Bernhard Müller (ed.): Urban Regional Resilience: How Do Cities and Regions Deal with Change? German Annual of Spatial Research and Policy 2010. Berlin, Heidelberg 2011. 163 p.
“Resilience seems to have become the new catchword of our times”. This statement by Müller is surely no exaggeration: While for a long time, the notion of resilience has only been known to some well-informed students of ecology or psychology, it has started its global triumphal march during the last decades – and is now also rolling through German academic institutions. In the introduction to the edited book “Urban Regional Resilience: How Do Cities and Regions Deal with Change?” Müller raises some fundamental and promising questions: Does the concept of resilience allow us to develop a new and more appropriate understanding of how to deal with various forms of change? Is the term resilience more than just a dazzling term that appears attractive to scientists, practitioners, funders and politicians alike? After a wave of mostly optimistic contributions about what one might call the ‘bright side of resilience’, this book seems to promise a vital and more critical contribution to the discourse.
At the same time, Müller’s final remarks about the status of this edited book indicates that the editor felt that some readers might be sceptical whether this publication delivers what it promises. The individual chapters demonstrate “that at the present time urban regional resilience is neither a catchword nor a consistent concept […] in Germany” and “that more efforts are required to consolidate a resilience-related approach to spatial research and practice on regional and local levels”.
Before going into detailed discussion, a bit about the book in general: It is published in a series entitled “German Annual of Spatial Research and Policy”. Aim of this series is to “provide an international audience with some insights into spatial research and policy in Germany” (V). Its first section consists of refereed contributions, some of them rather conceptual in their tone, others rather empirically driven. The second section highlights recent research activities by giving short overviews about different topic. This review relates mostly to the refereed chapters.
The book chapters can be clustered in three groups. The first group of contributions makes no explicit link to the main title of the book; they rather seem to refer to its subtitle: “How do cities and regions deal with change?” Dosch and Porsche outline the mission of rebuilding cities more resource-efficient by considering energy-concepts, adapting to climate change and managing land use accordingly. Fuhrich and Godebaur concentrate on urban restructuring processes in Eastern and Western Germany. Burdack and Lange are concerned with what they call creative knowledge workers in larger cities in Central and Eastern Europe. Schmidt outlines a strategy for dealing with change in the context of Switzerland’s regional development. Despite the fact that all contributions would allow a link to resilience, such links are not made. Personally, I would have been interested in such links and would have liked to know more what, to give just one example, the possible interconnections between urban renewal and resilience are. Even some speculative thoughts would have served the purpose.
The second group of contributing authors has mostly expertise in urban and regional studies and only recently started to explore the field of resilience related research. These chapters attempt to establish linkages between topics that are situated in their respective fields of research and the concept of resilience. Lange’s chapter “Urban resilience and new institutional theory: A happy couple for urban and regional studies?” explores how the concept of resilience can help researchers to study the response of local and regional actors to socio-economic challenges. This chapter is quite relevant as a more theoretically inspired contestation with the concept of institutions would surely be beneficial for the discussion on resilience. Particularly studies on socio-ecological systems are often applying a rather common-sense based understanding of institutions lacking a more nuanced appreciation of the various schools of institutionalism.
Deppisch and Schaerffer in their contribution “Given the Complexity of Large Cities, Can Resilience be Attained at All?” demonstrate convincingly that complexity has not yet been sufficiently taken into account in recent studies on urban resilience, as most studies tend to focus on single aspects (e.g., infrastructure, ecosystems) in a stepwise and often fragmentary mode of analysis. Röhring and Gailing’s chapter touches another exciting topic – the interlinkages of stability and adaption. In “Path Dependency and Resilience: The Example of Landscape Regions” they outline the connection between path dependency theory and the concept of resilience and then introduce two case studies. The chapter by Kilper and Thurmann on “Vulnerability and Resilience: A Topic for Spatial Research from a Social Science Perspective” underlines that terms such as vulnerability and resilience offer quite a remarkable potential for social science oriented spatial research.
All four chapters are insightful and at the same share a similar weakness: They lack a systematic and more in-depth argumentation: Lange, for instance, seems to rather take it for granted that his readers are familiar with the concept of new institutionalism. Deppisch and Schaerffer’s account ends with the plea that complexity should be treated more systematically in studies on urban resilience without providing further specification of what such an endeavour would look like. Röhring and Gailing’s contribution might leave some readers curious about the nature of the interlinkages between resilience and path dependency and to what kind of construction the authors are referring to. Similarly Kilper and Thurmann’s plea that vulnerability and resilience are a fruitful topic for the social science might leave some readers a bit puzzled considering the vast body of social science literature published over the past 30 to 40 years on both topics.
The third group of contributions are placed within a discourse that looks back at some years of trying to come to terms with the concept of resilience and focus on natural hazards. Naumann and his colleagues introduce the reader to the topic “Resilience and Resistance of Buildings and Built Structures to Flood Impacts: Approaches to Analysis and Evaluation”. The authors give a good overview about the state of the art in this area of rather engineering based assessment approaches and demonstrate how their analysis is able to asses the efficiency and effectiveness of different measure or a evaluate the ideal balance of different measures. Hutter explores another aspect more in-depth: “Planning for Risk Reduction and Organizing for Resilience in the Context of Natural Hazards”. While the difference between planning for risk reduction and organizing for resilience seems at first sight trivial, this difference is quite substantial: While planning is, for instance, a future oriented process that is based on shared goals, a set of well defined categories as well as action measures; organizing for resilience is a failure oriented process, that is looking for new categories to detect new details of context and is based on a rather broad repertoire of measure and actions. Based on a quite systematic elaboration of the differences between both strategies that provides a comprehensive overview about relevant literature a reader might be interested to explore, he convincingly outlines some of the ways in which planning for risk reduction and organizing resilience might be combined.
It is best to evaluate this book on two levels. On the one hand, this is a relevant book as it introduces international readers to the state of discussion within some German research institutes. At the same time, it outlines many topics that would deserve more attention both within the German discourse but also on an international level. In this sense, this book underlines that resilience is a term that despite its fluidity and its multiple meanings, interpretation and conceptualizations stimulates exchange and discussion among and between disciplines.
On the other hand, this book might leave some readers a bit confused. First, there are some topics which appear at first sight quite promising but are not explored sufficiently. These chapters would surely have benefited considerably from some more thought, time and discussion. Second, the book lacks a summarizing or concluding chapter attempting to bring the different ideas and thoughts in relation to each other by developing a common panorama or identifying some of the major trends that were highlighted throughout the book. Admittedly, this is not an easy task. However, one wishes that some of the thoughts outlined in the book are taken up by the authors after they finished their chapters in order to develop them further. This leads to a more general observation: Some readers might even question whether “resilience” is indeed the appropriate concept to develop “strategies to prevent and recover from urban and regional distress and decline, and to cope with new social and economic challenges” (Müller). By referring to Hutter’s convincing differentiation between resilience and planning, one is wondering if many urban problems are not simply solvable by better planning, that means by focusing on well known problems, getting them on the political and public agenda and trying to tackle them? It seems to be about time to critically examine the potential and downside of this remarkably dazzling term.