From the Good Ideas file: Networked communities handle disasters better

“Resilience” is a new and hot concept in planning and urbanism — a term I didn’t think would take off like that when I first wrote the section in the book about scrawny little February crocuses in Cleveland.

Part of the growing interest in resilient places comes from our experiences of natural disasters, like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy in the northeast US.  But one of the pieces of resilience that we often overlook is this: we can’t build resilience for people.  We have to help them build it for themselves.  That’s why the concept of local economy as an ecosystem became so central to the book and to my thinking — we cannot impose resilience top-down, and we can’t hope to control all the pieces like we’d control a machine.  We can help the people involved connect to and build networks with each other.  But it’s facilitating work, encouraging work, somewhat hands-off work.  And it’s messy, imperfect, forward-and-back, stop-and start work.  Which makes it hard to sell to the elected officials and bosses who want to see Measurable Results.

But frankly, our Measurable Results work hasn’t actually been generating those result.  It’s been snowing us.  And while that happens, our communities and economies become less resilient.

I’m not completely in love with this essay from Meeting of the Minds–  I’d have personally preferred a little less rhetoric and a few more examples — but you might find it useful in dealing with people who think that trying to enable meaningful public engagement isn’t worth the time and effort.  And there’s two good references in the last paragraph.

I’d actually argue that building community resilience is probably more cost-effective  — and more likely to work — than relying on governments and institutions to take care of everything in the event of a crisis.

Here’s a couple of insightful quotes from the article, written by Blair Ruble of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, a plentiful number of urban professionals around the world – including economists, planners, architects, and administrators of all types – have dismissed citizen participation as an extravagant expense that only gets in the way of efficient urban management. They reveal a steady re-entrenchment of top-down approaches to shaping the city in which professionals know best. Involving citizens, it seems, just costs too much.

Ironically, the lessons in recent years that have emerged from post-disaster experiences point in precisely the opposite direction. From Hurricane Katrina to Super Storm Sandy and all variety of man-made and natural disasters across the globe, we have seen integrated communities with high social capital and identity recover more quickly and more efficiently than those which are bedeviled by high levels of social anomie and isolation. [emphasis mine]

How can we explain this division between empirical lessons learned on the ground and the view from the commanding heights of professionalism?


…traditional urban “think tanks” need a new approach to their work. Specialized knowledge and expertise play an important role to be sure; but there is simultaneously a need to make that knowledge and expertise widely available. Communities must organize themselves if they are to be resilient in the face of unprecedented challenges for cities which certainly lie ahead as our planet changes.

Fortunately, models exist for converting traditionally hierarchical academic, professional, and municipal institutions into urban laboratories embedded in broad networks of public officials, business executives, entrepreneurs, civic leaders and citizens. The University of Toronto’s Global Cities Indicator project, for example, mobilizes the considerable expertise necessary to collect and analyze big data about cities around the world while making such data available and transparent to broader communities. Similarly, Brooklyn’s new Center for Urban Science + Progress seeks to promote “a new kind of academic center that functions in collaboration with the city itself.”

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