Thursday, February 28, 2013

Social Cohesion and Climate Crises

Two articles accessed through Resilience.org discuss the importance of social cohesion for dealing with climate change and the aftermath of extreme weather events. Studies of disasters show that living in a walkable neighbourhood where you have frequent contact with people on the streets and local businesses promotes the kind of social network that will support you through a crisis. 

By Sarah Goodyear

When dealing with severe weather events, the type that climate change is making more common, improved infrastructure is important. But the social ties of a neighborhood – the kind of relationships that are nurtured by trips to the corner coffee shop and chats on the sidewalk – might prove equally important when it comes to saving lives.
In a New Yorker article this week (behind a paywall), sociologist Eric Klinenberg looks at the impact that solid, place-based social networks can have on protecting lives in a natural disaster. He takes as his example the Chicago heat wave of July 1995, which killed 739 people. As you might expect, the mortality rates were highest in poor neighborhoods. African-American communities were particularly badly affected.
But in two adjacent neighborhoods that were demographically nearly identical – mostly black, with high concentrations of poverty and elderly residents -- Klinenberg reports the death rates were vastly different. Englewood recorded a fatality rate of 33 per 100,000 residents. Right next door, Auburn Gresham’s rate was 3 per 100,000, better than many rich neighborhoods on the city’s mostly white North Side. From the New Yorker piece:
The key difference between neighborhoods like Auburn Gresham and others that are demographically similar turned out to be the sidewalks, stores, restaurants, and community organizations that bring people into contact with friends and neighbors. The people of Englewood were vulnerable not just because they were black and poor but also because their community had been abandoned. Between 1960 and 1990, Englewood lost fifty per cent of its residents and most of its commercial outlets, as well as its social cohesion….Auburn Gresham, by contrast, experienced no population loss in that period. In 1995, residents walked to diners and grocery stores. They knew their neighbors. They participated in block clubs and church groups….
[D]uring the severe heat waves that are likely to hit Chicago and other cities in the near future, living in a neighborhood like Auburn Gresham is the rough equivalent of having a working air-conditioner in each room.
After Superstorm Sandy, neighborhood networks like the ones that Klinenberg references in his piece were activated quickly around the five boroughs. Community-based groups such asRed Hook Initiative in Brooklyn (where I volunteered after the storm), which already had deep roots in the area, were able to call on existing relationships and get help where it was needed, even as government and national relief organizations were falling short.
What’s more, in places where different social groups had robust internal connections but didn’t really interact with each other, storm survival and recovery provided a framework for building new alliances. They haven’t always been seamless or comfortable, but they have been happening.
It happened in Red Hook, where residents of the public housing projects found themselves working alongside business owners from the gentrified streets nearby. It happened in the often fractious Rockaways, where surfers and firefighters and everyone else has pitched in to clean the streets and rip moldy sheetrock from homes, despite past resentments and divisions. For the most part, strength has built on strength.
"I don’t think in any way did it change the tight-knit community, other than to make us tighter," says one Rockaways surfer and homeowner in a video about the storm’s aftermathproduced by Surfer magazine. "Because I don’t know anyone who didn’t help out."
As cities prepare for climate change in earnest, they’re going to need to harden infrastructure, change building patterns, and overhaul government emergency procedures. But they’re also going to have to put a greater value on the human connections that can be found in walkable neighborhoods where people know each other and support local businesses. It’s not just about quality of life. It’s about survival.

by Eric Kleinberg, The New Yorker

DEPT. OF URBAN PLANNING about “climate-proofing.” For the past decade and a half, governments around the world have been investing in elaborate plans to “climate-proof” their cities—protecting people, businesses, and critical infrastructure against weather-related calamities. Much of this work involves upgrading what engineers call “lifeline systems”: the network infrastructure for power, transit, and communications, which are crucial in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Some of the solutions are capital-intensive and high-tech; some are low- or no-tech approaches, such as organizing communities so that residents know which of their neighbors are vulnerable and how to assist them. Even if we managed to stop increasing global carbon emissions tomorrow, we would probably experience several centuries of additional warming, rising sea levels, and more frequent dangerous weather events. If our cities are to survive, we have no choice but to adapt. Writer speaks with Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University. Genuine adaptation, Jacob believes, means preparing for the inevitable deluge. “The ocean is going to reclaim what we took from it,” he said. He thinks that New York can learn from Rotterdam, which has a long history of flooding. After enduring a devastating storm surge in 1953, Rotterdam began building a series of dams, barriers, and seawalls. It’s now experimenting with an architecture of accommodation: it has a floating pavilion in the city center, made of three silver half spheres with an exhibition space that’s equivalent to four tennis courts, and buildings whose fa├žades, garages, and ground-level spaces are engineered to be waterproof. It also has a resilient power grid, designed to withstand strong winds and heavy rain, with power lines which are primarily underground and encased in water-resistant pipes. The island nation of Singapore offers other lessons. Singapore began adapting to dangerous weather thirty years ago, after a series of heavy rains during monsoon season caused repeated flooding in the low-lying city center. Mentions Singapore’s Marina Barrage and Reservoir, which opened in 2008. Still, a strategy of resilience will involve more than changes to our physical infrastructure. Increasingly, governments and disaster planners are recognizing the importance of social infrastructure: the people, places, and institutions that foster cohesion and support. “There’s a lot of social-science research showing how much better people do in disasters, how much longer they live, when they have good social networks and connections,” says Nicole Lurie, a former professor of health policy who has been President Obama’s assistant secretary for preparedness and response since 2009. Discusses, at length, the case of a deadly 1995 heat wave in Chicago, during which people living in neighborhoods with stronger social networks fared better than people who lived in comparable, but less socially cohesive, neighborhoods. Since 1995, officials in Chicago have begun to take these factors into account. City agencies have maintained a database that lists the names, addresses, and phone numbers of old, chronically ill, and otherwise vulnerable people, and city workers call or visit to make sure they’re safe. 

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/01/07/130107fa_fact_klinenberg#ixzz2MCB5oFmY

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