Ecology and SocietyEcology and Society
 E&S Home > Vol. 20, No. 1 > Art. 43
The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Sellberg, M. M., C. Wilkinson, and G. D. Peterson. 2015. Resilience assessment: a useful approach to navigate urban sustainability challenges. Ecology and Society 20(1): 43.

Resilience assessment: a useful approach to navigate urban sustainability challenges

1Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden


Cities and towns have become increasingly interested in building resilience to cope with surprises, however, how to do this is often unclear. We evaluated the ability of the Resilience Assessment Workbook to help urban areas incorporate resilience thinking into their planning practice by exploring how a resilience assessment process complemented existing planning in the local government of Eskilstuna, Sweden. We conducted this evaluation using participant observation, semistructured interviews, and a survey of the participants. Our findings show that the resilience assessment contributed to ongoing planning practices by addressing sustainability challenges that were not being addressed within the normal municipal planning or operations, such as local food security. It bridged longer term sustainable development and shorter term crisis management, allowing these two sectors to develop common strategies. Our study also highlighted that the Resilience Assessment Workbook could be made more useful by providing more guidance on how to practically deal with thresholds and trade-offs across scales, as well as on how to manage transdisciplinary learning processes. This is the first in-depth study of a resilience assessment process, and it demonstrates that the Resilience Assessment Workbook is useful for planning and that it merits further research and development.
Key words: crisis management; Eskilstuna; local government planning; participatory processes; resilience assessment; sustainable development; Sweden; transdisciplinary research; urban planning


Cities and local governments have recently become interested in building resilience (Evans 2011, Wilkinson 2012a). Many local governments and cities have a history of planning for disasters and sustainability (UNISDR 2007, ICLEI 2013), however the financial shocks following 2008, rising energy prices, and an increased awareness of climate change impacts have increased interest in resilience as a mechanism to cope with surprise (Shaw 2012). Resilience theory has developed to address such situations where control is weak and uncertainty high (Holling 1986, Peterson et al. 2003a) and the concept refers to a system’s long-term ability to cope with change and continue to develop (Stockholm Resilience Centre 2014). This interest in resilience has led to new initiatives targeting local governments and cities, ranging from the UN’s campaign of “Making cities resilient” (UNISDR 2012), and Rockefeller Foundation’s “100 resilient cities” (2015), to bottom-up initiatives, such as transition towns, focusing on building resilience of local communities (Hopkins 2011). There has also been a growing interest in resilience thinking within urban planning disciplines (Wilkinson 2012b). All this activity raises the question of how resilience approaches complement existing planning practices of local governments, and in what ways they help urban planners address contemporary challenges? We identify new insights on what a resilience approach can offer urban planning practice.

We focus our attention on the Resilience Assessment Workbook (Resilience Alliance 2010). The workbook was developed by the Resilience Alliance and synthesizes their earlier work on how to apply resilience thinking (Walker et al. 2002). It is the only social-ecological research initiative that operationalizes resilience for practitioners, and following its first release in 2007 it has been applied in multiple contexts around the world (Resilience Alliance 2013). Although it was originally aimed at natural resource managers, the workbook is also relevant for planning. The three key ideas behind the workbook are: (1) that the systems we manage are interlinked social-ecological systems, (2) these systems are complex and adaptive, and (3) they interact across scales in space and time (Resilience Alliance 2010). These ideas are increasingly being embraced in urban planning, but urban planning lacks tools to analyze these issues. For example, the dynamics of complex systems are neither included in mainstream sustainable development (Lélé 1998, Walker and Salt 2006), nor disaster relief approaches (Walker and Westley 2011). This lack of practical approaches to social-ecological complexity in urban planning suggests that the Resilience Assessment Workbook has the potential to contribute new tools and ideas.

However, because the Resilience Assessment Workbook has been primarily applied in natural resource management contexts, there is a lack of examples and guidance for applying it to urban areas. In general, the social-ecological research community has focused on operationalizing resilience in ecosystem management (Peterson et al. 2003a, Bennett et al. 2005, Biggs et al. 2012), and there are few empirical studies of how a resilience approach could inform urban planning processes (Wilkinson 2012b). There are few published studies of resilience assessments in general (e.g., Haider et al. 2012, Mitchell et al. 2014), and the few scholars who have applied the workbook to urban contexts find both strengths in how it, for example, integrated diverse sectors in local government planning (Wilkinson 2012a), as well as difficulties, e.g., in applying threshold effects to complex urban systems (Liu 2011). Paul Ryan, an expert practitioner of resilience assessments, has found the method more difficult to use in urban regions (Paul Ryan, May 2012, personal communication). Furthermore, none of the limited research on resilience assessment has thoroughly evaluated how the resilience assessment complements and conflicts with existing planning approaches.

To address this research need, we performed the first in-depth assessment of an initial application of the Resilience Assessment Workbook in the Swedish municipality of Eskilstuna. By identifying how the resilience assessment complemented ongoing municipal planning practices, we build on Wilkinson’s (2012c) earlier work to adapt the resilience assessment process to a planning context. Eskilstuna is typical of most European municipalities in that it has trained staff that is engaged in a variety of state mandated planning and management activities. At the beginning of the resilience assessment, the initiators at the municipality expected it to partially overlap with their ongoing work on sustainable development and crisis management. Nevertheless, they expected the assessment to contribute new ideas. Therefore, Eskilstuna offered the opportunity to address the research question: How can a resilience assessment complement existing planning and management within a local government? Furthermore, to improve the usefulness of the workbook in urban planning settings we identified challenges that emerged when conducting the resilience assessment and propose possible ways the Resilience Assessment Workbook could be improved to address these challenges.


