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Resilient Cities Need Social Infrastructure Too

Forget sustainability. Resilience is becoming the new buzzword. Hurricane Sandy’s $50 billion worth of damage in New York City has laid bare the very real cost to cities around the world grappling with the effects of climate change. But the costs of inaction can be even higher.

So, what exactly is a more resilient city?

Simply defined, resilience is the ability to recover readily from adversity. Put in the context of a disaster-affected community, resilience translates to the ability of a population to return to its everyday functions after being subjected to a shock.

Often when considering urban resilience, discussions largely focus on the merits of hard versus soft infrastructure. Hard infrastructure, such as flood walls, are defense systems to keep the sea out. These hard infrastructure systems have been employed in the Netherlands and Venice with great success, but also at great cost. Soft infrastructure systems include wetlands or sand dunes, and utilize natural barriers and is generally less costly.

There are advocates for each approach, and others who advocate for a strategy that makes use of both hard and soft infrastructure. But all of these voices ignore a third—and equally critical pillar—of resilience: social infrastructure.

Unlike static engineered solutions, whether hard or soft, social infrastructure provides communities with the ability to respond, reorganize, and adapt at a highly local level to cope with shocks. Soft infrastructure taps into existing community capital, institutions, and networks to build trust, enable learning, and provide individuals with the resources to prepare and respond to crises. Social infrastructure can often be simplistic, but it is also extremely impactful.

In the response to Hurricane Sandy, for example, local community organizers with established networks were best able to communicate with those in need of crucial resources. Pat Simon of the Ocean Bay Community Development Corporation organized private donations to help her community when multiple emergency response groups failed to deliver what was needed, such as diapers and baby formula. Instead, the response groups brought generic goods like blankets and ready-to-eat meals, which resulted in a surplus of unwanted items and an undersupply of what really mattered.

Similarly, another Rockaway community relied on social infrastructure to meet their needs after Hurricane Sandy. The Beach 91st Street Community Garden served as the the neighborhood's primary food source during the days the community was isolated from transportation networks and outside assistance.

"During the first weeks after the storm, a group of people gathered at the farm every night to build a fire and cook dinner," Lee Altman, a Five Borough Farm initiative fellow at the Design Trust for Public Space, explains. "The garden offered a valuable community resource in creating a gathering place for people to share food and conversation when they had no electricity or heat and very little else to rely on."

Stories like these illustrate the importance of developing and strengthening New York City’s social infrastructure. But Governor Cuomo’s home buyout program announced earlier this year, which will use federal disaster relief funds to purchase homes in vulnerable areas of New York for public reclamation, could actually do the opposite. The program will likely displace many low-income residents who cannot afford disaster repairs. The program also poses a prisoner’s dilemma to residents: what will happen to the community if some families leave but others choose to stay? Most likely, the community will lose existing social infrastructure and the ability to recover quickly—this is the antithesis of resilience.

For those like Susie (she declined to provide her full name), a retiree from the Rockaways who was displaced during Sandy, these issues are all too real. "This is my home," she says, "I’m not going to move because of this storm or the next storm."

To cope during the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, she relied on friends in her neighborhood for housing and other basic needs. In the absence of this social infrastructure, Susie would have had nowhere else to go. The surge in displaced residents following the storm sent rents through the roof, making affordable housing extremely difficult to find, especially since Susie has yet to receive any relief aid to rebuild or relocate. Social infrastructure filled the void where the official response fell short.

Last week, Mayor Bloomberg’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency released a report titled A Stronger, More Resilient New York and announced that New York City will not retreat from its shoreline. The report solicits strategies to build robust transportation, coastal defense, and other technical infrastructure to allow communities to remain where they are. But, if New York City is really to "build back stronger," the social infrastructure of its neighborhoods cannot be ignored.

Top photo via (cc) Flickr user Kristine Paulus; Hurricane Sandy volunteers by Anton Oparin / A version of this post was originally published by Reboot, a social enterprise working to improve governance and development worldwide.

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