What Makes A City 'Resilient?'

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As cleanup continues from yesterday's blizzard, many communities have been able to bounce back fairly quickly because of the path of the storm, as well as preparations to mitigate its affects.

Many say the travel ban implemented by Governor Baker allowed crews more time to try to keep pace with the falling snow, and to continue clearing roads after the snow wound down. It's just one of the many examples of local, and in this case state, governments planning ahead for potential disaster.

Judith Rodin says that kind of preparation and training can make all the difference, creating cities that are resilient. Rodin is president of the Rockefeller Foundation, and she writes about disaster planning and preparation in her latest book is The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong.


Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and author of The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong.


The following is an excerpt from "The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong" by Judith Rodin. Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs.

Resilience is a concept with roots in the sciences that has today evolved into a practice, a real-world, hands-on, multifaceted process of resilience building that we all can learn and master. Resilience building takes place in three phases—readiness, responsiveness, and revitalization—but the phases are not quite as distinct or as sequential as that might sound. Indeed, resilience building must be approached in a holistic, integrated, inclusive, and iterative way.


The city of Boston proved it had developed an exceptional state of readiness for a citywide disruption when, on the afternoon of April 15, 2013—Marathon Monday, as it’s known there—two improvised explosive devices detonated on Boylston Street. Although the attack was unanticipated and unpredictable, Boston had been getting ready for just such an event for more than a decade—through network building and streamlining communications to improve awareness, undertaking situational drills and exercises to fine-tune integration, and finding and adapting best practices from colleagues worldwide to bring in a broad range of ideas and solutions.

Boston has participated, for example, in Urban Shield exercises, conducted by the Metro Boston Homeland Security Region. Urban Shield is a twenty-four-hour emergency situation simulation, meant to test the capabilities and capacities of first responders, emergency managers, and other public safety personnel. The cast of characters and agencies involved in these exercises is huge and diverse, including personnel from the police and fire departments, emergency medical services (EMS), the transportation authority, local health-care facilities and educational institutions, state government, and the Coast Guard, and it has support from the US Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies. The exercise is under the supervision of a governance body called the Unified Area Command, which reviews policies and procedures, equipment and communication systems, and emergency operation centers.

These drills are meant to replicate both the physical and emotional realities of responding to a crisis. The intended real-life effect was enough that Boston mayor Thomas Menino, in advance of the first day-long drill, released a statement to the public that they should not be alarmed by “simulated gunfire” or “officers responding to simulated emergencies.” Eight hospitals in the Boston area hosted segments of the exercise, including a simulated activation of the Medical Intelligence Center, which proved integral in alerting area hospitals to the potential influx of victims on the day of the bombings. The exercise held in November 2012 also exposed weaknesses in communication between the city’s police and fire departments, which would hamper their ability to collaborate on solutions and coordinate their activities. Having discovered this vulnerability, the interoperability of the radio channels was improved after the exercise, which, according to Boston police commissioner Ed Davis, ultimately increased Boston’s capacity to respond effectively to the marathon bombings.

Boston’s readiness on the day of the marathon was also a matter of a keen awareness of the exigencies and complications of the particular event itself—the marathon draws hundreds of thousands of spectators and creates a citywide disruption all its own, albeit a positive one. So, in January 2013, the Massachusetts Emergency Management
Agency “convened a multi-agency, multidisciplinary team to develop all the plans for the 117th Boston Marathon” that worked for three months to create “operational and coordination” plans for the event.

With this plan in place, in March 2013 the Massachusetts State Emergency Operations Center hosted its annual premarathon Tabletop Exercise, which brings together members of the communities through which the marathon runs (Framingham, Ashland, Newton, Brookline, and Boston, to name a few) and federal and state officials, health and safety experts, communications teams, transportation authorities, hospitals, and volunteer organizations. One scenario they discussed involved the detonation of an improvised explosive device.

In addition to these exercises and drills, the city of Boston treats all mass-attended civic and public gatherings, such as its July 4th celebration, its First Night festivities, and championship parades (Boston has been fortunate to win eight major league sports championships since 2001) as opportunities to drill, to better learn the weaknesses and vulnerabilities in operational plans, such as gaps in communications and methods for the distribution of resources.

On the morning of the marathon, the many organizations and agencies were at full readiness and on high alert as they normally would be. A multiagency coordination center was set up, and in it were stationed personnel from most of the groups that had participated in Urban Shield exercises—Boston police, firefighters, and emergency medical, Massachusetts state police, the National Guard, and the Coast Guard, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as well as the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the race. During the marathon, staff at the coordination center maintained communications with the eight towns and cities along the marathon route (through their emergency operation centers) as well as with a host of other groups, particularly health-care facilities, to constantly add to and fine-tune their situational awareness: what was happening in real time. The effort, in short, was well integrated, and there were ample alternatives, backups, and options that could be called into action if needed.

