Resilient Cities Need Social Infrastructure Too
Forget sustainability. Resilience is becoming the new buzzword. Hurricane Sandy’s $50 billion worth of damage in New York City has laid bare the very real cost to cities around the world grappling with the effects of climate change. But the costs of inaction can be even higher.
So, what exactly is a more resilient city?
Simply defined, resilience is the ability to recover readily from adversity. Put in the context of a disaster-affected community, resilience translates to the ability of a population to return to its everyday functions after being subjected to a shock.
Often when considering urban resilience, discussions largely focus on the merits of hard versus soft infrastructure. Hard infrastructure, such as flood walls, are defense systems to keep the sea out. These hard infrastructure systems have been employed in the Netherlands and Venice with great success, but also at great cost. Soft infrastructure systems include wetlands or sand dunes, and utilize natural barriers and is generally less costly.
There are advocates for each approach, and others who advocate for a strategy that makes use of both hard and soft infrastructure. But all of these voices ignore a third—and equally critical pillar—of resilience: social infrastructure.
Unlike static engineered solutions, whether hard or soft, social infrastructure provides communities with the ability to respond, reorganize, and adapt at a highly local level to cope with shocks. Soft infrastructure taps into existing community capital, institutions, and networks to build trust, enable learning, and provide individuals with the resources to prepare and respond to crises. Social infrastructure can often be simplistic, but it is also extremely impactful.
In the response to Hurricane Sandy, for example, local community organizers with established networks were best able to communicate with those in need of crucial resources. Pat Simon of the Ocean Bay Community Development Corporation organized private donations to help her community when multiple emergency response groups failed to deliver what was needed, such as diapers and baby formula. Instead, the response groups brought generic goods like blankets and ready-to-eat meals, which resulted in a surplus of unwanted items and an undersupply of what really mattered.
Similarly, another Rockaway community relied on social infrastructure to meet their needs after Hurricane Sandy. The Beach 91st Street Community Garden served as the the neighborhood's primary food source during the days the community was isolated from transportation networks and outside assistance.
"During the first weeks after the storm, a group of people gathered at the farm every night to build a fire and cook dinner," Lee Altman, a Five Borough Farm initiative fellow at the Design Trust for Public Space, explains. "The garden offered a valuable community resource in creating a gathering place for people to share food and conversation when they had no electricity or heat and very little else to rely on."
Stories like these illustrate the importance of developing and strengthening New York City’s social infrastructure. But Governor Cuomo’s home buyout program announced earlier this year, which will use federal disaster relief funds to purchase homes in vulnerable areas of New York for public reclamation, could actually do the opposite. The program will likely displace many low-income residents who cannot afford disaster repairs. The program also poses a prisoner’s dilemma to residents: what will happen to the community if some families leave but others choose to stay? Most likely, the community will lose existing social infrastructure and the ability to recover quickly—this is the antithesis of resilience.
For those like Susie (she declined to provide her full name), a retiree from the Rockaways who was displaced during Sandy, these issues are all too real. "This is my home," she says, "I’m not going to move because of this storm or the next storm."
To cope during the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, she relied on friends in her neighborhood for housing and other basic needs. In the absence of this social infrastructure, Susie would have had nowhere else to go. The surge in displaced residents following the storm sent rents through the roof, making affordable housing extremely difficult to find, especially since Susie has yet to receive any relief aid to rebuild or relocate. Social infrastructure filled the void where the official response fell short.
Last week, Mayor Bloomberg’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency released a report titled A Stronger, More Resilient New York and announced that New York City will not retreat from its shoreline. The report solicits strategies to build robust transportation, coastal defense, and other technical infrastructure to allow communities to remain where they are. But, if New York City is really to "build back stronger," the social infrastructure of its neighborhoods cannot be ignored.
Top photo via (cc) Flickr user Kristine Paulus; Hurricane Sandy volunteers by Anton Oparin / Shutterstock.com. A version of this post was originally published by Reboot, a social enterprise working to improve governance and development worldwide.
Should Society Fund Mindfulness? Putting taxpayer money toward meditation programs? It’s not as crazy as you might think.
Syrian Refugee Women Learn Self-Defense with Predictably Badass Results Two Arab-American women hope to empower Syrian women fleeing their home country’s conflict with physical training and emotional healing.
Achilles’ Password: Online Security’s Susceptible Straggler These new technologies promise to make your vulnerable passwords obsolete.
Guess Which Wealthy Country Can't Guarantee Access to a Basic Human Need? This week, Detroit's neediest had their water turned off. Here's what you can do about it.
If More Couples Smoked Weed, Would There Be Less Domestic Violence? Spouses who smoke weed are less likely to inflict physical, sexual, or psychological harm on their significant other.
Better Living Through Science: Women in STEM A look at pioneering women in fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
How You Type Says a Ton About Your Emotional State This new computer program can see right through your poker face.
Let’s Do More. A Call-to Action by Gap CMO Seth Farbman Data shows that 24% of the 21 million Americans making minimum wage are working in retail, and 64% of those are women.
Meet the Self-Proclaimed President of Colombia’s Hottest Music Trend Champeta started as an outsider Afro-Colombian folk movement. Now it's taking over the country.
Cryptocurrency Regains its Reputation in Paradise Can a renowned tourist hub in Bali become a bitcoin wonderland?
Can a Miracle Fruit Overcome its Unsavory Reputation? Conservationists, farmers, and nutritionists are singing the praises of the breadfruit. If only it didn't taste so bad.
New App Could Tackle Hunger, Will Help You Find a Good Deal PareUp wants to connect food purveyors to thrifty consumers looking to score deals on unused, but still edible, items.