In the July 3rd episode of The Urbanist podcast, the host Andrew Tuck explores the hot-topic issue of resilience in urban areas. As he points out, especially with respect to increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather events, academics, designers, foundations, politicians and activists are all looking for the solutions that will allow cities to bounce back, adapt, or evolve after natural or man-made disaster strikes. 

In particular, I appreciated the interview with the mayor of Calgary, Canada, Naheed Nenshi (@nenshi), who stressed the importance of non-infrastructural systems, procedures, and people who were so critical to the successful evacuation of 35,000 homes hours before communities were flooded by the swelled banks of the Bow and Elbow rivers. 

According to the interview, Mayor Nenshi mentioned the following key principles for mobilizing city resources to protect residents and communities:

  1. Protect Peoples safety. Protecting residents from injury and loss of life was always the ultimate priority.
  2. Information transparency. “If we know something, the public also knows it”. All information, unless there is a legitimate public security reason not to do so, should be shared so that people can make decisions about their lives and their families based on the best possible information.
  3. Communication through media. Make sure people understand what is happening in terms that relate tot themselves and their families. Mayor Nenshi gave press conferences at 4 am, then began speaking on all local television and radio stations to make sure the message got out right as people were waking up.
  4. Trust. People can be trusted to do the right thing. Human beings inherently resilient.

Point number four, along with Mayor Nenshi’s Neighbor Day initiative post-flood, really drives the point– that community and relationships between people are critical to a city’s resilience– home. After the flood, the mayor invited residents all over Calgary to get together with their neighbors and have block parties. He received invitations from over 900 Neighbor Day parties! 

A handmade sign that expresses gratitude for volunteer recovery efforts following devastating flooding in Calgary, Canada in 2013. Image source: Calgary News
A handmade sign that expresses gratitude for volunteer recovery efforts following devastating flooding in Calgary, Canada in 2013. Image source: Calgary News

While one might argue that the cohesion and shared memory made by residents of a city is something “natural”, that does not necessarily have to be planned, and that such cohesion would allow any city to bounce back from disaster, I definitely think that cities need to foster collaboration and community building as an explicit part of resiliency. In Calgary, to evacuate a building in Chinatown, the transit department could mobilize a bus, the police department could provide officers, and social services could send a translator. These are pieces of the emergency management puzzle that I imagine are fairly prescriptive; they are like the items on the checklist that any mayor should have in times of emergency. However, Calgary had something more.

That the police had previously built rapport with the elderly Chinatown residents in the building, and understood the needs of this particular community allowed them to ease fears and really be protectors of the community throughout the evacuation. To have neighbors help each other, disseminating information, checking on each other, really required a vision of what it means to be a Calgarian. While all humans may be inherently resilient as individuals who can be trusted to respond to emergency and trauma, and perhaps even inherently resilient as an overall species, I think we do need to explicitly encourage resilience as neighborhood communities.

I am attracted to the concept of “collective efficacy” in describing/measuring this sense of identity within community. Collective efficacy is often used in criminological theory. Social scientist Robert Sampson has described it as “the process of activating or converting social ties among neighborhood residents in order to achieve collective goals, such as public order or the control of crime”. One prime example of measuring collective efficacy is to count letter “mail-backs”, or the rate at which “dropped” stamped and addressed letters are picked up and mailed by strangers. Successfully mailed letters represent how an individual’s oversight (the dropped letter) is compensated for by the collective efficacy of his community.

Having lived substantial amounts of time in Beijing, New York, and Oakland, CA, there is a palpable difference in how much people identify with their cities. In Beijing for example, perhaps for such strong cultural definitions of home, family and other, or perhaps for more strong handed government efforts to define residents’ hukous, few actually identify with the city, even after living there for decades. On the other hand, shared experiences as “New Yorkers” could allow someone just starting off his career in the city to call himself a New Yorker after just a few years living there. While I lived in Oakland, I could blame (a lack of) collective efficacy and neighborhood identity for our neighbor running out the building after his apartment caught fire, without telling anyone else on the floor. In other neighborhoods in Oakland however, such as Adam’s Point, neighbors have banded together to help reduce crime on their blocks, registering block captains with the local police, and sharing information via mailing lists. 

And this is of course, only a hypothesis, but I suspect that higher community efficacy exhibited in Adam’s Point would show that in a time of real emergency or natural disaster, to have much higher resilience than would my old apartment building. Perhaps, the bonds that we’ve seen New Yorkers display among each other post-911 and post-Sandy, would have it score much higher in overall resilience than Beijing, where “other” is often anyone outside of extended family, and information and communication are controlled and extremely top-down.

In any case, especially coming from an engineering background, my takeaway is to constantly remind myself that physical solutions and even centralized procedural solutions to disaster are limited. Fostering community and collective efficacy are critical to cities’ overall resilience plans.

All thoughts welcome! 

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