5 minute read 1 Nov 2018
Triangular church with stained glass

How governments can work with communities to strengthen resilience planning


EY Global

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

5 minute read 1 Nov 2018

After a devestating earthquake, Christchurch, New Zealand began to explore the concept of resilience. Mayor Lianne Dalziel offers her thoughts on the city’s experience.

Resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities and urban systems to survive, adapt and grow in response to change. But nothing tests a city’s resilience more than an unanticipated disaster. On 4 September 2010, an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale struck the South Island of New Zealand, causing widespread property damage in the greater Christchurch area. Six months later, on 22 February, a second earthquake struck. The epicenter was located directly beneath Christchurch; 185 people lost their lives.

In the wake of this tragedy, the leaders and citizens of Christchurch began to explore the concept of resilience and what it meant relative to their environment. We had the chance to sit down with Lianne Dalziel, the Mayor of Christchurch, to get her thoughts on the city’s experience in the wake of these devastating earthquakes.

Christchurch rubble earthquake image

EY: In the aftermath of the earthquakes, what did you do and what did you learn?

Dalziel: I went through a journey of discovery, trying to learn as much as possible. And what kept coming up was the concept of resilience. It wasn’t the meaning of resilience in the somewhat patronizing way that people would come to Christchurch and say: “Oh my, you are all so resilient!” It was resilience in the true sense of the word, which is the capacity to absorb adversity to adapt to a new environment. The true meaning of resilience also reflects the very human capacity to co-create a new environment, a new future.

This then led me to two additional discoveries that I find incredibly powerful. One is that you don’t have to wait until a disaster to build a high level of social capital, defined as the networks of relationships that bind communities together and help them function most effectively. And two, there are no distinctions between disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptability and sustainable development. They all fall under the lens of resilience; they’re part of the same story.

EY: What are the respective roles of governments and communities in resilience building?

Dalziel: If governments try to do and control too much, the essence of what it is to be a community can be lost. What we’re looking for with our resilience efforts is handing back responsibility to communities with the support of the Council.

Our role is to support communities to do things themselves. After the earthquake, communities that already had high levels of social capital were the quickest to respond and the quickest to recover. Communities that developed social capital during the process of the earthquakes still have it today. So while you don’t want to wait for disasters, they can represent practical opportunities for people to build more resilient communities.

A photographic portrait of Liannel Dalziel

EY: What has the relationship with the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities network brought the city?

Dalziel: One of the first things I did when I became Mayor was to sign the official nomination of our city for the 100 Resilient Cities network. We now have a Chief Resilience Officer and a Resilient Greater Christchurch Plan. But just as importantly, we made connections with other cities that are dealing with resilience from a range of different perspectives.

Being a part of the network taught us that resilience isn’t just about preparing or reacting to a natural disaster like an earthquake. It’s also about addressing endemic challenges that are slower to unfold but equally debilitating, such as the devastation of a city through unemployment, the loss of industries, or even a pandemic — an outbreak of disease that affects a large number of the population.

EY: Can you give some examples of community-driven resilience?

Dalziel: We had a community come to the Greater Christchurch Council last week. They said that they wanted to buy a church that had been abandoned. The community won a competition to fix the building, as it is out of level due to the earthquake. They told the Council that the community was going to clean up the site. They told us that they have a business plan to bring in a café, organize other rental accommodations and make the building a community hub.

We agreed to help them buy it. It’s completely driven from the community but we, the Council, will support them. It’s a completely different way of doing things. Normally, we would go to the community and say that we’re going to build you a community center and let’s have your input. But this is the other way around.

Another example is the Lyttelton project, in which the Lyttelton community created a time bank. Citizens offer their services to other citizens through the time bank. And one hour of work equals one hour of work. You might be filing a tax return for a neighbor, while that person might be providing childcare for someone else. And when you know your neighbors because you do things for each other and the measure of contribution is hour for hour, not dollar for dollar, you’ve got an incredibly strong base for response and recovery after a disaster.

EY: What can other cities learn from Christchurch’s experiences?

Dalziel: Don’t establish a new organization to rebuild the city that is disconnected from the existing local authorities. In our case, the government established the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), but it wasn’t an authority underpinned by an independent board; it was a government department.

It’s really important to look at what you already have in a city. You need to ask: what community-based authorities or networks are already in place and how can you strengthen them? At the end of the day, an organization like CERA will be dissolved while local authorities and community organizations will remain in place and they need to be stronger than they were before.

Four key takeaways for urban leaders
  • Don’t wait for a disaster to address the challenge of making a city more resilient for the future.
  • Resilience is not an endpoint. It’s about what a city is becoming, and that is constantly changing. Resilience requires constant refreshing.
  • Build social capital now. When disaster strikes, leverage the communities already in place. Find innovative ways to strengthen the connections between and within communities, as well as community relationships with decision-makers.
  • Partner with organizations such as the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities network. Learn from other cities and their experiences.


To improve resilience planning, cities must evaluate the community-based networks already in place and how they can be strengthened.

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EY Global

Multidisciplinary professional services organization