Planning in Eskilstuna municipality

Eskilstuna municipality is a middle-sized Swedish municipality that spans 1250 km² located between two of Sweden’s largest lakes, Lake Mälaren and Lake Hjälmaren (Fig. 1). To the east, Lake Mälaren connects to the Baltic Sea through the Swedish capital, Stockholm, which is located about 100 km to the east. The biggest city in the municipality, with about two thirds of the municipality’s 100,000 inhabitants, is also named Eskilstuna (Fig. 2).

We focus on two areas of municipal planning, which the planners thought overlapped with the resilience assessment: planning for sustainable development and crisis management. Eskilstuna’s commitment to sustainable development is beyond the Swedish average. The municipality is a former center of heavy industry that has reinvented itself (Fig. 2). In 2012, Eskilstuna received an award for being the “Environmentally Best Swedish Municipality” of the year (Miljöaktuellt 2012). Although the municipality adopted a sustainable development policy in 2002 (Eskilstuna kommun 2002), it is still struggling with how to implement it. In practice, planning for sustainable development primarily occurs in two types of planning: strategic environmental planning and comprehensive planning. Strategic environmental planning deals with many sustainable development issues, but it is applied separately to different sectors and topics; for example, a traffic plan is separate from a climate change plan (see a list of official municipal documents in Appendix 1). Swedish municipalities are required to develop a comprehensive plan to guide physical planning and these plans are a key element of the Swedish planning system (Schulman and Böhme 2000). Eskilstuna’s comprehensive plan better integrates different sectors within sustainable development (Eskilstuna kommun 2005), but is limited to issues related to land and water use. In Sweden, municipalities have the main responsibility for physical planning (Böhme 2001). Compared with the rest of Europe, local authorities have more power in Nordic countries.

Municipal crisis management is compulsory by Swedish law (SFS 2006:544; Swedish Parliament 2006) and it requires preparedness for disasters, such as floods and infrastructure breakdowns, as well as disaster risk reduction. The focus is on maintaining critical societal functions in the face of these events. Crisis management functions across departments in the municipality, but at the time of this study there was no cooperation between crisis management and planning for sustainable development. However, the crisis manager could identify shared issues with sustainable development, especially in the area of climate change adaptation (Mats Löwenberg, November 2012, personal communication).

Eskilstuna’s initial resilience assessment

Eskilstuna municipality prides itself on being a leader in environmental sustainability and part of being at the forefront involves always looking for ways to improve its environmental work. In this spirit, two of the municipality’s environmental planners, Lars Wiklund and Lars-Erik Dahlin, pursued an interest in exploring how resilience could be applied in the municipality. In particular, they were concerned that conventional planning was not addressing how global threats, such as climate change, peak oil, financial crises, and the challenge of staying within planetary boundaries (Rockström et al. 2009), would affect local food and water supply, transport, and employment. In 2011, they contacted the Stockholm Resilience Centre to initiate a collaboration.

We address the first part of this collaboration, a process consisting of five planning meetings and an internal two-day workshop between August 2011 and February 2013. The two planners, together with Cathy Wilkinson and My Sellberg from Stockholm Resilience Centre, and Louise Hård af Segerstad, research communicator from Albaeco, formed the core planning team. This team used the Resilience Assessment Workbook and previous experience from resilience assessments to develop a workshop that addressed larger scale threats, as requested by the municipality, in a way that would be relevant for a planning context (Fig. 3). The team used Stockholm Resilience Centre’s (2014) definition of resilience that includes both persistence and development as aspects of resilience, as does much resilience research (Holling 1986, Gunderson and Holling 2002, Walker and Salt 2006).

During the planning meetings, the planners set the focal systems and specific threats (Fig. 3). In the workshop, the 23 participants were divided into working groups for each focal system (Fig. 4) and went through exercises to increase their understanding of the focal systems as dynamic systems and spark ideas on measures to increase their resilience. The workshop was a first step, in which only internal representatives from the different departments and units were invited to participate. Most of the attendants were from the municipal office or the city planning administration. See Appendix 2 for a more detailed project description.


Assessing the assessment

To evaluate Eskilstuna’s resilience assessment we captured the participants’ views of the process, rather than identifying policy changes, because of the limited scope of the study. Apart from contributions, challenges and limitations were also identified, where, e.g., a potential of the assessment was not realized. We did this by building upon Wilkinson’s research on evaluating resilience in planning (Wilkinson 2012c). We adopted an in-depth case study design from interpretive policy analysis (Bevir and Rhodes 2006) that used textual analysis, participant observation, and in-depth interviews to provide a detailed understanding of beliefs of resilience assessment participants. Our data analysis was based on grounded theory, an inductive form of qualitative data analysis that enabled an ongoing dialogue between theory and the empirical world throughout the research process (Wagenaar 2011). My Sellberg collected the data and performed the majority of the analysis as a part of her master thesis (Sellberg 2013).

