Alone Together, in Community Resilience

The clapping starts at 8 p.m. every evening. Across the world now, from São Paulo to Amsterdam, residents of cities confined to their homes by anti-coronavirus self-isolation measures are assembling on balconies, at windows and in doorways to applaud the emergency service providers helping Covid-19 sufferers. Darkened streets that have most of the day been vacant and silent — emptied out by social distancing and lockdowns — alight with the glow from open drapes and fill with the sound of neighbors united in a common sound, if from a distance.

The health workers receiving the ovation deserve the appreciation — but the nightly applause isn’t just for them. It’s also a way for residents shut indoors to remind themselves that, just outside their doors, there is a whole community of people in the same situation. Many of those neighbors are ready to help out if they can.

The way people band together in response to disasters is a key factor in a community’s ability to recover. As resilience guru Michael Berkowitz told CityLab recently in defining urban resilience: “It includes good infrastructure that promotes mobility and sustainable transportation. It’s also cohesive communities where neighbors check in on neighbors.”

Weaving this kind of community safety net becomes even more challenging when the disaster involves mandated isolation from one another. But already, even in a crisis which for many is still best measured in weeks rather than months, communities are using agility and creativity to adapt community initiatives to a touch-free world.

On a larger scale, these efforts take the form of organized volunteer networks and mutual-aid groups that are mobilizing neighbors to help each other out with simple tasks that social isolation has made difficult, such as picking up medications, walking dogs, or just calling for a chat. Zoom out and you can see impressive systems forming, such as France’s 40,000-member volunteer website En Premiere Ligne (“In the Line of Fire”) or the more than 1,500 local mutual aid groups that have sprung up across the U.K.

But social solidarity doesn’t just take place on a national scale. It’s the sum of countless gestures that keep communities up and running, many of them small and homespun.

“It started as a joke,” Copenhagener Eszter Igaz says via email of her 15-home apartment building’s toilet paper pool. “The news reported shoppers hoarding toilet paper, so my boyfriend put a few rolls (unused!) on top of the post boxes at our building entrance, with a message saying ‘for the needy that deserve it.’” The first response from neighbors, already locked down for more than 15 days, was approving laughter. Since then, she says, there’s been some real exchange going on, with people stocking up the communal pile of rolls when they have some to spare, while others take them if they don’t want to leave the building and are running low. The residents have now expanded the scope of the exchange, passing an Xbox from home to home after a good wipe-down with hand sanitizer.

This kind of sharing — as much about morale as assistance — is happening on a street-by-street level too. In Berlin, neighbors have turned local fences into sharing centers where people hang items such as clothes and food in front of their homes for other people who might need them. The fences have also been used as message boards for homeless people, communicating which open shelters are thoroughly cleaned daily and have enough space to practice social distancing.

Safety pins secure items left out for the needy in Berlin. (Sarah Syed/Bloomberg)

In Taos, New Mexico, community groups have adapted an existing idea for no-touch food-sharing. They are using small portable food pantries placed on people’s front yards or sidewalks to leave food that can be removed and refilled by anyone in the community. It’s a style reminiscent of the Little Free Libraries, which later also spawned the similar Little Free Pantries.

“This allows both giving and receiving without contact,” said Mark Goldman, the chair of the construction technology department at the University of New Mexico, Taos. The initial pantries were a collaboration between local organizations including Habitat for Humanity of Taos, Immigrant Allies, and Las Cumbres Community Services. Since social distancing began, Goldman got involved, adapting the boxes so they sit on more stable bases, supported by sandbags or other weights as in the blueprint below drawn by Goldman. He said the first box was emptied and then restocked again on the day it was set out.

(Mark Goldman)

“We are a poor working-class community with a hip, affluent ski area,” Goldman said. “This food pantry is a way to link all of us in this together as a community.”

In addition to supports from physical communities, there are countless online communities bound by shared identities. In New York City, choreographer Yin Yue has been using video to reach out to a group of people who might find being stuck at home especially challenging: dancers. Yue has launched a dance class project called Solo Together from her kitchen, intended for dancers trying to make things work in cramped apartment spaces. “It’s definitely in one spot, you allow yourself just two to three steps out of your center.” she says. “If you choose, say, your living room and move the coffee table if you have one, then you have enough space.”