Outside the center, the marathon organizers had brought a highly diverse set of assets to bear on the event as well. Some eight hundred volunteers were standing by to help runners and bystanders, according to the Department of Homeland Security. They tended first-aid and hydration stations, and emergency medical personnel were deployed along the race route—some on bicycles and in golf carts—all carrying “jump bags,” which contain a variety of medical and emergency supplies including defibrillators, tourniquets, and oxygen.

Boston’s readiness could not, of course, prevent the bombings from happening, but, when they did take place, the city and its people were able to respond effectively—even though the event was a shock and caused significant disruption. The high level of interagency and interdepartmental integration that had been developed during drills like Urban Shield and maintained from the coordination center during the marathon, as well as the high level of preparedness of medical personnel and staff, facilitated a response when the bombs went off that has been widely praised.


Although it’s impossible to remove all vulnerabilities, anticipate every threat, or prepare for all potential disruptions, resilient entities can continue to function effectively through both chronic stresses and acute events and regain function more rapidly once a crisis has passed. Although those officially in charge of keeping us safe and getting us through crisis—such as the many agencies that were so well prepared for the Boston Marathon—play important roles, they do not always function exactly as planned, and they are also not the only ones who respond in a crisis. We must be adaptive in our approaches and flexible in how we respond, including anticipating and leveraging the efforts of bystanders.

When the bombs detonated in Boston, for example, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick was taking a few hours off and was on his way home to relax in his garden. The explosions, thirteen seconds apart and two hundred yards away from one another, sent nails, ball bearings, and blazing-hot bits of exploded pressure cooker into the crowd of hundreds of people lining the sidewalks and cheering on family members, friends, and the field of runners in general as they concluded their feat of endurance. Patrick learned that something had happened not from any member of the multiagency coordination group but from his daughter, who called him from near the blast sites, wondering whether he knew what was going on. Mayor Menino was in the hospital after surgery to mend a broken leg and couldn’t get to the scene right away.

In the event, no one required an official voice of authority—the governor or the mayor—to tell them what to do; they put their training to work, adapting their knowledge of how other mass events unfolded to the particular circumstances of the bombings. Across the city, first responders, emergency managers, surgeons and nurses, public officials, and lots of ordinary citizens determined what needed to be done, and they did it. Within a matter of minutes, communication between EMS personnel responding at the blast sites and staff in Medical Tent A, a half block past the finish line, established the need for a triage and trauma unit. That was not what the staff at the tent had been expecting; personnel there were accustomed to dealing with fatigue, heat stroke, dehydration, diarrhea, and heart attack, but not shrapnel wounds, massive bleeding, and severed limbs. However, thanks to the advance warning, by the time victims started to arrive at the tent, staff on hand were aware of what to expect and were preparing for the worst.

They quickly applied their standard trauma-ranking protocol. Victims were tagged: red meant a critical, life-threatening injury; yellow signified an injury that was not life-threatening; and green was for a person with a minor injury or no injury. Red-tagged patients were rushed to the rear of the medical tent, closest to the access for ambulances. Stocked with IV bags, tourniquets, blood-pressure monitors, and oxygen, staff in the tent were able to stabilize victims with even the most gruesome injuries.10 Just eighteen minutes after the explosion, Boston EMS had transported thirty red-tag patients to more than half a dozen Boston area hospitals, including Massachusetts General, Brigham and Women’s, and Boston Children’s Hospital—some of the highest-quality medical facilities in the world. They, too, had been notified about the situation. Medical staff have a shift change at 3:00 pm, so there were lots of people on hand at the time of the bombings—personnel arriving for their shift and those getting ready to leave. Many of those who were at the end of their shift stayed on to help.

The blasts killed 3 people and wounded another 260, many of whom lost limbs and had their lives permanently altered—but nobody who made it to a hospital died. Although that is impressive, remarkable, perhaps even staggering, it is not miraculous; and although first responders undoubtedly saved countless lives and acted stoically in a situation of chaos and distress, they did not see themselves as heroes. They, like Boston’s hospitals, were ready. They were as aware of what was going on as they could be. They integrated their activities among individuals, agencies, and facilities. They understood the importance of rapid response and did what they had to do quickly enough to make a difference. As terrible as the circumstances were, the situation—at least as it pertained to the wounded (the search for the perpetrators was just getting under way)—had been stabilized in less than an hour.

Being prepared is not a matter of luck, unless you believe, as Branch Rickey is reputed to have said, that “luck is the residue of design.”13 Boston’s response to the marathon bombings—which saved lives, maintained order, eventually captured the lone surviving suspect, and brought a community together to heal, all in less than a
week’s time—was hardly a matter of good fortune. It was, indeed, a matter of carefully and methodically attending to building the characteristics of resilience that enable an effective response to crisis.