Participant observations

We participated in the five planning meetings and the final workshop, which took place in Eskilstuna and at Stockholm Resilience Centre. The participant observation allowed us to follow the process closely and gain a deeper understanding of the process outcomes and the reasons behind them. To document the observations, we wrote field notes (Jorgensen 1989). The reflection session in the end of the workshop was also recorded and transcribed.

All field notes included memos, which are informal notes of preliminary interpretations of the data and a key component of grounded theory methodology (Glaser 1998). Writing memos is a way to engage in the dialogue between our preliminary understandings and the empirical world from the beginning of the research process (Wagenaar 2011). Memos capture “comparisons and connections you make, and crystallize questions and directions for you to pursue” (Charmaz 2006:72). They help with focusing further data collection and developing coding categories (Wagenaar 2011).

Semistructured interviews with key informants

We interviewed six key informants: three strategic environmental planners, including the two initiators, one spatial planner, the crisis manager, and one Municipal Commissioner who supported the project. The key informants were chosen because they both had knowledge of one of the focus areas of municipal planning, i.e., crisis management, or planning for sustainable development, and were involved to different degrees in the project. Therefore, they could answer questions of, e.g., how the resilience assessment related to their usual work and what the challenges were with using it. The interviews were semistructured (Kvale and Brinkmann 2009), using an interview schedule with key topics (description in Appendix 3). All but two interviews were conducted face-to-face, recorded, and transcribed. The other two informants were interviewed by telephone, while taking notes.


The survey provided us with an additional source of data on the participants’ views of the resilience assessment. Moreover, the survey allowed us to scan the views of all the workshop participants so that the individual accounts captured in the interviews could be set in a context. Of the 23 workshop participants, 20 took part in the survey. The survey was part of an evaluation form (Appendix 4) and used mainly open questions without fixed answering alternatives, to map the participants’ views of the resilience assessment and their insights from the workshop (Esaiasson et al. 2007).

Review of official documents

To understand more of how the participants related the resilience assessment to their ongoing work, we reviewed current official municipal documents related to sustainability and crisis management. The documents were, e.g., strategic environmental plans for different sectors and a crisis management plan (Appendix 1). We compiled information on the main content of each document, its connections to the focus areas of the assessment (Fig. 3), and relations to the key ideas of the resilience assessment.

Data analysis

Following the strategy of grounded theory, we coded the data into categories to move from “empirical material to generalizations” (Wagenaar 2011:261). First, we separated the data on contributions from data on challenges. Secondly, all the data was coded into categories based on themes that emerged while we reviewed the data multiple times, building on the memos written earlier in the research process. This was an iterative process of coding and recoding to find categories that both were readily applicable to the data, and provided explanation to it (Wagenaar 2011). The emergent themes on contributions (Appendix 5) were part of Sellberg 2013, but for this paper we also reviewed them to distill three main categories.


The participants of Eskilstuna’s resilience assessment identified three main ways that the assessment contributed to existing municipal planning and management:

  1. It provided a dynamic systems perspective;
  2. It enabled a discussion about global and uncertain threats;
  3. It helped implement and advance their sustainable development work.

All the identified themes of contributions of the resilience assessment, which these three categories build upon, are presented with examples in Appendix 5.

A dynamic systems perspective

The resilience assessment introduced a dynamic view of change (Appendix 5:2). Of the 20 survey respondents, 9 wrote that thinking of threshold effects was something new. Similarly, the interviews showed that threshold effects were new to crisis management and strategic environmental and comprehensive planning. One planner said that they are working with sustainable development, which he related to “closing loops and getting mechanisms to work,” however the resilience assessment added “the idea of fluctuations and thresholds,” which he considered critical for urban planning to take into account.

Furthermore, the resilience assessment necessitated a view of the municipality as an interconnected system across sectors and scales (Appendix 5:3 and 5). Nine of the survey respondents thought that the resilience assessment had a more comprehensive view (Appendix 5:5). The assessment drew particular attention to social-ecological interactions (Appendix 5:4), by framing ecological values “as a part of human welfare,” and targeting both ecological and social issues of concern, such as eutrophication and unemployment.

This integrated systems perspective was significant for both crisis management and planning for sustainable development. According to the strategic environmental planners, the workshop encouraged integration within sustainable development by discussing how issues were connected to one another across sectors, e.g., how employment in Eskilstuna could be affected by climate change (Table 1). For the crisis manager, the assessment had a broader scope than crisis management by targeting the geographical area of the municipality, instead of only municipal services. Moreover, it addressed the underlying events rather than their secondary consequences, e.g., climate change rather than an isolated flooding event. It also emphasized strategies for resilient ecosystems, such as ecological diversity (Appendix 5:9), which are not currently addressed within crisis management. At the workshop, the crisis manager met with sustainable development planners and discussed change in the focal systems with common concepts (Appendix 5:7).

Enabling a discussion about uncertain futures and crises

The resilience assessment enabled a discussion about global and uncertain threats (Appendix 5:6). According to the initiating planners, the municipality lacked preparedness for potential global crises. These issues had no clear organizational home and planning for worst-case scenarios was lacking. The workshop was used to discuss these issues, as well as the issue of local food security, none of which had previously been on the municipality’s agenda.

