Resilience of what to what?

Resilience is relatively new in public governance thinking. Can it be of help in finding the tone of city, society and nature?


What is resilience? Well, there is no simple answer to this. Especially not regarding that of the ecosystem of a city. The concept, you might say, is in development in different sciences and recently entered the public governance domain related to the social-ecological system of society. Can resilience as indicator of the state of an ecosystem be measured? And if so, how are the living and non-living factors within and outside the measured system be calculated? Can it create true insight in the tone of city, society and nature. A first exploration of definitions.

Resilient City.

The resilient city can bounce or roll back to its equilibrium. The red dot is the metaphoric colour for the city. It is Poppy Red, inspired by the resilience of the City of Ypres.

Resilience is the new buzzword under public leaders and managers. Millions of years it played an essential role in natural ecosystems, now it has been launched as a new concept for thinking and acting from government perspective. But where is it about? The ability to endure stress and still be able to perform or the capacity to recover after a catastrophe? Maybe both?

The question can not be answered or even is meaningless without putting it in the context resilience of what to what? In our approach we focus on the resilience of the ecosystem city to specific external (abiotic, climate change)) or internal (biotic, virus attack) caused disturbances.

“Resilience has multiple levels of meaning: as a metaphor related to sustainability, as a property of dynamic models, and as a measurable quantity that can be assessed in field studies of socioecological system (SES). The operational indicators of resilience have, however, received little attention in the literature. To assess a system’s resilience, one must specify which system configuration and which disturbances are of interest.”

– Carpenter et al. (2001)

Holling (1973) introduced the word resilience into the ecological literature as a way of helping to understand the non-linear dynamics observed in ecosystems. Since then the concept diversified in all directions. Resilience is wide interpreted and used, it is a difficult to understand concept and therefore possibly of limited use for precise diagnosis and related public governance. Like accountability, the new normal, alignment, roadmap, risk, streamline and sustainability it can become a container or a buzzword.

“Resilience,” like love, is difficult to define, yet everyone – from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to government agencies, company boards, and community groups – is talking about how to build or maintain it. So, is resilience a useful concept or a meaningless buzzword?

– Brian Walker (2015)

For the core definition of resilience, we might to go back to the forest. It is a simple and therefore generally applicable definition.

‘Resilience is the ability to bounce back, basically in the face of disturbance, maintaining functions and structures of the system and recovering from the disturbance.”

– Rupert Seidl (2019)

The resilience of the ecosystem city is telling the story of the balancing act of the population in the present habitat of the city. Of course, there are many layers of habitats within the city and some justify to zoom in and consider resilience on a lower level. In general, it is like when you have plans to investing your money in stocks and funds: results in the past are no guarantee for the future.

It is with resilience like looking into the mirror: you know where you are and where you come from, not so much about where you are going and what will happen. It is hard to predict how future external developments influence the habitat of communities and whether they will exceed the resilience of the system and whether the system is able to tackle change properly.

To let resilience successfully – and Brian Walker (2017) from Resilience Alliance underlines the (urgent) need for this – enter the stage of public governance, it is wise to start with using it always in the context resilience of what to what (Carpenter et al., 2001). There is lots of work to be done for bringing in a proper landing place for resilience into the public domain. The first steps are there.

One thing stands out. In finding the tone of city, society and nature, the measurement of resilience can be helpful. But it is very complex. For that it has to develop further towards a more complete and refined concept. The of what to what question has to be built in.


Carpenter, S., Walker, B., Anderies, J. and Abel, N. (2001) From Metaphor to Measurement: Resilience of What to What?. Ecosystems 4, 765–781.

Holling, C.S. (1973) Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. Vol. 4:1-23 (Volume publication date November 1973).

Seidl, R. (2019) Voices of Resilience.

Walker, B. (2015) What is resilience?. Project Syndicate.

Walker, B. (2017). Brian Walker at Resilience 2017. Stockholm: Omställningsnätverket Transition Network Sweden.

Image: Kruf, J. (2020) Resilient City. Breda: Civitas Naturalis.

The Essence of Tree Roots

Are tree roots to bring in analogy of what happens on election day?


The wisdom of life, the book with all its guidelines and secrets, the codex, can actually be found in the forest. Codex is derived from the Latin caudex, meaning “trunk of a tree”. The lowest part of the trunk, that connect to the roots, is where two worlds meet in the binding principles of life, that of ‘above ground’ and that of ‘under ground’.

It is here where the soul of the forest can be found, the market place where all traffic streams from earth (upwards, water, minerals) and sun and air (downwards sugars, after photosynthesis) are exchanged, the roundabout on the highway of life.

It is this meeting point where growth and development are coordinated, the place where past, present and future meet, the counterpoint where life starts. Vincent van Gogh painted this meeting point, Tree Roots, as only he was able to do so: colourful and straight to the heart. He understood. It was his last painting, ‘digging deep’ into the essence of life.

Translating, transposing or transforming the scene from forest to society. Is it a thought that an election day can be considered as the trunk/root meeting point of our democracy, and therefore be perceived as the soul of the ecosystem of society?

The upward stream – empowering votes followed by (tax) money – can be imagined as that of water and minerals. In the downward stream giving power to the trees – the public leaders and politicians – to build, protect and care. It is a dream scenario. Daily practice proofs otherwise.

In finding the tone of city and society it is here, at the trunk-roots interface where the determinants and indicators can be found in the process of democracy, of governing and be governed. Studying the promises before and the realisations after election day creates insights into the tone. The trunk and the roots lead us to the codex of measuring the tone.


