancements. (2)
Black Swan Resiliency
So, what should cities do to prepare for a future event or societal shift that has catastrophic results? The answer, I think, lies in taking some common sense steps that would help with day-to-day problems as well as with the rare disaster. These steps, however, will take time and effort which is why most short-staffed and under funded communities are not doing them already.
Be fiscally conservative. All cities are under pressure to provide more services, better amenities, and higher quality infrastructure for their citizens. At the same time, no one wants to raise taxes and many cities are constrained in doing so by state law. The result is that governing bodies either have to become good at saying “no” or they adopt a “buy now pay later” type of mentality that decreases the resilience of their community.
What is missing in many cities is any type of cost-benefit analysis. In fairness, it is often difficult to quantify the benefits of a new city service, a new city park, or a wider street. The best proxy might be evaluating whether citizens would be willing to pay more in taxes to gain the new service, park or street. Red flags should go up if the new benefits can only be paid for by increasing long-term debt. High debt service levels reduce the ability of a community to absorb the economic shocks that are likely to accompany an unforeseen disaster. In fact, a community’s bond rating is a reasonable measure of fiscal health.
Focus on redevelopment and infill. Too many cities equate growth with outward geographic expansion. In order to improve the efficiency of existing infrastructure and service capacities, cities should find ways to encourage redevelopment and discourage low-density sprawl at the community's edges. In the long run, the cost of infrastructure expansion will not be covered by the revenue from single-family homes on half-acre lots.
On the other hand, many cities have sections of town that are underutilized, undervalued and ripe for redevelopment. Focusing growth in these areas will not only reduce new infrastructure expenditures, it will also reduce transportation costs and bolster the job prospects of disadvantaged residents.
Focus on local and incremental. Earlier in this post I mentioned the cognitive biases that make humans poor judges of risk. Witness, for example, our love of playing the lottery despite the astronomical odds against winning. Unfortunately, cities tend to play their own form of lottery in the form of grandiose-but-low-percentage economic development gambles. Hundreds of cities invested a great deal of time and effort in response to Amazon’s hunt for a second headquarters despite the fact that Amazon was highly unlikely to go anywhere other than a small handful of major cities. Lavish economic incentives are promised for huge manufacturing projects that are more wishful thinking than reality, such as Foxconn’s mega-factory in Wisconsin which so far has yielded about 5 percent of the promised investment and 10 percent of the promised employment.
Cities would be far better off focusing on local and incremental economic development strategies. Supporting and incentivizing local entrepreneurs is likely to create as much or more employment than convincing an out-of-town company to build a factory. And that employment is much less likely to leave town during the next economic downturn. Similarly, cities would be better off with 100 small developers that build 10 homes a year than with a national chain that builds 1,000. Local developers are likely to be more innovative, more adaptable, and more committed to the welfare of the community over the long haul.
Rethink the approach to long-term plans. In general, cities plan for the future they want. You know, the one in which jobs are plentiful, education is innovative, recreational opportunities abound, retailers thrive, and the population grows. This is known as normative planning and it makes total sense. Most of us are optimistic people and so we plan for our vision of a better tomorrow.
This does not, however, do much for a community’s resiliency. We would be better off looking at a range of possible futures, including some that we don’t want to happen. A recent article by Uri Avin and Robert Goodspeed describes this approach and refers to it as Exploratory Scenario Planning. (3) While it probably doesn’t make sense to develop a full set of supporting plans for a negative scenario, at least discussing the implications that negative scenarios could have for a community might refocus priorities away from projects that are hopelessly optimistic toward those that are more practical.
Build trust. Rebuilding from a natural disaster or a devastating societal change will require a great deal of trust and cooperation across the spectrum of the community. That trust does not magically spring into being when needed; it must be cultivated and nurtured ahead of time. Every city has a myriad of cultural, political, philanthropic, and economic institutions and organizations all aiming to improve the community. Unfortunately, many of these organizations operate in their own little bubble, aware of other organizations but not interacting with them to any significant degree. To the degree that there is interaction, it may be more as competitors for money or prestige rather than as partners working toward the same goal. That needs to end. City leaders need to foster a broad understanding and appreciation across the community of what each organization is capable of doing and what challenges each organization faces. Trust and cooperation built when times are good will pay off handsomely when times are bad.
Thoughts? As always, share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below or sending me an email at email@example.com. Want to be notified whenever I add a new posting? Send me an email with your name and email address.
“The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable”; Nassim Nicholas Taleb; Random House, Inc.; 2007.
“The Coronavirus Will Disrupt Future Colleges and Universities”; James D Walsh; New York Magazine, Intelligencer; May 2020; https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/05/scott-galloway-future-of-college.html
“Using Exploratory Scenarios in Planning Practice”; Uri Avin and Robert Goodspeed; Journal of the American Planning Association; May 2020; https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01944363.2020.1746688?journalCode=rjpa20