Four key aspects facilitated the discussion on future threats. First, the resilience assessment encouraged a longer time perspective in planning, according to eight of the survey respondents. The crisis manager also considered the workshop to have a “much longer time horizon” than his work with crisis management. Second, the broad scope of the workshop enabled inclusion of areas outside of normal municipal services, such as food supply. Third, the idea of threshold effects helped to capture the risk of dramatic and undesired consequences of crises to society to which we cannot slowly adapt (Appendix 5:6 and 13). Finally, the assessment provided a mindset of assuming change and uncertainty (Appendix 5:1), which broadened the discussion of threats to include not only the most likely scenarios from today’s perspective (Appendix 5:8). According to one of the participants, the workshop focused more on “what could happen, than on the normal state,” and another described it as “a systematic way” of assessing whether the municipal plans would function even if “reality doesn’t turn out as you had thought it would” (Table 1).

It is too early to tell how enabling this discussion will affect municipal planning. As of late 2014, the workshop has led to the planners continuing to work with resilience assessment, with a focus on local food security.

Implementing and advancing sustainable development work

The resilience assessment supported the implementation of sustainable development in two ways. First of all, the method, with its focus on how sustainable a system is to a specific threat, was a new way of operationalizing sustainable development and “fill the concept ... with concrete content,” according to the strategic environmental planners (Appendix 5:6 and 10). They already had, e.g., sustainability principles for operationalizing sustainable development (Natural Step 2013), but according to the planners, the concept was still perceived as vague by many of the civil servants. Second, the dynamic systems perspective helped integrate sectors within sustainable development, as explained in the first category. The planners experienced that implementation of sustainable development usually is carried out in silos by different departments, which was not the case with the resilience assessment. One of the initiators said that the workshop helped put “different parts of society’s functions” in a context where they “get a more comprehensive assessment.”

The strategic environmental planners also thought that the resilience assessment had the potential to advance their sustainability work (Appendix 5:13-14). For example, one planner stated that even though climate change is an accepted issue, little is actually being done to mitigate its impacts and the municipality continues building houses close to the water. In this context, the resilience assessment can motivate further measures toward sustainability, through the discussion of large-scale threats explained above, and by providing arguments for actions (Table 1). For example, the risk of abrupt threshold effects in apparently slow and “invisible” trends, such as eutrophication or segregation, provides stronger basis for taking action and investing resources in avoiding undesired states. One planner also mentioned that viewing society and nature as interconnected might enable investments in ecosystems as green infrastructure to address problems in other parts of society, rather than viewing ecological protection as a luxury.

Challenges and limitations

Although the idea of threshold effects was new to the municipal planning practices, some participants also raised concerns about its applicability. Three survey respondents stated that even though the dynamic perspective was a key part of the workshop, it was difficult to apply to their focal areas, especially the less ecological ones, such as employment. In a workshop exercise, for example, the employment group discussed variables that could prevent or trigger a regime shift to a less desirable state with higher unemployment. However, unemployment in Eskilstuna is already higher than the Swedish average and one participant stated afterward that the exercise gave a sense of things getting worse, while they are actually working toward a positive development. The transportation group solved this by viewing transportation as a system that needs to transform to fossil-fuel independence and discussed, e.g., variables hindering that transformation. Afterward, the planners were uncertain if the thresholds discussed in the workshop actually existed and indicated the importance of threshold effects being scientifically identified.

At the workshop, we presented both the idea of cross-scale coordination, i.e., that “resilience at one scale cannot be achieved at the cost of resilience at lower or higher scales” (Wilkinson and Wagenaar 2012:4), and the concept of planetary boundaries (Rockström et al. 2009), even though they are not part of the workbook. The reason was to relate Eskilstuna’s work to global-scale sustainability challenges. Nevertheless, one participant mentioned, for example, that her group had focused on Eskilstuna’s interests, without discussing impacts on other municipalities or countries. Another participant stated that a resilience approach could call for a broadening of the streets in Eskilstuna City as a buffer toward traffic jams, which would conflict with the municipality’s sustainability goal to decrease car use and subsequent carbon emissions. These examples show how a resilience assessment approach in practice risks being focused on the resilience of the focal system, without taking into account how it influences the resilience of other systems or scales. It also shows that cross-scale trade-offs are difficult to grasp and might require more attention in a workshop setting than our initial presentation.

The broad perspective of the workshop was evident to many of the participants, but the organizers still found it difficult to get a diverse set of people to participate. Neither economists, nor civil servants from the educational or cultural departments took part, even though they were invited. This was mentioned in the reflection round after the workshop. Four of the survey respondents also questioned the broad perspective of the workshop because it addressed areas where the municipality has little influence and knowledge, such as food supply. Nevertheless, the workshop highlighted the need to involve stakeholders in the process if they would continue working with food security issues.

Finally, the initiators acknowledged that this first workshop was mostly about learning the resilience assessment method and mindset and that further in-depth workshops were needed to develop proposals for new governance strategies. They referred this to the challenges of using a new and untried method and having little time to go deeper into broad issues. At the end of the workshop, earlier expectations from the initiators to come up with strategies for the municipality’s long-term planning were not seen as reasonable within the limited timeframe.


