Social Cohesion: The Root of Resilience

Date Posted: 02.09.2016

By Debra Guenther

The strength of relationship between neighbors is an indicator of how well communities will adapt in an emergency. This sense of camaraderie, also known as “social cohesion” – when members cooperate to achieve shared well-being – is a central disaster preparedness strategy that many cities are incorporating into their planning. This means placemaking has taken on yet another benefit: supporting intentional social connection.

During the Chicago heat wave in 1995, 465 people died – many from low-income African American communities. However, researchers also found that 3 of 10 neighborhoods with the lowest rates of heat related deaths were low-income African American communities. How did communities with similar demographics fare so differently? The level of community interaction and organization that decreased isolation among residents was found to vary significantly. A recent study by the Center for American Progress suggests that where people are engaged in social or civic events, they also enjoyed increased resilience against extreme weather events.

Events like the Chicago heat wave (or hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, etc.) represent “shocks” to a system. There are also continuous “stresses” to communities such as slow but steadily rising tides, changing temperatures and shifting plant communities. Resilience strategies, such as social cohesion, address both shocks and stresses and allow communities to both adapt to and recover from their impacts.

Shift in Human Behavior: Adapting to the Environment

Mithun has recently explored these issues of resilience in two competitions that inform our broader work. Both competition approaches included an inter-disciplinary approach, an evaluation of both short- and long-term adaptation strategies, and a shift in thinking about human behavior and the environment – how people will need to adapt to the environment rather than have the environment adapt to us.

Social Cohesion Through Shared Knowledge and Capacity-building

Rising Tides is an international competition for ideas responding to sea level rise in San Francisco Bay and beyond that is organized by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC). Mithun’s entry to Rising Tides, The Estuarine City, explored the evolution of a living bay community and culture, and was awarded an honorable mention. The premise was to restore the saltwater systems that sustain us and build a shared knowledge or community capacity that would support adaptation of strategies going forward. This knowledge base grows by supporting self-organizing systems, reinforcing areas of human density and areas of wildness, and integrating food, water, energy and waste systems with the estuarine patterns of the watershed. The team included Bionic, Regenesis and NSI.

Social Cohesion Through New Models of Infrastructure and Governance

FarROC: for a Resilient Rockaway is a competition for innovative strategies for the planning, design and implementation of resilient and sustainable development for an 80-acre site, sponsored by the New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Enterprise Community Partners and other partners. Mithun’s entry, called ROCKeast, was awarded an honorable mention. It explored a plan that embraced the patterns of the coastal system – respecting areas of surge and the protective role of the shifting sand dunes in the development pattern. By establishing monitoring as an integral part of a broader community governance model, the proposal suggests expanding the boundaries to develop a master district infrastructure plan for the community. All stakeholders will benefit from experimenting with incremental infrastructure installations that will result in more strategic and adaptive investments. The Edgemere transit station on the A Line is proposed to be rebuilt as a community center that serves as a social hub, emergency shelter and post-event recovery center. The team included Communitas, Moffatt & Nichol, ARUP, Biohabitats, RWDI and Western Washington University Resilience Institute.

Resilience Dividends

In both proposals, new models for social gathering, interaction and collaboration are integrated with the living infrastructure to connect people more personally and intimately with the ecological systems to which they must adapt. These daily interactions have multiple dividends in mental health restoration, spontaneous interactions and longer term capacity building abilities. The Rockefeller Foundation refers to these as “resilience dividends” – the additional benefits that come through investing in resilience.  They could be economic growth, or improved parks or places to gather that “make cities better places to live not just in times of emergency, but every single day.”