Ranking the 'resilience' of hundreds of U.S. cities

How well will metros manage shocks, such as earthquakes and economic meltdowns?
Written by Christina Hernandez Sherwood, Contributing Writer

How well will U.S. cities manage shocks, such as earthquakes and economic meltdowns? More than 360 metros were ranked on the new Resilience Capacity Index, created by Kathryn Foster, director of the Regional Institute at the University at Buffalo.

I spoke recently with Foster about the index -- and how local leaders can use the findings. Below are excerpts from our interview.

You ranked more than 360 U.S. metros for their “regional resilience.” What does that term mean?

There are two basic ways to think about resilience. One is performance, meaning how well a region responded to and recovered from some challenge. That challenge could be an acute shock, like an earthquake or a flood. Or it could be what we call a chronic challenge, a slow burn like economic decline. When we first started on the index, a goal was to measure how well places bounced back from shock. We realized we don't have a good data set for that. We don't have 360 metropolitan regions that have faced the same kind of shock at roughly the same time in a way we could legitimately measure them.

Instead, we measured resilience as a capacity to do well, a capacity to cope with an unknown future challenge. It was a generalized index of the kind of factors that have been hypothesized to matter for responding well to a crisis. The resilience capacity index identifies and uses 12 factors that are thought of as the kinds of factors that would make you more resilient in the face of a crisis.

What are the 12 factors?

We made three categories and there are four factors in each category:

Regional Economic Capacity

  • Diversification - The familiar notion that if you're going to be resilient, you don't want to put all your eggs in one basket in terms of the economy. It gives preference to the economy that is diversified, rather than specialized.
  • Business Environment - This is a general index that incorporates factors such as small business churn, venture capital and characteristics that have to do with broadband access. It's a general index for innovation.
  • Regional Affordability - This is a measure that relates housing costs to median income, so you get a sense of how affordable this place is. More affordable places tend to be more resilient because you don't have so many people stretched to the limit.
  • Income Equality - This is a measure of the degree to which the distribution of incomes in your region isn't skewed.

Socio-demographic Capacity

  • Educational Attainment - The degree to which you have people that have an education tends to mean more opportunities available to them.
  • Without a Disability - The percentage of the population that does not have a disability. A disability can be, especially for an acute crisis, particularly challenging.
  • Being out of Poverty - People with more means, more resources at hand, will have more opportunity to cope in a challenge.
  • Proportion of Population that has Health Insurance - This is a generalized measure. In the moment of a crisis, if you have health insurance you have more availability of care. Also, it's a general measure of how stable people are in that region. A large proportion of the population without health insurance is a vulnerability for that region.

Community Connectivity

  • Civic Infrastructure - A measure of the civic organizations in the community. It's a proxy for civic engagement for the people in that area.
  • Home Ownership - This is a basic measure for connectivity. As a general rule, home ownership signals a real commitment to place.
  • Voter Participation - A standard measure that's often used to signal activity and interest.
  • Metropolitan Stability - This is the measure of the stability in one residence in a place for a number of years. Places that have a lot of mobility, or people moving around, tend to be less resilient. You're not as familiar with the place, so in a shock you might not know the escape route. Also, metropolitan stability lets you know who your neighbors are.

Why is it important to know what an area's resilience is?

We wanted to get a sense of how regional leaders could know what kinds of policies or conditions would put them in the best position to cope well in a time of stress. As we were beginning this network, we were coming out of the Hurricane Katrina situation. It was so evident that this region was challenged by this storm. It was compounded by some of the underlying conditions in that area. This index doesn't have everything in it, but we thought it would give an opportunity for regional leaders to look at their regions from the point of view of their assets and strength, and also where they're weak. This helps them know where they should be investing their time and dollars to create the best conditions to be able to cope well in the time of a crisis. It's a policy tool. It's an awareness that you have this kind of vulnerability.

There are two kinds of factors missing here that we believe matter a great deal, depending on the kind of crisis. Neither one is incorporated into the index because when we measure something across 360 metropolitan regions, we have to find data sets that are comparable. For these kinds of data sets, we don't now have the comparable data sets. There's nothing in here about the environment and the infrastructure of a region, the degree to which a region's communication networks are high-quality or the degree to which the air and water resources are in good shape. We hope someday we'll get from Homeland Security or elsewhere some kind of metric. The second big category is governance and questions of leadership and political culture. A region is made of autonomous jurisdictions and they have to be able to pull it together in a crisis. We don't have a metric that would measure across 360 places how good the government is.

Is this a next step, to try to develop metrics for these categories? How are you continuing this work?

For myself, I'm working to try to better measure governance capacity. It's hard to quantify, but we can identify concepts: leadership, state or federal influence. I have a co-author and we're starting to explore those measures of regional governance.

The other work that's going on now is a series of case studies that delve into particular metropolitan regions that have had a crisis. It will look in great detail at how they were prepared and how they responded. We think those individual case studies will provide insights on what matters most and enable us to improve this index.

No. 1 on your list was Rochester, Minn. Why?

Several places in Minnesota, and for that matter in the Midwest and the Northeast, tended to do fairly well on the index. The reality here is that the slower growing regions actually have more capacity to withstand the shock. It's counter-intuitive, but they tend to be stable. They're often more affordable. There are higher rates of home ownership and they tend to have greater income equality. These are places that tend to have connected residents that live there for a long time, high levels of civic capacity and they may be diversified in terms of their business climate. Rochester, Bismarck, Minneapolis tend to share those characteristics. Rochester, Minn., is home to the Mayo Clinic. That is not a sign of diversity in terms of your economy, but in this case they're specialized in a really good area to be specialized in right now.

Image: Resilience Capacity Index map

Photo: Kathryn Foster

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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