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Explainer: What is community resilience?

Climate change and income insecurity are changing the shape of communities across Canada. This past year, millions of people felt firsthand the effects of extreme heat, flooding, lack of affordable housing, layoffs or unsafe working conditions, the COVID-19 pandemic and more. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for many to get by, and to find the time, resources or energy to fully participate in their communities.

These challenges are connected to each other. For instance, people who face homelessness are much more vulnerable to extreme weather. Houses in lower-income neighbourhoods may be less likely to have tree coverage or sufficient air conditioning, worsening the effects of heat waves like the ones we saw this past summer. Together, climate change and income insecurity make it difficult for communities to ensure the health and safety of their members.

In conditions like these, how can communities in Canada build or maintain resilience?

Community resilience is a community’s ability to meet, respond to and recover from complex challenges like the ones brought on by climate change and income insecurity. When we talk about building resilience, we’re talking about ensuring communities have the tools they need to respond to the impacts of things like severe weather, global pandemics or the wide-ranging impacts of a low-carbon transition

To be able to build resilience, community members first need to have their basic needs met. They also need the time, resources and energy to participate in resilience-building activities with fellow community members. Some policy measures (like a basic income or a just transition) are designed to do just that: make sure that as Canada’s economy changes, no one is left behind, and everyone is able to have a say in building and strengthening their community.

What does a resilient community look like? The answer can vary widely by community, based on not only their economic, environmental and social realities but also the unique strengths and assets. Some of those strengths could include (but aren’t limited to):

  • A strong sense of social cohesion among community members
  • Equitable access to food, shelter, healthcare and financial security
  • Social supports in place for people who need them (eg. shelters, co-operative housing, supervised consumption sites, community groups and organizations)
  • Safe, healthy and secure jobs
  • Access to affordable, convenient public transit
  • Culture of volunteering or organizing/participating in community events
  • Strong leadership or governance

Below are two examples of resilience-building activities ongoing in communities across Canada.

St. James Town Community Cooperative, Toronto ON: The St. James Town Community Co-op was established to address food security issues in one of Toronto’s most diverse neighbourhoods. 

Their website states that “The community of St. James Town is one of the most highly educated and culturally diverse urban pockets in the world, with an estimated 140 languages spoken and 0.46 graduate degrees per capita. Home to majority newcomers, this densely populated high-rise, low-income neighbourhood has, unfortunately, remained overlooked and underserved for several decades.”

One of their major projects is the OASIS Food Hub, a community-run system that integrates everything in the food cycle from production and distribution to waste management.

The OASIS model was introduced to address systemic food insecurity in the community: in 2021, 69.1% of 180 surveyed St. James Town residents said that they always or sometimes relied on a food bank, and the COVID pandemic has further limited access to healthy, affordable and culturally relevant food.

Currently, the co-op operates a Good Food Buying Club that provides members with access to affordable, ecologically grown food from local farmers and suppliers, as well as a community garden.

In addition to helping to meet community members’ basic needs, the OASIS Food Hub is helping to create a food system that is climate resilient and socioeconomically just.

The OASIS Food Hub is in phase 0.5 of a five-phase plan that will eventually include aquaponic growing, converting waste into fuel and fertilizer, rooftop farming and more. You can read more about their work here.

EOS Eco Energy, Sackville NB: Environmental organization EOS “envisions a safe, thriving and resilient Chignecto Region in the face of climate change.” They work to promote climate change adaptation, sustainability planning and more in the Chignecto Region of southeastern New Brunswick, an area vulnerable to flooding, coastal storms, droughts and heatwaves, invasive species and more. 

EOS works with a range of actors (governments, individuals, communities) and focuses on activities like energy efficiency, renewable energy, sustainability planning and watershed health. Past and present projects have included piloting a regional shuttle service between rural areas lacking sufficient access to public transit, monitoring watersheds in the Chignecto Isthmus region and organizing community education activities related to climate change and sustainability.

EOS recently developed a list of 50 ways to inspire resilience to climate change in the town of Sackville, grouped into categories such as food, transportation, health and wellness and more. For instance, since the town is vulnerable to floods and coastal storms, reducing flood risk in homes and buildings is an important pillar of building community resilience and the guide contains several short- and long-term tips for doing so.

Several of their recommendations also aim to increase public engagement on issues related to community resilience to climate change, like education and skill building, establishing a newcomer program and creating a local sustainability coordinator position.

It’s inspiring to see how communities across Canada are working to build resilience in diverse and innovative ways, and we believe that as Canada transitions to a lower-carbon economy it’s crucial that we remove barriers to doing so. With the right policy measures in place, we can ensure that everyone has what they need to live safe, healthy and dignified lives and to have a say in how their communities respond to times of change or crisis.

Over the course of the Green Resilience Project, we’ll hear from the communities we partner with about what resilience activities they’d like to see in their own regions, and what support or resources they might need to achieve them. We’ll be sharing some of those findings on our Community Partner Blog.

Our explainer blog series takes a closer look at the key concepts that guide the Green Resilience Project. To view the entire series, click here.