Dancing together in our time of social distancing. . . In response to the continued spread of COVID-19, YYDC YY Dance Company wishes to stay connected with members of our global dance community who may be in isolation and practicing “social distancing” to combat the spread of the virus. Join me on YYDCINC instagram IGTV where I will choreograph and teach the movement for a solo dance that we can all learn together as a community. . Once we have completed the solo together, please feel free to record your performance and share on your social media and tag @yydcinc and @theyinyue, so we can see and share your work with our community. I hope this project will play a small part in fostering the connectedness and engagement that we all need at this time. #Solotogether

A post shared by YY Dance Company (@yydcinc) on

In Berlin, another online effort is aimed at the clubbing crowd. The city’s clubs have been shuttered for several weeks (and have since been pinpointed as hotspots for coronavirus’s spread), but a new online effort is maintaining a 48-hour live DJ marathon over the weekends. Called Club Quarantaene, the livestream simulates the Berlin club experience, down to waiting in line briefly to enter, and answering a doorman’s questions before being allowed in. Separated into four club-like spaces — the “toilet” is a place for users to hang out and chat — each space connects to donation links that help users provide financial support for organizations helping furloughed, income-less club workers, refugees and other groups in need.  

Although people are stuck in their homes during coronavirus, the lockdowns haven’t stopped politics. And people wanting to protest government actions are using new communitarian ways to express that frustration in a period when street demonstration are impossible.

When news came out in Spain this month that the country’s royal family was embroiled in yet another corruption scandal, it was the sort of news that would normally have brought people protesting into the streets. With the streets unsafe due to the risk of infection, people had to ask themselves: What happens to public life when the public space it takes place in is off-limits? Spaniards took collectively to their balconies for a cacerolada — a noisy protest where everybody bashes a saucepan in unison. One website even provided a downloadable saucepan-beating sound to play out the window, for those afraid of damaging their saucepans. This video comes from last Monday in the northwestern city of A Coruña.

While the demonstration may not have quite as positive a message as residents applauding emergency workers, the effort had a similar effect: Creating on city streets a distinctly unified sight — and sound — that would not have occurred if people weren’t stuck inside their homes.

With reporting from Marie Patino in London and Sarah Syed in Berlin.

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Readers: Tell Us Your Stories of Community Resilience

As CityLab continues to cover the Covid-19 global pandemic, we want to hear stories from around the world of community resilience amidst the social distancing and disruptions of our daily lives. How is your neighborhood providing support to its vulnerable people? What creative ideas are emerging from your community?

We are particularly looking for ideas related to the following topics:

  • Managing child and elder care;

  • Community support for vulnerable populations, from medical staff and hourly workers to homeless individuals;

  • Sharing of resources like food, toilet paper and hand sanitizer;

  • How families, neighbors and communities are staying connected despite physical restrictions.

Please share your stories and information via the form below. You can email us photos at with the subject line: “Community Resilience”.

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How Communities Can Build Psychological Resilience to Disaster

The Red River runs north, up along the border between North Dakota and Minnesota, before spilling into Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada. Its water flows slowly through a 10,000-year-old glacial lakebed, in one of the flattest stretches of land in the United States, and because it points north, it’s sometimes blocked by ice jams—all of which makes the river prone to flooding.

In March 2009, one such flood threatened the city of Fargo. Residents watched for a week as the National Weather Service continually updated its predictions, and as forecasts for the river’s crest climbed higher and higher. At the time, the medical director of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services was psychiatrist Andy McLean, who also lived in the city. “I was trying to protect my home, and trying to protect the community,” he says.

Leadership in Fargo readied sandbags, led the construction of barricades, and planned for evacuations. But McLean had a key role, too. “Every day, I was the psychiatrist at the table, talking about the mental health of the community and of individuals,” he says.

That’s one reason why, despite record flooding, the city was able to escape major consequences: not only because of its infrastructural and physical preparations, but also because of its social and psychological readiness.

As climate change makes natural disasters more common and more extreme, cities and communities are working to improve their resilience—their ability to withstand disaster, and bounce back quickly when it occurs. But disasters don’t just cause physical damage; they can leave communities struggling mentally and emotionally, as well. Working to shore up physical structures only tackles part of the problem, says Gerald Galloway, a professor of civil and environmental engineering in the Center for Disaster Resilience at the University of Maryland. “If a community can’t stand on its own two feet psychologically, all the work on having stronger buildings isn’t going to get you anywhere.”

Post-disaster trauma

Research on communities affected by natural disasters shows that they often lead to spikes in mental-health challenges, particularly for people who face the most adverse impacts from the disaster or are already vulnerable in other ways. “It’s a mistake to just focus on the disaster itself,” says Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology studying climate change and psychological wellbeing at the College of Wooster in Ohio.

