Key to Climate Preparedness: Building Social Capital & Strong Towns


8/29/05 photo of Katrina courtesy of NASA's Earth Observatory

Is climate preparedness and resilience mostly if not entirely a question of costly investments in physical infrastructure? Safe to assume if we keep in mind bits of pithy wisdom like Churchill’s: “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” Efficiently and wisely located and designed infrastructure should therefore be the most important factor in determining resilience in the face of disruptive climatic changes.

Then I came across the story of Village de L’Est, a Vietnamese community located logically on the eastern end of New Orleans, in the National Academy of Sciences report on disaster resilience. This remarkable community and its Mary Queen of Vietnam Church worked was an active hub of recovery activities after Katrina. Emergency supplies were gathered and distributed thanks to the church. Rebuilding commenced soon after the hurricane, and community leaders reached out to evacuees in shelters in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas to maintain connections. This New Orleans neighborhood has experienced an astounding 90 percent population recovery.

Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy describe similar successes in rebounding from disaster in their fun and enlightening book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back. The book is full of bracing and inspiring stories like the amazing commitment to recovery by Hancock Bank in New Orleans after Katrina, as described by Zolli himself in the video below:

The book’s last chapter has specific recommendations for building resilience, which are useful for climate preparedness:

  • “Mapping fragilities, thresholds and feedback loops”: Zolli notes that “surprisingly few communities or organizations have any kind of structure in place to think broadly and proactively about the fragilities and potential disruptions that confront them.”
  • “Embracing Adhocracy,” which means complementing plans and procedures of bureaucracies with innovations and coordination that connects them (I wonder how many metropolitan long-range transportation plans are thoroughly meshed with the thousands of disaster plans required since 2000?)
  • “The Fierce Urgency of Data,” which may sound boring but which is arguably the most crucial part of the resilience equation. The book covers how recovery from the Haiti earthquake was aided immensely by a massive data collection effort that used social media to map clusters of incidents. Rescue organizations, and the U.S. Marines, found this to be an invaluable tool. Not covered by the book, but particularly relevant to transportation, is the increasing amount of data that can be collected from computers in cars like the one sitting my driveway (a 2012 Toyota Plug-In Prius) in order to assess the functionality of highways, roads and bridges subsequent to a disaster. For the first time ever, after the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan just a couple of years ago, Toyota and the other two big Japanese automakers combined forces to provide a real-time map of the road network for government, companies and the public. ITS-Japan has some details here.
  • “Rehearsing the Future” is basically scenario-planning, which is specifically authorized as “optional” in the MAP-21. Such planning should not be “optional,” however, for regions serious about climate preparedness (unlike federal transportation policymakers, evidently). It’s not just the product that matters, as Zolli points out when quoting one of the scientists behind a particular coastal resilience software platform called “Marine InVEST”: “In many ways, these renewed relationships [between community members] are the sofware’s deliverable…the models get better every time we engage with nonscientists and…so do their relationships with one another.”

And this is exactly the point. Strong social relationships in our communities matter most. This brings us to what scientists including most notably Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone , call “social capital.” And more specifically, it brings us to a denser, more robust book by Daniel Aldrich of Purdue University (formerly of Tulane, where he moved shortly before Katrina struck New Orleans), called Building Resilience. Here’s Aldrich himself describing his work:

Aldrich examines qualitative and quantitative data sets detailing recovery patterns and causes after four catastrophic events: Massive earthquakes in Tokyo (1923) and Kobe (1995), the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (2004) and of course Hurricane Katrina (2005). The book is rich with findings:

  • First, social capital matters most to speedy recovery in each of these disasters.
  • Second, a combination of different kinds of social capital is crucial; areas need “bonding” capital, meaning ties within the community, “bridging” capital connecting to other communities, and “linking” capital connecting to helpful outsiders such as government representatives and nonprofit service organizations.
  • Third, social capital can have negative effects, most memorably in India where Dalits (the lowly caste of so-called “untouchables”) were excluded from social networks and in New Orleans where well-organized communities shunned temporary trailers thereby slowing citywide recovery efforts.

He concludes the book by explaining why social capital was key to “effective and efficient recoveries” from these crises:

  • “First, deep levels of social capital serve as informal insurance and promote mutual assistance after a disaster.” Connected communities can serve as the real first-responders, even before professionals arrive on the scene.
  • “Next, dense and numerous social ties help survivors solve collective action problems that stymie rehabilitiation.” Coordination of data collection and aid distribution is made possible by strong networks.
  • “Finally, strong social ties strengthen the voices of survivors and decrease the probability of their leaving.” Voice, not exit is something Aldrich cites as important for community recovery. Like a big rubber band, when feel attached to a community, and see hope for its future, we can be pulled back there after a disaster.

Both Zolli and Aldrich are skeptical about rigid, centralized, expensive programs for recovery. And this brings me to Chuck Marohn, whose recent book made up of a compilation of his blogs from his site has been favorably reviewed by NRDC’s master-blogger Kaid Benfield. For years, Chuck has been preaching the gospel of Strong Towns, underpinned by five principles, most of which focus on fiscal conservatism vs. fiscal waste and the last of which is most salient here:

5. [Strong towns] Must have the courage and leadership to plan for long-term viability. Does your town have a long-term plan for success? Do the leaders in your community understand that plan and embrace it? Are short-term decisions made through the prism of the long-term viability of the community? Are the members of the town engaged in a broad and comprehensive way in the planning of the community?

This principle, it seems to me, is all about bonding social capital. And it’s crucial to climate preparedness, moreso than physical infrastructure. Sure, we need to harden, redesign and even relocate our structures and infrastructures. But hats off to Chuck because strong towns, socially speaking, are even more important in a world with a changing climate.

Let’s get to work building them.

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