Panel Transcript – Can Upstate Cities Save Themselves? (1)



MS. JULIA VITULLO-MARTIN: So when we were putting our panel together we figured we could not do a forum like this on Upstate New York without a serious look at Buffalo. And we were therefore delighted to find Kate Foster, who is at SUNY Buffalo and director of The Regional Institute. And Kate is going to present “Resiliency in Buffalo.” Thank you.

MS. KATHRYN A. FOSTER: Thank you very much. I cannot match Rich for truly coherent and useful data, I cannot match Rolf for his passionate intensity, and I certainly can’t match Paul for his hopeful policy prescription. So I will fall back on the salvation of, “Now, for something completely different,” and hope that you’ll bend your minds in a slightly different way, because what I’d like to do is explore a concept. And the concept is resilience, which seems a fairly fitting concept for a session entitled “Can Cities Save Themselves?”

Resilience is a concept that’s familiar in a number of disciplines — oh, I guess I have to do this, I’m sorry — in a number of disciplines: psychology, disaster studies, ecology, engineering, and it is now being thought about in reference to places by a group of scholars, of which I am one, Rolf is one, a number of other people around the country thinking about what would make a place resilient. And you can probably imagine in your own lives what it means to be resilient.

So I am going to very, very, very lightly apply this concept to Buffalo (Foster, PPT 1). I’d rather have you think about it more generally, as, is this something that might be useful in thinking about the kinds of choices that cities and places like Upstate have?

So with that, a very quick vignette in resilience, you — Jim Fixx, 1984, July, he’s 52 years old, running along the back roads in Vermont, and he dies of a heart attack. And Jim Fixx — that’s his beautiful leg right there (Foster, PPT 2) — at the time, was running 60 miles a week. He was in incredible shape. And you might ask your question, “Was Jim Fixx resilient?” And in the answer to that you can get to the complexity of this concept. Because, for example, you could say, “Sure he was resilient.” It turns out that his father had died at age 43 of a heart attack, so he beat his DNA. That’s pretty resilient. He made some choices that maybe, perhaps, made him go beyond where he could have gone.

On the other hand you could say, “Well, only maybe was he resilient.” It turns out that he had heart disease, cholesterol levels very high, a lot of blocked arteries, as it turns out. And he knew about it, and apparently chose not to treat it. So you might say he wasn’t very resilient; he could have done some things to send him a little, perhaps, longer down the actuarial path, but he did not.

And then of course the ultimate answer might be, “No, he wasn’t resilient.” He died at age 52 of a heart attack, and, you know, perhaps that’s the ultimate test of resilience, is the outcome.

So in that light you could talk about, “Is Buffalo resilient?” (Foster, PPT 3) Or, for that matter, “Is any place resilient?” It’s certainly beautiful, you can see some of the images there, in Buffalo, New York. But is it resilient?

To begin answering that — oops, excuse me — to begin answering that, let me suggest one kind of definition (Foster, PPT 4). This is not the only one, you can imagine. But certainly about adapting to stresses and shocks; the degree to which your place has anticipated and readied itself for, prepared for, and responded to and recovered from a shock or a stress. So it might be a shock like Katrina in New Orleans, and how resilient was the system to respond to that shock? Or it might be the kind of long, slow-burn, prolonged economic decline, let’s say, of Upstate New York, and how do you — are you resilient to that kind of a shock?

So a model (Foster, PPT 5), because we must have a model, if you could imagine; what are you measuring when you’re trying to measure resilience (Foster, PPT 6)? How would you even know if you were resilient or not? Well, you could imagine on the measurement axis, if you will, performance of some kind. Performance of the economy, of your infrastructure, perhaps, let’s say in a Katrina, civic engagement, your environment. And then over time something is happening. Maybe you’re performing well on some measure that you’ve selected. It doesn’t really matter. You could be performing badly. But the point is at some point there’s some kind of a shock or a stress. And the system takes a hit. Whether it’s your economy, your population, your infrastructure, your bridges, whatever. It takes a hit.

And then the question becomes what happens now, in that both response and recovery phase (Foster, PPT 7)? And you could imagine one choice is performance comes back, maybe even gets better than it ever was. In the other case it doesn’t. You collapse in some sense. You have a trajectory that’s going downward. But maybe in some, quote, “typical” thing, you have some ups and downs and it’s in the middle, and it’s not exactly obvious how to discuss resilience. So keep that in mind that this is still a vague concept that deserves and merits a lot of attention.