In the results we presented the contributions of Eskilstuna’s resilience assessment, according to the participants. Here we discuss how a resilience assessment can support a municipality’s work with sustainable development and serve as a bridge to crisis management. We also conclude that the key ideas of the resilience assessment made a difference for the practitioners. In the end, we present some of the lessons learned from Eskilstuna’s assessment and propose areas for improvement.

New perspectives in the implementation of sustainable development

The resilience assessment introduced new ideas to planning for sustainable development (Fig. 5). All the interviewed planners working with sustainable development stated that the resilience assessment added increased thinking about abrupt nonlinear changes and alternate regimes. This contribution corresponds to literature stating that the mainstream usage of sustainable development does not adequately consider system dynamics (Lélé 1998, Walker and Salt 2006). The method’s focus on how a system can cope with change provided a new way of operationalizing sustainable development. Beneath this focus lies a mindset that assumes surprise and uncertainty, which scholars have argued is useful in times of looming crises (Davoudi 2012, Shaw 2012).

The resilience assessment also strengthened existing views within sustainable development, by re-emphasizing an integrated perspective. The Johannesburg Declaration, for example, highlights the interdependence of social, ecological, and economic dimensions, as well as our collective responsibility from local to global levels (WSSD and UN Department of Public Information 2003). However, this integration was difficult to pursue in practice, and therefore the contribution of the resilience assessment was important to the planners. Previously, resilience thinking has also been recognized for being able to connect phenomena that are isolated in different silos in mainstream planning (Porter and Davoudi 2012), such as ecology and urban design (Pickett et al. 2004), and provide a “common language across diverse sectoral and disciplinary interests” (Wilkinson 2012a:323).

Our findings confirm and expand on the idea that resilience assessment can be used to advance the work with sustainable development. Previously, metropolitan planners (Wilkinson et al. 2010), as well as social movement promoters (Hopkins 2009), have identified resilience as a potentially more powerful and useful concept than sustainability, e.g., for challenging status quo responses to urban problems, or finding systemic solutions to climate change. The Eskilstuna planners did not see resilience as a substitute for sustainability, but rather as an important complement, and they used the resilience assessment to bring previously ignored and complex sustainability issues up for discussion, such as how food security would be affected by future crises in energy, climate, and finances. This first workshop has led to a continued project on the resilience of the food system, a completely new area for municipal planning. This is similar to Luleå, where a resilience assessment served to frame the “deeper, more structural issues” and bring them to the planning agenda (Wilkinson 2012a:323).

Expanding crisis management and bridging to sustainable development

The resilience assessment partially overlapped with crisis management, but had a larger scope in time and space (Fig. 5). Resilience assessment’s focus on how to handle change and uncertainty (Appendix 5:1) was not new to crisis management, but crisis management’s focus was mostly limited to short-term crises in municipal services, rather than slow changes in ecosystems or society. The resilience assessment also introduced the idea of complex adaptive systems, corresponding to Walker and Westley’s (2011) finding that the idea of complex adaptive systems with alternate regimes was rare within the disaster relief community.

Resilience assessment served as a bridge between crisis management and sustainable development (Fig. 5) because of its partial overlap with both of them. An example of the bridging function of the resilience assessment is the inclusion of both slow and fast changes. System dynamics, for example, examines interactions between slow and fast variables (Walker and Salt 2006). Currently crisis management is dealing with short-term shocks to the system, separated from strategic environmental and comprehensive planning, which focuses on longer term trends. A resilience approach could contribute to crisis management with attention to slow variables, corresponding to the conclusions of Walker and Westley (2011). Furthermore, it confirms the findings of Shaw and Maythorne (2012) that a resilience discourse could potentially integrate short- to medium-term emergency planning with medium- to long-term climate adaptation. The bridging function of the resilience assessment implies that it has the potential of providing local authorities with common strategies to handle change across sectors, in line with Shaw and Maythorne (2012).

The key ideas of resilience assessment made a difference to practitioners

The three key ideas of the resilience assessment made a difference to the participants in the project. For example, social-ecological systems and cross-scale interactions provided the comprehensive perspective necessary to integrate sectors in sustainable development planning. Moreover, complex adaptive systems gave a new dynamic perspective on change that bridged the short- and long-term perspectives of crisis management and planning for sustainable development, respectively. Compared to other approaches for operationalizing resilience in local governments, such as UNISDR (2012) and the Rockefeller Foundation (2013), the workbook has a stronger foundation in a theoretical framework, which emphasizes system dynamics, social-ecological feedbacks, resilience-building of ecosystems, and ecosystem services.

Lessons for resilience assessments

One of the benefits of testing a method in practice is that it clarifies possible areas for improvement. Based on our evaluation of an initial resilience assessment process in an urban planning setting we identify four weaknesses in the Resilience Assessment Workbook and suggest ways in which they could be addressed.