Studies done in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina found that rates of mental-health conditions like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) increased in the aftermath of the storm. Those findings have been echoed in research on how people responded in the weeks, months, and years after other major disasters over the past decade. One survey of just under 700 people in the New York City area affected by Hurricane Sandy found that 33 percent likely had depression, 46 percent likely had anxiety, and 21 percent likely had PTSD. Preliminary data on people affected by Hurricane Harvey in Houston also found high rates of mental-health symptoms.

People with pre-existing mental-health conditions, other health conditions, and those closest to the center of the damage are more at risk for developing mental-health problems, as are older adults, who are twice as likely to have symptoms of PTSD than younger adults. But children are particularly affected by disasters: in one set of kids who evacuated during Hurricane Katrina, for example, over half exhibited mental-health symptoms, and more than 30 percent had clinically significant PTSD or depression. Children affected by bushfires in Australia had worse academic progress over the next few years than those who weren’t affected, one study of nearly 25,000 children found.

Many people, Clayton notes, will be just fine after a disaster, “even if they experience a traumatic event.” And for some people, living through a disaster can even spur what’s called post-traumatic growth: Individuals and communities come through stronger, mentally and emotionally, than they were before.

The goal in advance of a disaster is to take steps to mitigate some of the potential harms, and help more people experience long-term boosts, says Sonny Patel, NIH Fogarty Global Health Scholar at Harvard University. “How do we build communities to prevent some of these consequences? We know that there’s a psychological toll from these disasters—we want to find ways to create resilience to prevent some of that.”

Building resilient communities

Before the 2009 flood hit, the North Dakota team organized its work around a few principles of community resilience. It structured its messaging with the goal of communicating “hopeful realism”: recognizing that there was danger ahead, but stressing confidence in preparations. That helped build public trust in the civic groups making decisions. “Feeling like they are looking out for the best interests of the community is key [for confidence from the public],” McLean says.

Daily televised briefings kept citizens updated on preparations, and behavioral health professionals like McLean gave advice in those briefings on how people could prepare emotionally. Citizens got involved in mitigation efforts by filling sandbags, which allowed them to “act with purpose”: A study conducted after the flood showed that people who spent time volunteering had fewer risk factors for suicide, as it made residents feel like they belonged and were less of a burden to the community.

Fargo organizations, including nonprofit agencies, schools, and religious groups, also worked to strengthen connections between citizens, leaderships, and disaster-response groups. Inter-community connectedness is a critical element of resilience, McLean says. “One of the most protective factors is social connectedness, both for individuals and for communities. When people feel isolated, it’s a significant concern for having more psychological problems down the road.” In research on characteristics of resilient individuals, social support tops the list—people who fall into this category tend to have many people in their lives with whom they interact regularly, and who provide comfort and guidance, all of which protects against overwhelming stress. “Having a strong, supportive social network is one of the best things you can do,” Clayton says.

Resilient individuals and families, in turn, likely help shore up resilient communities, which provide the social networks that in turn encourage individual resilience, McLean says.

Taking practical steps to prepare for disasters has psychological benefits for individuals, Clayton says. “Informing yourself makes you feel a bit less overwhelmed. Having a concrete sense of what impacts you could see in your area does, as well.”

Amy Ellwein (left), a licensed veterinary technician, checks a calico cat held by Leah Nicholas, a veterinarian student at North Dakota State University. During the 2009 flood in Fargo, pets including dogs horses, mules, and pot-bellied pigs were looked after by volunteers until their owners could care for them again. (Allen Fredrickson/Reuters)

The U.S. outpost of the organization Save the Children runs a program called Prep Rally that helps build resilience in kids by teaching them about what it might be like to live through any type of disaster. “It pulls from a lot of research on adverse childhood experiences,” says Sarah Thompson, director of U.S. emergencies at the organization. “We’re giving kids a basic understanding of what could happen, and what safe places and people are. Even without knowing the nitty-gritty, it helps them feel like they’re more in control. It helps them feel like they can be safe.”

The program teaches them to recognize the risks they might face in their community, as well as practical skills, like how to talk with their families about evacuation plans and what should be in a disaster kit. By working with kids, the program also reaches the whole family, Thompson says. “Kids are great message-bearers.”

One key challenge in building a resilient community is ensuring that efforts are distributed equitably. “Individuals in poverty or who are more isolated are at more risk of psychological harm,” McLean says. People of lower socioeconomic status are already less likely to make preparations ahead of a disaster, are less likely or unable to respond to emergency communications, and are more likely to face major consequences from a disaster. Working closely with and directing support services for vulnerable groups, then, is an important element of resilience work.

Many organizations incorporate mental health into their conversations around disaster response: the American Psychological Association runs a disaster response network in partnership with the American Red Cross, which mobilizes psychologists to help victims and first responders after disasters. In addition, communities under a presidentially declared disaster can get funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to offer mental-health services.

