Are Cities, Ports, and Port Cities Systems? From Optimizing to Co-Creating Resilience

Andrew Littlejohn

In the context of rising sea levels, “resilience” is a growing priority for many ports and cities. Resilience typically refers, as Olsson et al write, to a system’s ability to cope with stress. How much stress the infrastructures, institutions, and inhabitants of cities and ports—and port cities—can absorb is certainly an important question. However, there are limits to how far those governing and managing them can, or should, think of them as "systems".  Perhaps the most important issue is whether or not what we call “society” actually functions like a system—or, put differently, the kind of “system” imagined by engineers, industrial ecologists, and others drawing on resilience theory to design spatial, institutional, and social measures. Social scientists, including anthropologists, have long criticized such thinking’s implicit functionalism: the assumption that we can break society into parts, with distinct functions, that when properly aligned can reach equilibrium. These theories lend themselves easily to managerial approaches: all one needs to do is optimize the system. However, they neglect how our societies often do not, in fact, fit neatly together.

Social scientists argue, by contrast, that what we call society is shaped as much by tensions between actors whose relations, and values, conflict. Here, what “resilience” means, and for whom, becomes as much a political as a technical question. Since 2012, I have been investigating the politics of resilience in Northeast Japan following the devastating tsunami and nuclear meltdown of 2011. The government, advised by tsunami modelers and engineers, proposed preventing future disasters through lining the coastline with multi-layered defenses including seawalls up to 15m high. They were surprised, however, when they encountered pushback from people the walls were meant to protect, including many that had lost family and friends. I detail this pushback, and the values driving it, in another blog post here. The main takeaway is that we cannot assume common goals—even with something as seemingly obvious as protection. The values that we pursue must, instead, be co-created; something the research at TU Delft cited in earlier blogs can help with.

This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCItyFutures team. It reflects the evolving thoughts among group members on the socio-spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. Special thanks for comments and reviews to Carola Hein


Olsson, L., A. Jerneck, H. Thoren, J. Persson, and D. O’Byrne. 2015. “Why Resilience Is
Unappealing to Social Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations of the Scientific Use
of Resilience.” Science Advances 1 (4): e1400217–e1400217.