Community disaster resilience dependence on infrastructure

By Scott B. Miles, Ph.D.1

1Resilience Institute, Department of Environmental Studies, Western Washington University, 516 High St, MS 9085 Bellingham, WA 98225.


This paper issues a call to improve the conceptual underpinnings of community resilience to disasters as it relates to infrastructure. It is argued’ that, broadly, infrastructure is the combination of both capital and services. Loss and recovery, and thus resilience, of infrastructure do not make practical sense without consideration of both. Specifically, infrastructure is characterized by its relationship to other infrastructure, agents, possible disruptions, possible interventions, jurisdictions and markets. Based on this and previous development work related to the resilience simulation model ResilUS, the beginnings of a new conceptual model are proposed. The comprehensive nature of the model suggests it is appropriate for planning purposes. The conceptual model provides opportunities for advancing ResilUS, specifically, and infrastructure and community resilience research and planning broadly. It facilitates the creation of a database schema for infrastructure loss and restoration and its impact on indicators of community resilience. Population of this schema will push understanding of community resilience and facilitate the development of better tools for supporting resilience planning.


While resilience is still a contested concept, particularly related to communities and disasters, the contestation suggests perceived utility by a wide range of practitioners and scholars. There are many definitions of resilience. However, whether the topic is psychology, physics, engineering, or disasters, there is essential agreement around the capacity to handle and bounce back from stress – anyhow each of those goals are specifically defined or achieved. For community resilience to disasters (or disruptions in general), infrastructure resilience, specifically, is a core issue and arguably, a required capacity for the broader goal. Infrastructure, it is argued here, is the combination of both capitals (physical assets) and services derived from those capitals. Infrastructure resilience to disasters has gained considerable attention recently, but the conceptual models of infrastructure, resilience to disasters, and the connection between the two are underdeveloped. Without more robust conceptual models, empirical research, computational modeling, and community resilience capacity building is hindered.

Many conceptual models of infrastructure resilience, of the few specific ones in the literature, take a narrow focus. Often the focus is on structural, technical or functional aspects of the system. In doing so, the concept in many instances won’t match peoples’ needs or expectation for performance of infrastructure in response to disruption as they relate to their livelihoods and well being. Few are likely to consider, for example, that disrupted water infrastructure has been restored if the ruptured pipes are repaired but no potable water comes out of the tap. A telephone company will not bounce back from severed lines, if there is not enough demand for their service after repairs are made. If collapsed transmission towers are replaced but trained SCADA operators are not available to manage electrical distribution, customers probably won’t consider their electricity provider as having recovered. A bridge damaged by a particular seismic intensity and built back to a lower seismic design load wouldn’t be perceived as resilient to the same or greater hazard by engineers and planners. A final example might be a jurisdiction that ignores population growth needs for increased wastewater treatment capacity or redundancy, resulting in untreated discharge during a large storm event.

The conceptual model described here builds upon existing work on ResilUS, a prototype simulation model of community resilience to disasters (Miles and Chang, 2011; Miles and Chang, 2007; Miles and Chang, 2006; Miles and Chang, 2003), while integrating other contributions from the literature. ResilUS represents socio-economic agents – households and businesses – within particular neighborhoods, which are contained within a broader community. ResilUS represents damage and recovery associated with a hazard event to three elements of community capital – economic, human (or, for businesses, individual), and technological, which is limited to buildings and lifelines – transportation network, electrical network, water network and critical facilities. The following section describes the new conceptual model as an artifact for further discussion and development. The paper concludes by redoubling the call for improved conceptual models of infrastructure resilience.

New Conceptual Model of Infrastructure and Community Resilience

Figure 1 provides an overview of the proposed conceptual model. It describes general relationships within a community related to four components of resilience – community capital, services, well being, and community identity. The model starts on the bottom depicting the means and progresses up as evolving ends to illustrate that infrastructure, as the combination of capitals and services, is the means to the ends of agent well being and community identity (Monstadt, 2009; Little, 1999).

Capital refers to a stock of assets used to create or obtain additional assets and derive services. This concept applies to many types of assets including financial, ecological and social (Putnam, 2001; Daly, 1997). Community capital refers to any asset, whether corporeal or not, that a community requires for well being and identity (Fey et al., 2006). The classification and distinction of community capital vary in the literature. Here, six types of community capital are proposed for representing community resilience: human, social, economic, political, natural, and technological.


Figure 1. Conceptual model linking infrastructure, as capital plus services, with community well being and identity.

