Adapting to change: the role of community resilience

Published: October 2012 Publication Type: Publication

Author: Will Norman

Adapting to Change asks what it is that makes communities not just bounce back from adversity but thrive when faced with long-term challenges. The Young Foundation pioneered research and practice in this area and has developed the Wellbeing and Resilience Measure (WARM), a new tool designed to help communities understand their underlying needs and capacities. This report, commissioned by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, seeks to build on this work, deepen our understanding of community resilience and bring our learning together in one place.

Our research suggests that community resilience is built primarily through relationships, not just between members of the community but also between organisations, specifically between the voluntary sector, the local economy and the public sector. This report identifies both the factors that support resilience within communities and act as a barrier. We outline the practical measures that can be taken to bolster community resilience and explore how local and national governments, as well as communities themselves, can evaluate resilience.

This is no easy task. Change, whether social, political or economic, is, of course, always present. Communities are dynamic and complex systems in a constant state of flux and all are used to adapting to some form of adversity. Yet, the reality is very few neighbourhoods, towns or cities completely shut down and die, although some fall into decline and dramatically shrink. On the other hand, some communities do well in the face of quite rapid and profound change: some even thrive, reinvent and renew themselves. The aim of this work is to contribute to our shared understanding of what makes that difference.

Such an approach brings new insights to our understanding of community resilience and broadens our understanding of what it means to people’s actual lived experience. While the particularities of the communities we have worked are important, our findings have a wider resonance. To this end, we explored a number of central questions that are relevant to all communities. First, how does resilience play out in terms of attitudes, expectations and peer group pressures? Second, how do local institutions influence the ability of communities to be resilient in the face of adversity? And third, what role do voluntary sector organisations play in building resilience in communities?

As austerity and recession bite, we are seeing impacts on communities across the country. We face high unemployment – particularly youth unemployment and long term worklessness – and there are growing pressures on family life and household resources. More must be done to alleviate some of the immediate hardships being faced by the most vulnerable in society. However, we must also guard against the long-term effects of the economic downturn and cuts to public spending. We need to ensure that the resources that enable communities to be resilient are not withdrawn and the areas that are most in need are targeted and supported as they adapt to change. Unless we act now the recovery will be much harder and slower and many communities will suffer the consequences for many years to come.

Download a full PDF of the report.