Identifying thresholds in practice

Even though the Eskilstuna planners found the concept of threshold effects useful, they were uncertain of whether the identified thresholds actually existed and found the concept less applicable to the focus areas of transport and employment. This points to two areas of the workbook that could be improved: (1) how to deal with uncertain thresholds, and (2) how to identify thresholds that are not biophysical. Regarding the first point, we suggest that the workbook could be improved by incorporating concepts from strategic adaptive management, which identify thresholds of potential concern and plans for how to regularly evaluate them (e.g., Biggs and Rogers 2003, Biggs et al. 2011, Roux and Foxcroft 2011), as well as Walker and Salt (2012), which includes a step process of how to identify thresholds with different degrees of uncertainty. For the second point, we suggest that the workbook should discuss this difficulty (following, e.g., Walker and Salt 2012) and suggest possible ways to navigate this process. For example, by viewing social thresholds in terms of what is collectively recognized as desirable or acceptable in a community (Christensen and Krogman 2012), or using scenario planning to explore system dynamics in complex systems in a broader sense (Walker et al. 2002, Peterson et al. 2003b). However, how to effectively identify thresholds in real world situations is an area that needs experimentation, research, and evaluation.

Including local level responses to global challenges

The Eskilstuna planners wanted to align the resilience assessment with their work with sustainable development, which includes dealing with global challenges, such as climate change mitigation. Nevertheless, the idea of cross-scale coordination was not always apparent in the discussions during the assessment. The idea that transformation of smaller scale systems can be needed to foster Earth System resilience exists in the resilience thinking framework (Folke et al. 2010), but is not included in interfaces with practice (Resilience Alliance 2010, Walker and Salt 2012). We propose that the workbook should give advice on how to address trade-offs between resilience on different scales. We also encourage resilience assessment practitioners to allow for more time to discuss cross-scale trade-offs, possibly iteratively over several workshops, if this is considered to be an important part of the assessment.

Missing guidance on design of participatory process

The workbook does not provide guidance on how to design, manage, and facilitate a participatory assessment process. This is surprising, considering that the predecessor of the workbook (Walker et al. 2002) proposed a close involvement of stakeholders, and the workbook itself states that perspectives of multiple stakeholders are important for many of the exercises, e.g., in identifying the main issues. A participatory assessment process is necessary to successfully address complex issues (Wagenaar 2007, Bai et al. 2010) where no single actor has the knowledge to do the assessment, nor the influence to carry through the strategies resulting from it. A participatory process also holds the potential of enabling dialogue and social learning. The social-ecological inventory (Schultz et al. 2007) can help to identify actors to include in the process, but we suggest adding a discussion of process design to the workbook with different examples of processes and how they fit with different political and cultural contexts, as well as providing links to other resources on how to manage transdisciplinary learning processes (e.g., Scholz 2011).

From learning to transformation

The planners in Eskilstuna initiated the resilience assessment process because they were interested in learning how resilience could be applied in municipal planning. They also wanted to both safeguard current values in the face of change, and identify strategies for moving Eskilstuna toward a more sustainable future. These types of multiple goals are likely widely shared among those practicing resilience assessment and the workbook would be improved if it provided more guidance on how it could be used to meet different goals. For example, a resilience assessment process focused on training people to apply the method within a municipality has quite different goals than one focused on developing an implementation plan. Moreover, training participants to apply the method could initiate a longer engagement with resilience. This was the case in Eskilstuna municipality, which now is continuing the exploration of resilience with a focus on local food security. Relating to the suggestion above on process designs in different contexts, we suggest that the workbook also advise how the assessment process can be designed for different purposes, e.g., to quickly scan local resilience, conduct an in-depth assessment, or develop transformation strategies, as well as how these different steps could build on each other in a bigger process.


We found that the resilience assessment complemented ongoing municipal planning and management by operationalizing sustainable development in a way that integrated sectors and introduced a dynamic perspective on change. The resilience assessment was a useful tool and mindset to tackle sustainability challenges that were not being addressed within the normal municipal planning or operations. Resilience assessment built a bridge between longer term sustainable development and shorter term crisis management, allowing these two sectors to develop common strategies.

Our study of the practice of resilience assessment also highlighted that the Resilience Assessment Workbook could be made more useful by providing more guidance on how to practically deal with thresholds, as well as trade-offs across scales. Additionally, it could give more guidance on how to manage transdisciplinary learning processes and how to use the workbook for different goals.

In the Swedish context, Eskilstuna municipality is a sustainability leader, however, the resilience assessment further advanced its sustainability planning and practices. We therefore expect that resilience assessments are a potentially useful approach for other municipalities in Sweden, Europe, and elsewhere. We have presented the first in-depth study of a resilience assessment process and our results demonstrate that the resilience assessment approach is useful for planning, and we urge researchers to continue developing the Resilience Assessment Workbook and engage in local transdisciplinary learning processes, to create multiple versions for a diverse set of audiences and purposes.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.


We would like to thank all the participants from Eskilstuna municipality for their courage and openness. We are especially grateful for having had the opportunity to work with Lars Wiklund, Lars-Erik Dahlin, and Kristina Birath at Eskilstuna municipality, as well as Louise Hård af Segerstad at Albaeco, in the cocreation of this resilience assessment process. We thank Jamila Haider and Allyson Quinlan for useful comments. This paper is based upon My Sellberg’s master thesis Resilience in Practice for Strategic Planning at a Local Government in Social-Ecological Resilience for Sustainable Development at Stockholm University (Sellberg 2013).


Bai, X., R. R. J. McAllister, R. M. Beaty, and B. Taylor. 2010. Urban policy and governance in a global environment: complex systems, scale mismatches and public participation. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 2:129-135.

Bellwood, D. R., T. P. Hughes, C. Folke, and M. Nyström. 2004. Confronting the coral reef crisis. Nature 429:827-833.