Well being – a mediator of community identity – and capital are linked by a complex set of service dependencies (Costanza, 2000). As a result, the avoidance of and recovery from possible disruptions of these services is required for sustainable well being. Services are measurable flows or perishable goods provided by or consumed by an agent. Different services require different types of capital (Olewiler, 2006; Millennium Assessment, 2005; Olewiler, 2004; de Groot et al., 2002; Costanza et al., 1997). Services have attributes the values of which make each unique and beneficial for deriving well being. The range of possible or critical service attributes is undetermined at this point, requiring further research and input. Obviously, functionality of the service is the foundation of its utility. Whether a different type of capital (e.g., rail vs. road) can be substituted for the service (e.g., transportation) and whether the service is required for well being determines whether the infrastructure is critical (Brand, 2009). A service’s rivalrousness and excludability influences the degree to which they are available to agents (Fisher et al., 2009; Frischman, 2005). Services exist in space and time related to other capitals and the community itself (Fisher et al., 2009). Services have monetary and other costs that influence decisions to use them. Lastly, services exhibit attributes of efficiency and sufficiency that define the rate and minimum level of necessary capital use to provide for basic well being.

Well-being is associated with agents – individuals defined at any scale associated with some community (e.g., households or businesses). A community is any collection of agents that can refer to themselves as “members.” Agents are actors that have some degree of power at any scale relative to other agents. This power dictates whether agents can access the infrastructure they need or want and whether they can take interventions that influence loss avoidance or recovery of these infrastructures. The constituents of well being are material wealth, health, social relations, and freedom (Leemans, 2009). The concept of freedom is provisionally considered out of the scope of this model.

Community is about identity, which is associated with several currently provisional attributes (Figure 3). Central to identity are all the relationships between different agents and infrastructure that provide opportunities for deriving well being. Maintaining identity requires fostering capacities and reducing vulnerabilities to maintain some acceptable level of continuity, subject to determination and contestation, in the face of threats to well being (Pendall et al., 2007; Gillson, 2009). Understanding identity requires the consideration of equity: how do community relationships influence differential capacity and vulnerability and is the continuity of these attributes desirable? In other words, continuity of identity is not synonymous with normative or “good” resilience. Thus, a community may want to “build back better” through conscious recovery interventions.

At a minimum, the resilience of agents and their community is defined by seven conceptual objects classes: 1) jurisdiction its required capitals and services are contained by, 2) the capital it has or relies on, 3) the services it provides, 4) the services it uses, 5) the markets and social that demand and supply its services, 6) the possible disturbance it is vulnerable to, and 7) the interventions it can take and how they are implemented. The relationships between these seven object classes are illustrated in Figure 2. Each object class shares a common set of attributes and actions (functions), which have not been fully specified to date, but will have some similarities with the current ResilUS conceptual model. Sub-classes of each have additional attributes, attribute values, and/or actions that make them distinct (e.g., pipe network vs. fiber optic network). (Jurisdictions are entities with one or more boundaries that manage or otherwise govern agents.)


Figure 2. Functional relationships between objects that define community disaster resilience.

Figure 3 illustrates in the three dimensions of space, time and attribute how agents suffer loss and achieve recovery across both space and time, depending on the condition of community capital and the levels of services they depend on. Agents exist in some location at some point in time with some level of well being (attribute). Agent well being varies with time because of varying levels of required services, which in turn vary based on the conditions of necessary capitals. A disturbance event in a particular location (e.g., a neighborhood) can alter the agent’s well being time-space-path because of service loss perhaps related capital damage. Changes in one neighborhood or community may have effects in another neighborhood or community, the magnitude of which likely attenuates with increasing distance and scale. Service levels outside of the location are likely to be better, depending on scale effects and distance. This means that some agents may improve their well being by moving locations (either within the community or outside of the community), substituting services, or adapting to a state without those services.


This paper has issued a call for other researchers and practitioners to improve the conceptual underpinnings of community resilience to disasters as this important topic specifically relates to infrastructure. It is argued that, broadly, infrastructure is the combination of both capital and services. The resilience, of infrastructure does not make practical sense without consideration of the levels of loss and recovery. Infrastructure in the context of community resilience to disasters is defined by the relationship to other infrastructure, agents, possible disruptions, possible interventions, jurisdictions and markets. Based on this and previous work related to ResilUS, the beginnings of a new conceptual model have been proposed.

The comprehensive nature of ResiliUS and the proposed conceptual model make it appropriate for planning and awareness purposes. Many professionals – including emergency managers, but also extending to elected officials, urban planners, and the like – make decisions that intentionally or unintentionally influence community resilience. Yet


Figure 3. Agent resilience across space and time, as influenced by community capital condition and levels of services. The solid polygons represent resilience time-space-paths for infrastructure (capitals and services), while the lines represent time-space-paths for agents’ resilience. Points along the time-space-long indicate movement in space.

Many are unfamiliar with the research literature on factors that influence resilience. The conceptual model could be used to help educate these stakeholders about empirical findings from disaster studies (e.g., what types of businesses have the most difficulty recovering from certain infrastructure disruption). 


The work described here is supported by National Science Foundation (Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation Program) grant #0927356 and NOAA Award No. NA07NOS4730146.


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