Resilience is not only about responding to shock and stress but also about learning and continuing to adapt and grow because of the experience. As a result, you can further increase your readiness for subsequent disruptions, find opportunities that emerge from what you have learned, effect positive changes, and build even greater resilience. This is revitalization, and it can even lead to the opening of new opportunities that take you to a whole new level of success and performance, which means you’ve achieved the resilience dividend.

The city of Boston, postbombings, achieved a remarkably speedy revitalization. Although we know that the individuals and families affected—emotionally and psychologically, as well as physically—continue to deal with the effects of what they experienced, the city itself regained full function by the end of the workweek, when the second of the two suspects was captured. The streets were reopened, businesses continued their operations, tourism did not decline—in fact, it increased.

Many factors contributed to this quick revitalization of the community, and one of the most important was that the city’s agencies and institutions purposefully brought diverse groups of people together in an integrated way. Governor Patrick was concerned that the bombings might cause cultural groups to come in conflict with one another, placing blame and pointing fingers. To help avert such a reaction, Patrick helped organize an interfaith memorial service that was held Thursday, April 18—three days after the attacks. President Obama attended and spoke, as did Nancy Taylor, senior minister and CEO of the Old South Church in Boston—located on Boylston Street and often referred to as the “Church of the Finish Line” because of its location at the end of the marathon’s 26.2-mile course. At the interfaith service, Taylor reinforced the need for the community to come together, not to split apart. “Another’s hate will not make of us haters,” she said that day. “Another’s cruelty will only redouble our mercy.”

Institutions of all kinds can play an important role in response to severe disruption and in the revitalization needed afterward if they are aware of the issues involved and are flexible enough to put their institution in service as the situation demands. Taylor says that religious institutions can be especially helpful when unpredictable events
strike, particularly those that involve terrible loss. “We have a lot of experience with this,” Taylor says. “We handle these mysteries of life and death, of good and evil, of mercy and justice. The peculiar vocation of the church in such a time is to create an opportunity for gathering, for rebuilding of the community that’s been literally shattered by the bombs. And as people run in different directions, we create opportunities for re-gathering.”

Regathering, especially in a location as steeped in community as a house of faith, is essential for a community’s restabilization, as people come together to mourn, reflect, commiserate, comfort one another, and, as Governor Patrick put it, to commit to rebuilding and restoring what was lost.

Another self-regulating element that contributed to Boston’s revitalization was the robust reaffirmation of the city’s identity and sense of place. For that, the city got a big boost from another of its venerable institutions: the Boston Red Sox, the city’s beloved baseball team. Just over a mile away from the Church of the Finish Line stands a landmark that is known to Bostonians as the “Cathedral”—I refer, of course, to Fenway Park, the oldest baseball stadium in America, opened in 1912.

It was there that an event was held on Saturday, April 20—less than a week after the bombings—that proved to be every bit as emotionally intense as the interfaith service. The Red Sox, before a park filled with Bostonians and baseball fans, led a ceremony during which they paid tribute to first responders, police officers, runners, victims and their families, and all those who had been affected by the event. Their purpose, they said, was to reaffirm Boston’s strength as a city. The remarks of David Ortiz, the long-serving Red Sox slugger, were the highlight of the event. “This jersey that we wear today,” he boomed into the microphone, “doesn’t say ‘Red Sox.’ It says ‘Boston.’ This is our fucking city, and nobody is going to dictate our
freedom!” The crowd roared.

Six months later, as if to prove that assertion to the world, the Red Sox—who had finished the previous season in last place in the American League East—beat the St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series. In early November, the team paraded through Boston in celebration along a route that took them to Boylston Street. When they reached the marathon finish line, the caravan came to a halt. A large crowd had gathered there. A player placed the World Series trophy on the yellow-painted concrete of the finish line and draped over it a jersey with the numbers “617”—Boston’s area code—and the words “Boston strong,” the same words that echoed on the street, chanted by the crowd.

In April, the site had been a scene of tragedy. In November, it was one of reaffirmation. The City of Boston was celebrating its awareness of its strength and unity as a community and its ability to respond to disruption successfully—in short, its resilience. At the running of the marathon a year later, amid heightened security (including the use of a new, citywide surveillance system that is able to pick up on and analyze suspicious behaviors or abnormal activities19) and preceded by a week-long memorialization of the prior year’s events, as many as a million people turned out to watch, cheer, and demonstrate that Boston had not only bounced back from the bombings but was stronger than ever.

This excerpt from "The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong" by Judith Rodin was reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs.

This segment aired on January 28, 2015.


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