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March 31, 2011

Regional resilience: Pittsburgh ranks high in study

Kathryn Foster

Kathryn Foster

The Pittsburgh metropolitan region ranks very high — 32nd overall among 361 national metro areas — in an ongoing study measuring metropolitan regional resilience.

“Pittsburgh is, in so many ways, the poster child for regional resilience,” said Kathryn Foster, director of the University of Buffalo (UB) Regional Institute. “From the post-war smoky city when Pittsburgh was an industrial powerhouse, bolstered by the Allegheny Conference and other local stakeholders, the city transformed itself over the subsequent decades into a beautiful, viable place.”

Foster delivered the Wherrett Lecture on Local Government March 24, speaking on “The Art and Science of Regional Resilience.” The lecture is sponsored by Pitt’s Center for Metropolitan Studies (formerly the Innovation Clinic), part of the Graduate School for Public and International Affairs.

“Resilience is very trendy today, an oft-used metaphor in many realms and fields,” including psychology, ecology, engineering and organizational management, said Foster, who also is an associate professor and former chair of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at UB.

“Regional resilience got a major boost of attention with the Katrina disaster and the oil disaster on the Gulf coast. The question of whether the area could rise again — Could it be resilient to that type of disaster? — has been on everybody’s mind, including President Obama, who said of New Orleans on the fifth anniversary of Katrina, ‘This city has become the symbol of resilience and of the responsibility we have to one another.’”

Since 2007, Foster and a team of researchers, scholars and policymakers at the MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on Building Resilient Regions have been tackling the topic, trying to figure out how resilience pertains to metropolitan regions.

“In general, resilience of all kinds coalesces in its association with flexibility, adaptability and redundancy. Rigidity is no friend of resilience. One has to roll with the punches,” to bend as a tree does in a strong wind, Foster said.

“These concepts inform a very simple definition that we can begin to apply to regions: The key to the concept is the ‘bounce-back,’ that ability to recovery from stresses.”

As it applies to metropolitan regions, resilience is both a measure of performance and a measure of capacity, she explained.

“In our research group, we spent more time than is perhaps healthy debating which of these concepts we wanted to use for our work. I think both concepts are important — defining resilience as the ability to anticipate, prepare for, respond to and recover from a stress,” Foster said.

“It’s all part of a cycle: Let’s anticipate what might hit us as a region down the pike — tough winters, an earthquake, a tsunami, whatever. Let’s anticipate those and therefore prepare for them,” whether that means developing policies or strengthening infrastructure, she said.

“That will be our capacity. Then we’ll go through a period of performance when a shock or stress does come, to respond to it and to recover from it, and that in itself will bring us more capacity. It works on itself: The more capacity you have, the better the performance; the better the performance, the more capacity you have.”

But as the researchers delved deeper into the topic of regional resilience, Foster said, they confronted a series of methodological and conceptual challenges, which she dubbed “the five factors that keep us honest in this work.”

Factor No. 1 is distinguishing between absolute ability to recover and the relative, or comparative, ability to do so.

“Imagine a stress coming, and as a result your region’s performance and functioning drops,” she said. “If we’re using an absolute definition, does that mean you’re only resilient if you bounce back all the way to where you were before? If we use a relative definition, we compare the bounce-back of other regions that have experienced that stress.”

Both are legitimate, Foster said. “But I find in my work that even though I love the idea of an absolute definition of resilient — either you are or you aren’t — I find myself measuring relative resilience a lot.”

Factor No. 2 is asking: Resilience of what? “In the wake of a shock, you can imagine measuring the performance of many dimensions of recovery: your environment, your economy, your government functioning, your health, your public safety, your civic engagement, your technology, your communication. Likely, they will not all bounce back equally well,” and will vary in length of recovery time, she said.

“In addition to the resilience of what, you also have the challenge of resilience to what,” Foster said, describing factor No. 3.

“For example, blizzards, earthquakes, floods, a terrorist attack — these are acute shocks. They can hit in a moment, sometimes without warning.”

But there also is a second kind of stress, where there is no immediate cause or event. “A decaying set of buildings, for example. The cause is a longer series of forces and factors — economic, social, physical, political — that created what we call a chronic stress, a stress that can take place over decades. Its causes can be numerous: economic decline, lack of sustained growth, suburbanization, poverty. But those are the kinds of ongoing stresses that a region also wants to be resilient to.”

Measuring a region’s response to acute stresses is a lot easier than measuring chronic-stress response, she noted.