Bennett, E. M., G. S. Cumming, and G. D. Peterson. 2005. A systems model approach to determining resilience surrogates for case studies. Ecosystems 8:945-957.

Bevir, M., and R. A. W. Rhodes. 2006. Governance stories. Routledge, London, UK.

Biggs, H., S. Ferreira, S. Freitag-Ronaldson, and R. Grant-Biggs. 2011. Taking stock after a decade: does the ‘thresholds of potential concern’ concept need a socio-ecological revamp? Koedoe 53:2.

Biggs, H. C., and K. H. Rogers. 2003. An adaptive system to link science, monitoring, and management in practice. Pages 59-80 in J. T. Du Toit, K. H. Rogers, and H. C. Biggs, editors. The Kruger experience: ecology and management of savanna heterogeneity. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

Biggs, R., M. Schlüter, D. Biggs, E. L. Bohensky, S. BurnSilver, G. Cundill, V. Dakos, T. M. Daw, L. S. Evans, K. Kotschy, A. M. Leitch, C. Meek, A. Quinlan, C. Raudsepp-Hearne, M. D. Robards, M. L. Schoon, L. Schultz, and P. C. West. 2012. Toward principles for enhancing the resilience of ecosystem services. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 37(1):421-448.

Böhme, K. 2001. Spatial planning in the light of Nordic eccentricity. Built Environment 27(4):295-303.

Charmaz, K. 2006. Constructing grounded theory: a practical guide through qualitative analysis. Sage, Thousand Oaks, California, USA.

Christensen, L., and N. Krogman. 2012. Social thresholds and their translation into social-ecological management practices. Ecology and Society 17(1): 5.

Davoudi, S. 2012. Resilience: a bridging concept or a dead end? Planning Theory and Practice 13(2):299-307.

Esaiasson, P., M. Gilljam, H. Oscarsson, and L. Wängnerud. 2007. Frågeundersökningar. Pages 257-281 in P. Esaiasson, M. Gilljam, H. Oscarsson, and L. Wängnerud, editors. Metodpraktikan: konsten att studera samhälle, individ och marknad. Third edition. Norstedts Juridik, Stockholm, Sweden.

Eskilstuna kommun. 2002. Miljöpolicy för Eskilstuna kommun. Eskilstuna, Sweden. [online] URL:

Eskilstuna kommun. 2005. Översiktsplanering 2005. Eskilstuna, Sweden. [online] URL:

Evans, J. P. 2011. Resilience, ecology and adaptation in the experimental city. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36(2):223-237.

Folke, C., S. R. Carpenter, B. Walker, M. Scheffer, T. Chapin, and J. Rockström. 2010. Resilience thinking: integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability. Ecology and Society 15(4): 20. [online] URL:

Glaser, B. G. 1998. Doing grounded theory: issues and discussions. Sociology Press, Mill Valley, California, USA.

Gunderson, L., and C. S. Holling, editors. 2002. Panarchy: understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

Haider, L. J., A. E. Quinlan, and G. D. Peterson. 2012. Interacting traps: resilience assessment of a pasture management system in northern Afghanistan. Planning Theory and Practice 13(2):312-319.

Holling, C. S. 1986. The resilience of terrestrial ecosystems: local surprise and global change. Pages 292-320 in W. C. Clark and R. E. Munn, editors. Sustainable development of the biosphere. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Hopkins, R. 2009. Resilience thinking: why ‘resilience thinking’ is a crucial missing piece of the climate-change jigsaw. Resurgence 257:12-15.

Hopkins, R. 2011. The transition companion: making your community more resilient in uncertain times. Chelsea Green, White River Junction, Vermont, USA.

ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability). 2013. Our members. ICLEI, Bonn, Germany. [online] URL:

Jorgensen, D. L. 1989. Participant observation. Sage, Thousand Oaks, California, USA.

Kvale, S., and S. Brinkmann. 2009. Interviews: learning the craft of qualitative research interviewing. Second Edition. Sage, Thousand Oaks, California, USA.

Lélé, S. 1998. Resilience, sustainability environmentalism. Environment and Development Economics 3(2):221-262.

Liu, W. T. 2011. An application of the resilience assessment workbook on the town of Caledon, Ontario, Canada: resilience of what? Resilience to what? Resilience with what? Thesis. University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

Miljöaktuellt. 2012. Så gjorde vi kommunrankningen 2012. 28 June. [online] URL:

Mitchell, M., R. Griffith, P. Ryan, G. Walkerden, B. Walker, V. A. Brown, and S. Robinson. 2014. Applying resilience thinking to natural resource management through a “planning-by-doing” framework. Society & Natural Resources 27(3):299-314.

Natural Step. 2013. The four system conditions of a sustainable society. The Natural Step, Cheltenham, UK. [online] URL:

Peterson, G. D., S. R. Carpenter, and W. A. Brock. 2003a. Uncertainty and the management of multistate ecosystems: an apparently rational route to collapse. Ecology 84(6):1403-1411.[1403:UATMOM]2.0.CO;2

Peterson, G. D., G. S. Cumming, and S. R. Carpenter. 2003b. Scenario planning: a tool for conservation in an uncertain world. Conservation Biology 17(2):358-366.

