Q&A with Kathryn Foster, creator of the Resilience Capacity Index, a new tool for urban planners

With the release today of the Resilience Capacity Index, we sat down with RCI creator and BRR Network member Kathryn Foster for a Q and A about the site.

BRR:  Let’s start at the beginning.  What is the Resilience Capacity Index (RCI)?

Foster: As the Network studies make clear, there are two basic ways to think about resilience.  One is as a performance measure—how well did my region respond to and recover from a stress?  The other is as a capacity measure—how well positioned is my region to respond and recover effectively from a stress?  The RCI focuses on capacity.  It is a single ranking number that accounts for 12 factors we believe make regions more resilient.  We have information on 361 U.S. metropolitan regions.

BRR: What are the 12 factors that go into the score?

Foster: They come in three categories:  1) the regional economy, 2) social and demographic factors, and 3) community connectivity. Regional economy measures economic diversification, income equality, regional affordability, and overall business environment.  Socio-demographic factors account for educational attainment in the region and the share living in poverty, the share with disabilities, and with health insurance. Community connectivity include voter participation, homeownership, metropolitan stability (how long people have lived in the region), and civic infrastructure, a measure of civic organizational density.  In all cases, having more of these factors signals higher levels of resilience capacity.

BRR: A region’s economic diversity and lower rates of poverty seem like obvious factors when thinking about resilience. We hear constantly, for example, that regions with more diverse industries are able to better withstand change. But why civic participation, or the share of the population with health insurance?

Foster: Civic participation is a measure of civic engagement.  To the degree that places have community networks, they have not only a foundation for assistance and support in a time of crisis, but also the means through which residents can learn about, understand, invest in, and take care of their communities.  When stresses come, such civic infrastructure can be key to effective response and recovery.  Likewise with health insurance. Having health insurance provides a foundation for social, physical, and economic security.  Individuals without health insurance simply have less capacity in the moment of crisis to respond effectively to a challenge or face a crisis.  At the regional scale, a large proportion of people or households without health insurance signals a regional vulnerability and hence lower resilience capacity.

BRR: How did you arrive at these 12 factors? What kind of research went into the project?

Foster: The factors come from review of the work in fields from disaster studies to psychology.  Many fields use resilience concepts to understand vulnerability and crisis response, and we mined their findings for the RCI.  The site’s “sources and notes” section identifies studies associated with each factor included in the index.  The lack of certain metropolitan-level data forced us to exclude some promising factors from the index, but everything in the index has a basis in earlier research.

BRR:  So by these factors, which metropolitan area has the most capacity for resilience?

Foster: The top-ranked metropolitan area is Rochester, MN, a small region (<250,000 population) in southeast Minnesota, and home to the Mayo Clinic. How the Rochester region achieves its top rank shows just how the index works. Rochester scores particularly well on socio-demographic capacity factors, including having the highest percentage of its population above poverty of all 361 metropolitan areas.  It also has very high levels of residents with no disability and with health insurance as well as high educational attainment.  The region is also very high in homeownership and voter participation, both of which are community connectivity factors.  These factors offset relatively low levels for business environment and economic diversification.

BRR:  Would this mean Rochester, MN, is destined to perform well in the face of a regional challenge?

Foster: We can’t guarantee that, just as we can’t guarantee that an individual with seemingly strong circumstances such as affluence, good health and high educational attainment will automatically perform well in the face of a crisis, such as losing a job, illness or other challenge.  Each instance of crisis is obviously case specific.  What we can say, though, is that Rochester has many of the characteristics that matter when it comes to being prepared for, or maybe even thwarting, a stress or strain to come.  In a similar vein, regions that have a low RCI are not destined to falter in the face of crisis.

BRR:  What’s an example of a place with low resilience capacity?

Foster: For metro regions with more than 1 million people, the lowest-ranked is Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL.  Despite above-average scores in economic diversification, business environment, civic infrastructure, metropolitan stability and the share of the population without a disability—a factor that reflects the relatively young population in the region—Miami suffers from very low income equality, regional affordability, the percentage with health insurance, and low levels of voter participation.  These factors erode its capacity, leaving it with the overall lowest RCI for large metros.

BRR:  What about leadership and governance? Why no indicator of that in the RCI? And what role do they play in fostering resilience?

Foster: There is no uniform way or national data set providing a measure for “good governance,” so such factors, which almost certainly matter, are not captured by the RCI.  The RCI is thus a tool to help regional leaders identify factors on which they are relatively stronger or weaker, but it is certainly not a crystal ball for forecasting outcomes.

BRR:  Are there any larger, regional trends?

Foster: Yes.  Metropolitan regions in the Northeast and Midwest tend to have more resilience capacity than those in the South or West, largely because these regions earn high scores for regional affordability, the proportion of their population that is insured, rates of homeownership and metropolitan stability.  Notably, these factors coincide in some instances with a relatively slow-growing economy.  The RCI is a measure not of how well these regions have performed economically, though.  The factors of stability and connectivity that may hurt these regions in other metropolitan rankings help them in this index.

BRR:  Where is the research going from here?

Foster: In two directions.  One is to continue work I’m currently undertaking with BRR Network member Bill Barnes to better measure governance capacity.  It’s a hard concept to quantify, even when we can identify concepts, such as leadership or a region’s state or federal influence, that matter to successful regional outcomes.  A second thrust is going on now with the case study work of BRR members who are delving into particular cases of preparation and response to crisis.  Individual region stories will provide insights on which factors matter and how, enabling us to improve the RCI.

2 Responses to Q&A with Kathryn Foster, creator of the Resilience Capacity Index, a new tool for urban planners

  1. Jim Ford says:

    Great project. Note that people in the transition movement (Transition Towns)are attempting to built resilience to face future energy shortages and price increases. (There is more to it than that…) You might want to check out this movement.