In a few places, mental health is discussed as a component of disaster preparedness: In North Carolina, for example, the Department of Health and Human Services plans to measure social and emotional health in children as part of its strategic plan, which will be incorporated into preparations for future disasters. However, preventative discussions are less common, Patel says, and if it’s low on the list of priorities, funding can be limited. “It’s not the first thing people think about,” he says. “But it’s improved, and it’s getting attention.”

As the climate continues to change, research into the factors that contribute to resilience—and the things that prevent it—will become even more critical. It’s still not clear how anxiety around climate-related events might affect emotional recovery after a disaster, or how people’s attachments to a particular place might skew their response, Clayton says. Those efforts are ongoing, spearheaded by researchers who have infrastructure in place to start collecting data immediately after a storm—like teams at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who started on projects after Hurricane Harvey.

After the 2009 flood, McLean helped develop a group focused on building resilience in North Dakota. It was fairly active for a few years, he said, and then work tapered off. But this past spring, there were concerns that another flood could occur, and the conversations were able to quickly ramp back up—with mental health included. “We’re prepared,” McLean says. “We’ve had enough practice that we’re able to be.”

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When Resilience Starts With the City’s Most Vulnerable Youth

A former high school principal, Kimball Thomas recalls being disheartened to see young adults loitering in some of the struggling neighborhoods of Tallahassee, Florida. He saw them in the streets and in parks, at bus stops and near convenience stores, “doing absolutely nothing,” he says. Some of those same kids call him their “street” principal.

Thomas heads TEMPO (Tallahassee Engaged in Meaningful Productivity for Opportunity), a city initiative he launched three years ago to curb violence by helping “disconnected youth” between 16 and 24 years who aren’t in school and who are unemployed earn their GED or secure a vocational job. The program has had 640 participants, many from “promise zones”—areas designated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as having the highest poverty and violence rates in the city. Thomas says some 7,000 teens and young adults are eligible, and the city hopes to reach 1,000 participants by 2020.

TEMPO graduate Joshua Wade speaks at this summer’s launch of Build Up Tallahassee, a career development program that train participants for construction jobs. (City of Tallahassee)

For Abena Ojetayo, Tallahassee’s first chief resilience officer, TEMPO is also an important element in the city’s recently adopted community resilience plan, which calls for developing climate-adapted infrastructure, but also puts “public safety and preparedness” as the first goal. That means ensuring that the most vulnerable communities in the city can bounce back from disasters, natural or man-made.

In recent years, Tallahassee has seen plenty of both. After Hurricane Hermine in 2016, a mass power outage plunged most of the city into darkness; some parts of the city were without electricity for more than a week. Hurricane Irma in 2017 and Michael in 2018 also delivered back-to-back blows to the city. But the resilience plan also acknowledges other kinds of community threats, such as gun violence: In 2018, a mass shooting targeting women at a Tallahassee yoga studio left two people dead.

Over a quarter of Tallahassee’s 193,000 residents live in poverty—double the national average—and the Florida capital tops the list for the most economically segregated city in the U.S., according to a 2015 report by the Martin Prosperity Institute. “We know that communities of color and poor people have historically been vulnerable to almost any kind of disruption or shock,” Ojetayo says.

Across Florida—and the country—those communities are more likely to live in high-risk flood zones but are less prepared for major storms. Racial disparities in recovery efforts, meanwhile, leave families in limbo and unable to move to higher ground. Absent major storms, they’re also less likely to cope with sea-level rise and extreme temperatures. In Miami, for example, inadequate drainage systems mean less-affluent residents bear higher social costs when frequent so-called nuisance flooding during high tides prevents them from going to work.

At a recent Resilient Cities Summit—held by the National League of Cities, the Urban Land Institute, and the U.S. Green Building Council—resilience officers from several cities suggested organizing focus groups to include the voices of their most vulnerable populations in their climate adaptation plans. Ojetayo argued, though, they should play a bigger role. “What I’m arguing for is that [cities] engage them directly in the solutions-making process, in a way that is economically viable for them,” she tells CityLab. “Because they need money.”

In other words, don’t just listen to them: Hire them. And train them for jobs in the industries that will build and maintain the infrastructure needed in a warming world.

Ojetayo says that not only can TEMPO spur “economic vitality” among Tallahassee’s poorest communities by helping its low-income youth find employment, but the city can potentially tap those coming out of the program for sustainability-related infrastructure projects.“The real challenge is not just getting them into the program, but getting them placed in a meaningful way,” she says. “How do we engage them in our [resilience] solutions in a way that’s not just free?”

