Implementing Resilient and Sustainable Cities – Using Implementation Science to Weather the Storm and Bounce Back Better


Brianna Walsh, graduate intern at CES, looks at three key insights from November’s meeting of the Implementation Network of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

‘The Perfect Storm for Change'

The Implementation Network of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s November meeting took place in the centre of a ‘perfect storm’. Amid COP26 and Covid-19, the theme, ‘Building resilient and sustainable cities’, was apt. Caroline Creamer, Denis Barrett and Richard McLernon discussed how we can weather these conditions and create better, more resilient environments in their wake.

Caroline Creamer (Director of the International Centre for Local and Regional Development, Maynooth University) delivered findings from her co-authored NESC research paper, 'Long-term Resilient and Sustainable Cities - A Scoping Paper'.

Denis Barrett (Cork City Council Learning City Co-Ordinator and Community Response Forum Co-ordinator) spoke about developing Cork into a Learning City and the area’s community response to COVID-19.

Richard McLernon (Resilience Project Co-ordinator for Belfast City Council) offered practical insights from the implementation of the Resilient City programme in Belfast.

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is increasingly urgent. Climatic, social, and economic stresses on environments are accumulating. The ‘window’ is narrowing to scale up holistic, resilient measures that will protect against risks to our livelihoods.

The field of implementation science offers useful learning for building resilient sustainable cities, and three clear messages emerged from the network meeting:

1. Public Engagement is Key

The meaning of resilience is historically vague. Refining the term can create the cultural change needed when implementing sustainable programmes. The current concept of resilience asks policymakers and service providers to reflect, plan and ‘bounce-forward’ better, or differently, from adversity.

For Belfast’s Resilient City plan, communicating a distinct definition of resilience heightened local understanding. In Northern Ireland’s political context, resilience had a range of emotional connotations. While several issues can be covered under broad terminology, clarifying the objectives of resilience programmes became essential.

This can be achieved through an effective communications plan and open, accurate data. Implementing the Resilient City Programme in Belfast was supported by an Urban Childhood Report and Risk Assessment of the area. Public consultation across the whole city, using creative methods to engage with young and old, provided positive feedback that legitimised the work.

2. Let’s Go Local – a place-based approach to implementing resilience

A place-based approach is critical to the implementation of resilient and sustainable cities. Caroline championed the principle of subsidiarity throughout her presentation. Subsidiarity states that social issues should be resolved at the most immediate or local level. Local action advanced interventions in Belfast, Bristol and Milan, such as the One City Plan and the 15-minute city. These community-led initiatives prove instrumental in securing just transitions for all.

Increasing autonomy for local authorities was crucial to Cork City Council’s Covid-19 community response. Joining together top-down and bottom-up strategies, understanding the value of middle management, and relying on local leadership aimed to ensure that ‘no one was left behind’. The city adopted a flexible response that could adapt to changing needs in different community contexts.

In Belfast, Richard McLernon noted the power of small scale, local interventions that could be embedded immediately. For example, the potential of growing pocket forests within Belfast’s wider commitment to plant one million trees by 2030. Communities who have the capacity to deliver ‘quick-wins’ can build momentum, make a tangible difference, and increase future support.

3. “Work With the Willing”

Collaboration is pivotal to implementing resilience programmes. Multiple partners have a role to play as sustainable policies impact a variety of fields, from health and transport to education and nutrition.

In Cork, networks, partnerships, and a strong common cause responded to shocks such as flooding, cybersecurity, Brexit and Covid-19. Over 30 statutory, community and voluntary organisations united to form a Community Response Forum (CRF) during the Covid crisis, highlighting gaps and coordinating services for vulnerable people. The Local Enterprise Office also facilitated collaboration to enhance the city centre experience, pedestrianise Prince’s Street, and increase green infrastructure. Consequently, a more vibrant, liveable city was created.

Finding opportunities to collaborate is critical for future endeavours in environmental and socio-economic resilience. In achieving better outcomes, structures should aim to be solution focused, cross-sectoral and all partners should be equal.

Calm in the eye of the storm, now is the time to harness the wind. Co-operation, consultation, and the power of local communities are core implementation tools we can use to prepare for the cyclone that lies ahead.

Slides from the meeting are available here.

The Implementation Network of Ireland and Northern Ireland was established in 2011 to share learning about implementation and to build the capacity of people working in services in implementation.

If you would like to become a member of the Implementation Network of Ireland and Northern Ireland, please email

Further Resources

NEW Implementation Training Video Series - from the Implementation Network of Ireland and Northern Ireland