Pickett, S. T. A., M. L. Cadenasso, and J. M. Grove. 2004. Resilient cities: meaning, models, and metaphor for integrating the ecological, socio-economic, and planning realms. Landscape and Urban Planning 69(4):369-384.

Porter, L., and S. Davoudi. 2012. The politics of resilience for planning: a cautionary note. Planning Theory and Practice 13(2):329-333.

Resilience Alliance. 2010. Assessing resilience in social-ecological systems: workbook for practitioners. Version 2.0. [online] URL:

Resilience Alliance. 2013. Resilience Assessment. [online] URL:

Rockefeller Foundation. 2013. Rebound: building a more resilient world. Rockefeller Foundation, New York, New York, USA. [online] URL:

Rockefeller Foundation. 2015. 100 resilient cities. Centennial challenge. Rockefeller Foundation, New York, New York, USA. [online] URL:

Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, F. S. Chapin III, E. F. Lambin, T. M. Lenton, M. Scheffer, C. Folke, H. J. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C. A. de Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sörlin, P. K. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R. W. Corell, V. J. Fabry, J. Hansen, B. Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J. A. Foley. 2009. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461(7263):472-475.

Roux, D. J., and L. C. Foxcroft. 2011. The development and application of strategic adaptive management within South African National Parks. Koedoe 53(2):01-05.

Scholz, R. W. 2011. Environmental literacy in science and society: from knowledge to decisions. Cambridge University Press, New York, New York, USA.

Schulman, M., and K. Böhme. 2000. New dynamics in a municipal-based planning system: spatial planning in Sweden. Built Environment 26(1):72-81.

Schultz, L., C. Folke, and P. Olsson. 2007. Enhancing ecosystem management through social-ecological inventories: lessons from Kristianstads Vattenrike, Sweden. Environmental Conservation 34(02):140-152.

Sellberg, M. 2013. Resilience in practice for strategic planning at a local government. Thesis. Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden.

Shaw, K. 2012. “Reframing” resilience: challenges for planning theory and practice. Planning Theory and Practice 13(2):308-312.

Shaw, K., and L. Maythorne. 2012. Managing for local resilience: towards a strategic approach. Public Policy and Administration 28(1):43-65.

Stockholm Resilience Centre. 2014. What is resilience? An introduction to social-ecological research. Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm, Sweden. [online] URL:

Swedish Parliament. 2006. Lag (2006:544) om kommuners och landstings åtgärder inför och vid extraordinära händelser i fredstid och höjd beredskap. Swedish Parliament, Stockholm, Sweden.

United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). 2007. Hyogo framework for action 2005-2015: building the resilience of nations and communities to disasters. UNISDR, Geneva, Switzerland.

United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). 2012. Making cities resilient: my city is getting ready. UNISDR, Geneva, Switzerland. [online] URL:

Wagenaar, H. 2007. Governance, complexity, and democratic participation: how citizens and public officials harness the complexities of neighborhood decline. American Review of Public Administration 37:17-50.

Wagenaar, H. 2011. Strategies of interpretive policy research. Pages 241-274 in H. Wagenaar, editor. Meaning in action: interpretation and dialogue in policy analysis. M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, New York, USA.

Walker, B., S. Carpenter, J. Anderies, N. Abel, G. S. Cumming, M. Janssen, L. Lebel, J. Norberg, G. D. Peterson, and R. Pritchard. 2002. Resilience management in social-ecological systems: a working hypothesis for a participatory approach. Conservation Ecology 6(1): 14. [online] URL:

Walker, B., and D. Salt. 2006. Resilience thinking: sustaining ecosystems and people in a changing world. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

Walker, B., and D. Salt. 2012. Resilience practice: building capacity to absorb disturbance and maintain function. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

Walker, B., and F. Westley. 2011. Perspectives on resilience to disasters across sectors and cultures. Ecology and Society 16(2): 4. [online] URL:

Wilkinson, C. 2012a. Urban resilience: what does it mean in planning practice? Planning Theory and Practice 13(2):319-324.

Wilkinson, C. 2012b. Social-ecological resilience: insights and issues for planning theory. Planning Theory 11(2):148-169.

Wilkinson, C. 2012c. Social-ecological resilience and planning: an interdisciplinary exploration. Dissertation. Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden.

Wilkinson, C., L. Porter, and J. Colding. 2010. Metropolitan planning and resilience thinking: a practitioner’s perspective. Critical Planning 17:25-39.

Wilkinson, C., and H. Wagenaar. 2012. Enacting resilience: a performative account of governing for urban resilience. Paper IV in C. Wilkinson, editor. Social-ecological resilience and planning: an interdisciplinary exploration. Dissertation. Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden.

World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), and UN Department of Public Information. 2003. Johannesburg declaration on sustainable development and plan of implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development: the final text of agreements negotiated by governments at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, 26 August-4 September 2002, Johannesburg, South Africa. United Nations Department of Public Information, New York, New York, USA.

Address of Correspondent:
My M. Sellberg
Stockholm Resilience Centre
Stockholm University
Kräftriket 2B
SE-106 91 Stockholm
Jump to top
Table1  | Figure1  | Figure2  | Figure3  | Figure4  | Figure5  | Appendix1  | Appendix2  | Appendix3  | Appendix4  | Appendix5