Some participants, like 23-year-old Charqueisha Flowers, have been placed into a new city initiative called Build Up Tallahassee, which prepares disadvantaged residents for commercial licensing test and enrolls them in a 12-week paid apprenticeship with companies that work on city construction and maintenance projects. Her last job before she became unemployed was at a Walmart. Now she’s learning how to install water meters, and alternates between attending licensing classes taught by the public works department and going to work sites with city crews.

“We want to start building a class of skilled laborers, so that when we build road and bridges, they’re ready to go to work,” Thomas says. Participants have also been placed with companies that work on the city’s drainage system, for example, and underground utilities.

Others have an opportunity to work directly for the city. Ojetayo is currently trying to get at least two TEMPO participants placed in her department, to assist with carrying out the city’s resilience plan. She says they’re still figuring out what their roles will be exactly, but she’s looking to put their knowledge of their neighborhoods and their connections to use. While the city has traditionally hired people with higher educational background, she argues that local governments should also consider the value of having candidates with “lived-in experiences.”

“If we think about climate resilience, there are infrastructural [solutions],” Ojetayo says. “But there is also this social cohesion piece that a seawall won’t fix.”

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L.A. Bets That Equity Is the Path to Resilience

Wildfires, floods, mudslides, earthquakes, tsunamis—the list of natural disasters that haunt Los Angeles reads like the 10 Plagues of Egypt. What’s more, the city’s size and diversity mean that different neighborhoods are vulnerable to different events, and because of the city’s level of inequality, some residents are much better equipped to handle disaster than others.

In response to these challenges, last week the City of Los Angeles, in coordination with the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, released a resilience strategy. Many of the 96 action items in the new plan follow tried-and-true formulas for mitigating the damage from natural disaster. More resources for seismic safety through the state of California’s “brace-and-bolt” program will help protect older buildings from earthquakes, while increased neighborhood outreach in the hills will complement brush-clearing efforts that prevent wildfires.

Some of the actions are already funded, and the mayor’s office is seeking funding for the rest, both from city funds and from outside partners.

The plan also treats environmental resilience and social equity as interdependent. “The ability of a city to survive and thrive in the face of disaster is as much about its social fabric and social footprint as it is about its infrastructure and its technical treatment of the big risks,” said Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities.

Some of the longer-term actions reiterate the city’s commitment to ongoing initiatives, such as its ambitious metro expansion and its plans to produce 100,000 new housing units by 2021 and cut homelessness in half by 2022. While these might not appear connected to climate or disaster resilience at first glance, they help create a stronger social fabric by improving the health, safety, and economic position of L.A.’s communities.

Currently, many of the city’s most vulnerable residents—as determined by health, economic, and demographic measures—are cut off from the city’s resilience infrastructure. The map below shows large concentrations of vulnerable residents living far from parks and green spaces.

(Resilient Los Angeles)

A lack of access to green space is not simply unfortunate for these residents—it actually affects their neighborhood’s resilience to climate change. The map above tracks closely with a map of urban heat islands, below. In neighborhoods where there are few trees and most of the built environment is paved, temperatures can be up to 10 degrees higher than if there were ample green space and vegetation.

(Resilient Los Angeles)

Urban heat islands, which disproportionately affect the most vulnerable Angelenos, will only get worse as the atmosphere continues to warm. In preparation for more days with extreme heat, the city plans to begin paving roads with “cool pavement” technologies; mandate that new buildings have reflective roofs; and expand a neighborhood cooling-center program. The city also intends to plant more trees in tree-poor neighborhoods in coming years.

Taken in sum, these small steps could add up to a cooler, more disaster-hardy, and more equitable city. The city is now trying to integrate resilience into more of its government operations. Los Angeles plans to add chief resilience officers to 28 major city departments, which would make it unique among the 100 Resilient Cities cohort, many of which have only one CRO whose position is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. (The Los Angeles city government will fund the 28 departmental CRO positions, and already funds the CRO position in the mayor’s office.)

To Berkowitz, L.A.’s resilience strategy represents a shift in mindset as much as it does a series of concrete goals. “This is a more institutionalized change as opposed to any one-off single initiative,” he said.

Despite these proposed steps, the path forward for Los Angeles, and other cities investing heavily in the physical and social infrastructure of resilience, could be a difficult one. The threat of “green gentrification” looms over some of the city’s marquee efforts, like the L.A. River revitalization. While it could produce major recreational and environmental benefits for underserved areas, that project has already been compared to Manhattan’s High Line, which sparked the rapid gentrification of surrounding neighborhoods. Improving a neighborhood’s access to high-quality public spaces without producing a real-estate bonanza remains a vexing problem.