But this is the basic idea, right? You know, resilience. So the question is, why would one place perhaps be resilient and another place not? And to get at that you can say well, maybe there are two intertwined kind of sets of characteristics that would make a place resilient or not.

And one might be this notion of, you know, your DNA, right? Your assets, your endowments, your starting points. It might be natural features. In any point in time the shape of your economy, your demographic social capital. I don’t mean to imply that these things aren’t in control. These are things that can change. Maybe not the natural features so much. These things change but in any moment they don’t change rapidly; they’re things that you kind of take as a given. You know, my height or my weight or something like that. Those are givens at the moment.

You could also then think about the things that are in your control absolutely. This is the notion of response. The kinds of things that maybe are embedded in this notion of your institutions, your culture, your policies, your actors, who they are relating to, etc?

So I don’t want to say any more about the first set for now. But bear in mind that if we were assessing places, we would certainly be taking a look at to what degree do these kinds of assets and endowments have an impact on resilience? You know, are there certain characteristics of those? And likewise responses; the ways we perhaps govern. So I just want say on that side, because that may be less familiar, when we’re talking actors we’re talking about a whole host of organizations, or entities, or individuals, or leaders; their relations, how they interact, how they operate. That would be perhaps part of your response in a region.

Likewise your institutions, your — both the norms if you will. Some of these are not in your control in the immediate sense, in that it’s federal and state rules of the game. But certainly maybe in the sense that you have an impact on those federal and state rules as well, and can go and change them. Then you’ve got some fiscal rules. There are a whole host of policies: land use regulations, work force, transportation, etc?, things that you have some influence on and choices about. And then what you might call culture, which, of course, is about your, again, values and norms, and identity priorities, history, and your story.

So you can imagine there is — this is a really complex area, to say is something resilient or not? There are quite a few things that could come into play here. So in that light, I repeat, is Buffalo resilient (Foster, PPT 8)? And I went to tell a story about this. And the first thing that happened was I said (Foster, PPT 9), “Oh, well now, this is a delay tactic.” What kind of resilience? Resilience of what? Like, what’s on that Y axis? And also, how much time am I going to give it to recover if I’m testing it? And what’s the challenge that it’s resilient to?

So, you know, you might say, well gee, you know, last October we had a surprise snowstorm and we were pretty resilient to that. It was in the middle of October, the trees fell down, the electricity went out, a lot of damage happened. But all things considered, it was pretty resilient. We got back up off our feet, dusted ourselves off and, you know, here we are. Trees have taken some hits, but people are pretty upbeat about replanting, etc?

What I did was I said okay, I can’t take on every challenge at every time, let me look at 1970 to 2000. I’m interested in the economic resilience of place, and I’m interested in the slow-burn — the shocks if you will — or the stresses that have come over time, that were economic stresses to the system. And then I want to ask how resilient it was.

So, just as a reminder (Foster, PPT 10), that’s the definition. If you took these two and just called it preparation, if you took these two and you said that’s your performance, then I took a case — did a case study of preparation and performance about economic sort of reaction, if you will, to what was going on in Buffalo, 1970 to 2000 (Foster, PPT 11).

What was it going to look like? Well, one the performance side I looked at things like population change, job change, income change, and poverty. Those were some measures I was looking at to see how the place was doing over this time. This is in performance. I took the — let me do the last ones first, I actually changed this around like Paul. I changed my presentation but this is the one that’s already on there.

So performance first. It’s kind of the epilogue, if you will. And this was chronic shocks and stresses that were coming all the way through the 1970s and ’80s. Buffalo, like other Upstate cities, like cities around the country, was getting buffeted by a whole series of issues that were happening. And indeed, a lot of these indicators, whether it was populations, jobs, incomes, or poverty, were headed downward. This is — there’s nothing precise about this. This is schematic here.

And then you could imagine what was going on in the ’90s thereafter. Well, you know, some of if sort of stabilized a little, but still a little bit down. Oops, there it goes.

When I said, “But how do I know whether that’s resilient or not,” I realized I had to compare it and make it a relative performance, so I compared it against sets of peers that Buffalo had. And one set of its peers are manufacturing metropolitan areas. There were 14 of them I looked at that had just about the same amount of manufacturing in their economic structure in 1970 as Buffalo did. They did pretty well over this period in terms of these other measures of job change, population, income, and poverty.

