How higher ed works with communities to build resilience

When we think of the word "resilience," we tend to think of being able to withstand and bounce back from disaster — personally, institutionally or societally. And it's true that a big part of resilience is the ability to get up, brush off and get back to business. However, when we started looking at resilience and what it might mean for higher education, as well as the role higher education could play in societal resilience, we immediately understood that it provides us with a much larger framework for success and the ability to design and drive towards positive outcomes.

In May, Second Nature, a national nonprofit that works with higher education on climate change and sustainability, announced the creation of the Alliance for Resilient Campuses. Second Nature's flagship Program, the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment, which has 684 signatory colleges and universities, representing 6.5 million students, and has reduced emissions across those campuses by more than 25 percent in its first five years. Second Nature is now complementing that effort with a network that will focus on climate adaptation and resilience.

A clear arc from need to action

ARC arose out of an expert panel, sponsored by Second Nature several years ago, that examined the role of higher education in climate adaptation and resilience. The resulting paper, "Higher Education's Role in Adapting to a Changing Climate" (PDF), clearly identified the need and potential for leadership, action and organization around adaptation and resilience in higher education.

The essence of ARC, and some of the focus for resources we are developing around this program, is connection — particularly between higher education institutions and their surrounding communities, but also with business and government. As evidence of climate change mounts in ways that are increasingly tangible, the national dialogue is broadening from a focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to acknowledging the need to build resilience. Governments, cities, businesses and higher education institutions are natural and necessary allies in meeting resilience and adaptation challenges.

A resilient community is one that has strong social relationships, an educated citizenry, a diverse and sustainable economic base, a safe and healthy environment, social and economic equity, participation in arts and cultural pursuits and a view towards the long-term. In short, all the elements for a thriving community are also ones that can also be described as making it resilient, and virtually none of these can be achieved without an active role for higher education.

But much of the language unconsciously employed around adaptation and resilience is about avoiding the worst consequences of climate change, being able to recover after disaster, dealing with risk and reducing undesirable impacts. And often, climate scientists (from higher education!) have been the main culprits in defining or perpetuating this framing.

Of course, the potential for negative climate change impacts is alarming, and all of the goals associated with reducing risk are essential, but sustainability and resilience thinking can promote tools and community practices to create positive solutions.

In ARC, we embrace this idea and define resilience so that it can be a platform and decision framework for driving the kind of thriving community described at the beginning of this paragraph. Although much of our focus is around climate-related resilience, we embed this in the broader priorities of social, economic and environmental resilience.

Building on existing strengths

It's important to note that higher education already does play a leadership role in developing resilience — indeed, it is in their mission. Many community colleges, for example, quite literally are at the center of their communities — providing equitable access to education, providing small business incubation advice and services, hosting and sponsoring cultural events and working in concert with the economic priorities of the city in educating students who more often remain local to the community after they graduate.

Credit: Second NatureIn other words, students are gathering relevant skills and knowledge that can be used not only to sustain personal employment but also to contribute to a thriving community, today and tomorrow. Liberal arts colleges and large research universities also contribute critical leadership, scientific knowledge and resources for building resilience (on and off campus), as well as the co-curricular opportunities for students and community members to work together on practical, inclusive and outcome-driven projects.

However, there are still challenges in developing a consistent and scalable approach to resilience. While many good case studies of resilience-focused efforts exist, there is relatively little understanding or awareness around appropriate indicators of success and true best practices.

So, in providing an alliance that enhances the role of higher education in creating a resilient society, ARC aims to dramatically improve the information base and toolkit for campus and community climate adaptation and resilience planning, implementation and monitoring. And we will do so in partnership with community and corporate-focused efforts that will enable broad relevance. ARC will offer a blended approach of vetted climate science, scenarios and other information resources, a robust suite of online applications, and opportunities for face-to-face networking and learning that serves local communities, regions and SN's national network of higher education institutions. This will often build on strong existing networks at the local and regional scales.

A rigorous community engagement process is essential for us to clarify priorities and the overall framework and tools for ARC, and we will start work in several pilot cities. We facilitate the development of community resilience plans and projects using innovative techniques that fully integrate the knowledge, priorities, values and needs of community members.

Embracing the positive

A positive outcomes approach to climate change risk and vulnerability assessment that is based on local culture, community values, aspirations and ideas about desirable end results will be a centerpiece of the program. Through ARC, we will develop and test a place-based, climate resilience planning approach that integrates science with local culture and priorities. This approach will be grounded in place, but scalable to other locations.

This will necessarily involve an approach that expands existing community connections, empowers students and other community members to facilitate community conversations, creates new leaders, and truly engages residents, local businesses and organizations. We hope it will be an effective means of addressing vulnerabilities while creating a better future, not just a less vulnerable one.

If your campus, business, or community would like to learn more, please e-mail us at resilience@secondnature.org.

Top image of University of Michigan library building by SNEHIT via Shutterstock.