Gogh, V.  van (1890) Tree Roots [oil on canvas]. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum.

Zooming out, getting the picture

By zooming out, connections can be laid. By zooming in, connections come to life.


One of the crucial skills of public leaders and managers is to be able to get the bigger picture of society, and from there to connect things and to act accordingly. Mayors and city managers among others need to keep the main focus on the bigger picture, while aldermen and directors have their specific discipline, craftsmanship and portfolio.

Overview and content go hand in hand, both complementary pieces of the puzzle of public governance. Zooming out is a form of art, necessary to understand the city as an ecosystem. For this art, Alexander von Humboldt and Roelof A.A. Oldeman have been of great inspiration. The ability of zooming out is the essential skill for true knowledge, they say. Two quotes.

Idealer Durchschnitt eines Teils der Erdrinde. From Berghaus (1945) vor Alexander von Humboldt Kosmos.

Naturalist, explorer and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (1856) concluded that zooming out leads to more overview and offers the possibility to interconnect things (and even sciences). Von Humboldt gave guidance on the relation between ecosystems and abiotic factors. He came to this fascinating conclusion in Cosmos, actually revolutionary for that time.

“Physical geography…, elevated to a higher point of view, … embraces the sphere of organic life…”. – Von Humboldt (1856).

The atlas by Berghaus (1945) gives more insight into the range and character of connections. This atlas was used to illustrate Alexander von Humboldt’s CosmosThe latest saw the connection between the life in the ecosystems and the constraints of soil, water, energy and climate. Nobody before him had done this. Also in cities these connections between in fact habitats and communities are all over the place. So we can learn here from the discoveries of Von Humboldt.

“The principle impulse by which I was directed was the earnest endeavour to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces. Without an earnest striving to attain to a knowledge of special branches of study, all attempts to give a grand and general view of the universe would be nothing more than vain illusion.” – Von Humboldt (1856)

Alexander von Humboldt’s vegetation of the Andes (Buttimer, 2015).

Connection between sciences seems to be necessary to find the real answers. It is about the ability of sharpening one’s view from different angles and principles. Oldeman et al. (1990) underlined, in cross-border studies of forests, the need for such an holistic approach in diagnosis. He always encouraged, within the fragmented landscape of sciences, the necessity to cross the by universities and faculties so heavily guarded boundaries. For most of the city challenges, the process of policy making and service delivery needs to be based on a cross-border view, to come to well-founded decisions.

“The group that was responsible for the forest components theme decided to accelerate the process by starting an ambitious project, the writing of a common book. There is no way in which cooperation can be stimulated better, but this way has to be learned and practised too. The result is now before you. The book is not yet ideal in our opinion because it still contains too many traces of the old University tradition of researchers working, each apart, on such narrow subjects as they know best.

This way of executing the research of course is necessary to reach sufficient depth. But it carries the risk of loss of vision of the whole system, parts of which are studied. Still a little bit unbalanced, but on its way to improve along lines that are more clear now, this presentation in a pluridisciplinary way is a first step, however, to overcome both the limits of individual researchers and the shallowness of groups. We trust, however, that it is exactly this wrestling with integration of broad views versus the deepening of restricted views that may be as interesting to the reader as the facts, figures, conclusions and hypotheses on forests and their components which are presented in the following pages.” – Oldeman et al. (1990)

Von Humboldt and Oldeman are inspiring in this cross-scientific and pluridisciplinary discovery. Zooming out is crucial to get the picture. For finding the tone a systematic process of zooming in and out is necessary. Proper and sharp observation is in the heart of this all.


Berghaus, H. (1945) Physikalischer Atlas. Gotha: Verlag von Justus Perthes.

Buttimer, A. (2012) Alexander von Humboldt and planet Earth’s green mantle. European Journal of Geography.

Humboldt, Alexander von (1856) Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, Volume 1. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers. 406 pp.

Oldeman, R., Schmidt, P. and Arnolds, E. (1990) Forest components. Wageningen: Aricultural University, 111 pp.

Finding the Tone

About a time travel and catching the tone of a city.


This website is about finding the tone. For good navigation, public navigation, knowing the tone is key. It is the general character, quality, trend, frame of mind, color, mood and with showing the essence of a subject, object, group, organisation, city or nature area. You simply can not navigate to a target, value, goal or destination, if you do not know where you are. 


Central in the approach of finding and diagnosing, is considering the object of study as a living organism, as an ecosystem like that of a forest. For that CINETONE® was designed. It functions as a camera with a set of lenses, filters, films, pixel settings and perspectives to capture the tone.

CIvitas Naturalis Ecosystemic TONE forms the acronym. It is registered as trademark. 

This site is about finding, sensing, studying and diagnosing the determinants of the system, like there are components, processes, cycles, roles, interactions, traits and factors. It is about getting socionomic and ecologic insight in compositions, patterns and structures. 

In the displayed works on this website there are the field views as well as the eagle (hovering) views. For the first set of observations transects, paintings, texts, drawings, designs and photos are used.

For the second set, the chess board is used as a basic canvas, functioning as a grid, a layer over the object of study. For each field (out of the 64) the most present components (read: organisations) are measured and mapped. And there are schematic and conceptual drawings and diagrams. We make use of a specific set of colours, symbols and codes.

Let us find out, what the world has to offer in terms of impressions and expressions related to finding the tone. Personal observations are added.

Posted on Categories Essay