Factor No. 4 is how to apply a timeframe to a successful response, Foster said. “It depends on what needs to recover. If you lose electric power, for example, you want that back on quickly, no more than a matter of hours; with other things, such as an environmental recovery after an earthquake, it might take years to recover. So when do we declare something resilient when there are all different periods of time and expectations?”

Factor No. 5 involves defining whether returning to “normal”  constitutes desirable resilience.

“It works for certain things. For example, you want your body temperature after a fever to return to its normal 98.6 degrees,” Foster said.

But, given the infrastructure in New Orleans prior to Katrina, “is the goal to return to that situation, or can the crisis create an opportunity to transform ourselves into something else that’s better?” she explained.

“As we continue to grapple with these factors, together they suggest that the science of resilience, at least as it pertains to regions, is still in its infancy,” Foster said.

Despite those caveats, Foster and her colleagues are pressing on with their study of regional resilience.

“We developed a model that would reveal more about the capacity of resilience and that might help regional leaders to think about what they should strengthen,” Foster explained.

The model has three categories, each with four dimensions, or indicators.

“Remember, this model is for an entire metropolitan region, not just the inner city,” she noted, as she presented an outline of the model and where the Pittsburgh region ranked nationally within the categories.

Regional economic capacity. This category includes the four indicators: rate of growth of the gross metropolitan product (GMP), defined as the market value of all goods and services produced within the region; the degree of economic diversity in the region; relative income equality of the workforce, and the affordability of housing and goods and services.

In terms of regional economic capacity, Pittsburgh is slightly above the national metro area mean in GMP, economic diversity and affordability, and slightly below the mean in relative income equality, ranking the Pittsburgh region 172nd out of the 361 national metro regions, Foster said.

• Sociodemographic capacity. The four indicators in this category are average educational attainment of the population; the percentage of people living above the poverty line; the percentage of the population with health insurance, and the percentage of people with disabilities.

Foster said that, in this category, the Pittsburgh metro region, due to its aging population, ranks below the national mean in percentage of disabled residents; slightly above in average educational attainment and in those living out of poverty, and well above in percentage of people who have health insurance.

“That [last indicator] may be a remnant of relatively high union representation,” she said. “Some people see that as a negative, but to the degree it affects the rate of those who have health insurance, it’s a positive.”

The Pittsburgh region’s overall rank in this category is 79th.

• Community connectivity, defined as more familiarity and identification with the community. The four indicators are: home ownership rates; metro stability, that is, a transient versus a stable population; rate of participation in a faith community, and rate of voter participation.

In this category, the Pittsburgh region is slightly above the national mean in home ownership rates and voter participation (based on 2008 voting data), and well above the mean in metro stability and faith community participation, ranking it 16th nationally.

“You have a lot of people who stay here their whole lives and have a strong identification to the region,” Foster commented.

The Pittsburgh region’s composite score, incorporating all 12 indicators, ranks 32nd overall in resilience capacity, according to the study.

Foster also presented data comparing three metro regions with comparable population size to the Pittsburgh region.

Baltimore, which ranked 75th overall, scored well in economic capacity and sociodemographics, but scored poorly on community connectivity, because it has a more transient population than Pittsburgh, Foster said.

Ditto for Portland, which finished 98th overall, but also scored quite low on community connectivity, due to a more transient population.

San Antonio, which ranked 226th, scored high on regional economic capacity, but very low in the other two categories, she noted.

“What we like about these comparisons, if you buy this model, is that you can begin to see where a place can press harder if it wanted to grow in resilience capacity,” Foster said.

However, she acknowledged that the big picture remains incomplete.

“There are a lot of reasons why you might not like this analysis,” she said, including that the variables in the study were weighted equally; that other appropriate variables may have been omitted, and, especially, that the role of governments in resilience capacity is not included.

“Surely, your capacity and performance should have something to do with governance. Surely, governance is a player in a region’s ability to recover,” she said.

“We felt, however, if we were going to tell a story about regional governance in this context, you have to define it and you have to be able to measure it. But how do I measure governance across a metropolitan region? We realized those efforts to achieve goals will vary across regions, will vary across time within regions and will vary by policy choices within a region,” making it difficult to measure outcomes or compare regions, Foster said.

“What we argue is that governance in this context is simply defined as deliberate efforts by multiple actors to achieve goals in multi-jurisdictional settings,” she explained. “If you’re a good problem-solver, no matter what your structure is, if you’ve figured out the processes and policies that enable you to meet your goals, that’s effective regional governance. There’s nothing relevant about structure here, nothing about the number of governments or about fragmentation.”

—Peter Hart

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