Then I looked at another group of peers. I said, “Well what about places that have about the same age, about the same sort of geographic location?” This is the Rust Belt story. They also didn’t do quite as well as the manufacturing places. There were 17 of them. But a little bit better than the Buffalo area.

And then I said, “Well what about New York state peers? Let’s look at the other metros in New York state.” They operate under the same rules of the game in terms of state policy. And if, you know, Buffalo is — really has a set of peers, it might be those places. I looked at it both with and without New York City — that’s the N equals nine or ten — and they weren’t doing quite so well during this period on a number of those indicators, but still better than Buffalo.

So one thing you might say is that on the performance phase, you would have to say it was fairly weak. It did not show particular resilience, given its comparisons to others.

In the preparation phase (Foster, PPT 12) I went back and, without saying anything about all these pictures, only to say that there were dozens of studies done, a great amount of anticipation about the economy. It wasn’t for lack of knowledge or anticipation or even preparation to think about the economy, in my judgment, that Buffalo was, nonetheless, the lines were still going down. So you might say their preparation and their anticipation wasn’t lacking. The performance was clearly lacking in the end.

So how would I answer the question, then, is Buffalo resilient (Foster, PPT 13)? Finally I can give you the scheme of how I would think about this and you can imagine thinking about it for other places. If you told a story that said? Your preparation is either weak or strong and your performance is either weak or strong, one of four things can happen.

You can either say, “I prepared, I thought about it, I anticipated the shocks and the stresses, and guess what? When they came I responded and I performed well. I recovered well.” Well, darn it, that’s resilience. And that was resilience by intention, because you did everything you could have done. Maybe it’s Jim Fixx’s running. Everything you could have done to be resilient.

Of course, then, another part of the quadrant might say you didn’t prepare, you didn’t do a darn thing to get ready for the kinds of waves that were coming, or trends or patterns in the economy, when the time came you hit some shocks, you did not perform well. Well, you weren’t resilient, and you could even say it was by neglect. You really didn’t even give a shot to what you could have done for yourself.

The two other cases, one would say you didn’t prepare. You didn’t do anything. You sat around and waited. But darn it, there’s something about your DNA, or maybe you just got lucky, or this is like the kid who never comes to class — skips class, you know, never bothers to read the book and still gets an A on the exam. You know, maybe you just — you just got it, you know something went — fell — went well for you. I’d call it resilience, but I’d guess that it might be ephemeral. You might not get it all the time. Maybe you just got a lucky break that time.

And then there’s, of course, the other parallel — the opposite case. And that’s the one that says you did everything you could have done. You prepared, you readied yourself, you did your studies, you got your bridges shored up. You know, you prepared as well as you could about your workforce. And when the time came you were overwhelmed and you did not perform well. Or maybe you were just blind to something that you should have thought about.

In any case, this is where I put Buffalo. I said, you know what? It wasn’t resilient. It wasn’t resilient through that whole period. But I’d like to say it was sort of a nice try, you know, that it kind of did what it could have done to move itself forward.

So what do I conclude from all this, other than giving you a nice big conceptual model about how you would think about this? Three conclusions (Foster, PPT 14).

One: Buffalo is beautiful. You could come there, you could visit, you could move there, and you could help our resilience move itself along quite well by improving the population numbers and be there. It’s really a great place to be, and if you haven’t been there lately, you ought to come.

Number two: if you’re thinking about resilience in a concept it’s full of challenges. I mean, some of what you’ve gleaned just by the little presentation this morning. But there are ways of, both conceptually and methodologically, this is not the end of the story, that’s the very beginning of thinking about a concept that might be useful for thinking about how places can, quote, “save themselves.’

But a third notion or conclusion is that, that said, resilience is full of promise, because what it does is it enables you to say you’ve got assets, you could link them to actions, the way you put those together, and leverage or exploit them in a positive way, and then you’ve got outcomes, and you can see how you performed under certain conditions. And many of those things, your assets and the development of those, your interventions, and, to a certain degree, your outcomes, are within local control. So with that I hope that we have a good conversation, then, about not only resilience, but all the other things that we’ve heard this morning. Thank you very much.