The Death of Detroit – What is a Resilient Community?

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Disasters accelerate existing trends.” — Joe Riley, Mayor, Charleston, SC

It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” — Yogi Berra

After my last post, I’m sure many of you have wanted to tell me to put my money where my mouth is, and use “strengths” to predict which trees, er, cities are going to have a hard time staying standing. Over the next three posts, I’m going to do just that, and a little more. Today, ResilientCommunityI’m going to lay out a simple “model” of community resilience based on community strengths. This is not a sophisticated statistics-based model with more significant figures than the amount of input data. Just a pretty straightforward generalization of what we already know from myriad case studies.

What are the attributes – the strengths – of a resilient community (I’m indebted to Meir Elran, Adam Rose, and Susan Kuo and Brad Means for helping to bring this into focus for me)? The following is a personal list culled from a lot of reading.

  • It is a civically active community. People care about the community enough to take action to fix whatever is wrong with it.  People cared about Detroit, but clearly nothing got fixed.
  • It is an informed community. People in the community have a common understanding of threats and problems.  We are still hearing some residents decrying the need for some obvious reforms (e.g., trying to make the public pension system sustainable).
  • It is a well-connected community. There is good communication between leaders and the led, and among leaders from each “cylinder of excellence” in the city – government, business, non-profits and others.  One of Detroit’s major problems was that the city government tried to fix the city by itself, and had neither the resources nor the know-how to do so.
  • Its leaders lead, they don’t butterfly between the problems.  And they don’t siphon off badly needed funds into their own pockets.
  • It is an economically and socially vital community. It is can find the resources it needs to take action, and effectively use them.  There are pockets in Detroit that are vital and viable; it’s not clear that the city as a whole is either.
  • It is a confident community; it believes it can get things done.  And Joe Riley’s quote points out that trends are important – a community’s confidence in itself reflects what it perceives its trajectory to be.  Sadly for Detroit, too many people voted their lack of confidence with their feet – they left.

In my next post on “The Death of Detroit” (I may have one or two on other topics before that post – I’m working on one called “The Death of Growth, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the S-Curve”), I’ll rack and stack several candidates for Detroit’s dubious mantle, based on the above. But it should be clear that there is a built-in indeterminism that comes with any such prediction (That’s why I harkened to the wisdom of the Yogi above).

Community failure is a classic case of chaos at work: negative events pile up like grains of sand until at some point the community’s strengths can’t keep the pile from collapsing under the weight of even one small extra grain of sand. We’re not yet in a position to make precise predictions; but I think we know enough to make a qualitative statement that one community is more likely to fall than another and to describe the type of event that might lead to that fall (but remember – disasters have direction).

In the last of this trio, I’ll talk about some steps each of the community’s might take to step back from the edge of the abyss.

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