How Social Resilience Can Save Your City

Resilience studies focus on two different but equally important aspects of disaster preparedness: physical systems and social systems. Much has been written about the effect of natural disasters on the physical infrastructure of cities, but the effect on social infrastructure is just as vital to how a city will recover.

Drawing on the results of an AP-NORC poll and report, The Rockefeller Foundation Vice President Neill Coleman describes social infrastructure as “the level of trust in a neighborhood.” According to the report, when New Yorkers were confronted by the destruction of Hurricane Sandy, “families and communities — not the government — were the most helpful sources of assistance and support.”

Social scientists describe this phenomenon in terms of network theory. Mark Granovetter’s seminal 1973 paper “The Strength of Weak Ties” describes social infrastructure as a system of strong and weak ties. Strong ties are characterized by duration, emotional intimacy, mutual confidence, and reciprocal services — conditions one usually finds among kin and close friends. Weak ties, on the other hand, are characterized by looser affiliations. For example, if you worked for a international organization and met an employee stationed in another office, you would be bound by the weak tie of sharing an employer, rather than the strong tie developed by spending days and weeks in close quarters with the people in your own office. Weak ties are useful because they can be bridged and turned into strong ties in times of need.

Weak social ties break down in times of stress and emergency, especially those between disparate groups. During an emergency, people turn toward those they trust. But such a move can have far-reaching, negative effects.

Though Superstorm Sandy often brought out the best in New Yorkers, there were negative social effects that would have had disastrous consequences if the situation had been even slightly different. For instance, when drivers became aware that gas stations were experiencing supply shortages, many motorists in the outer boroughs waited for hours in long lines to top off their tanks. Panic buying, like a bank run, is a leading indicator of social breakdown, which can lead to looting and anarchy if allowed to escalate. In the case of the panicked New York drivers, they spent valuable time and gasoline engaging in competitive behavior with people who should have been their natural collaborators.

Two examples from the past year illustrate the importance of strong social networks for a city’s resilience.

Case Study: Philippines &amamp; Cyclone Haiyan

On November 7, 2013, Hurricane Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines with sustained winds of 145 mph, making it the “4th strongest tropical cyclone in world history.” The damage caused by Haiyan prompted an international outpouring of grief and aid in the form of money and supplies.

Haiyan destroyed vital infrastructure in the already underdeveloped, mountainous Leyte province, complicating the efforts of relief workers. Residents were experiencing exposure, starvation, and lack of urgently needed medical care. Three days after the disaster, local news media in Manila were reporting that social cohesion had broken down. The Chicago Tribune reported that looters had “managed to cart away 33,000 bags of rice weighing 110 pounds each,” and “warehouses owned by food and drink company Universal Robina Corp and drug company United Laboratories were ransacked.”

The New York Times reported that in addition to supermarkets and pharmacies, homes of wealthy citizens in Tacloban, the capital of Leyte province, were targeted by looters. Aid was more likely to be distributed in regions that were politically well-connected to the capital. Tacloban’s mayor, Alfred S. Romualdez, defended his city’s response to the disaster, saying, “There’s no disarray in the coordination. There are problems in resources. We lack resources. There’s no problem in coordination.”

A social catastrophe like the one created by Haiyan becomes a political problem when people lose faith that their government can maintain order, and there are limited strong ties within the community. Faced with little support, governmental or social, communities may resort to looting or other seemingly destructive activities to ensure their basic needs are met.

It is also important to note that money cannot substitute for strong ties. Haiyan had an abundant supply of aid. But without a social structure or infrastructure to support the distribution, it couldn’t reach the poor and vulnerable populations who needed it most.

Case Study: India & Cycloe Phailin

Nearly a month before Haiyan, cyclone Phailin, the second strongest tropical cyclone to hit India, made landfall with sustained winds of 160 mph. Odisha, a state on the northeast coast of India, bore the brunt of Phailin’s impact. In all, 44 people were reported dead. Recovery will cost an estimated $688 million USD. The state and national governments were well organized and highly coordinated, but the most striking feature of this disaster was its effect on national politics.

In the months before Phailin developed in the South China Sea, the electrical employees union had been agitating for higher wages and better working conditions. When the government declared a state of high alert, and suggested residents evacuate in advance of the cyclone, the electricians’ Joint Action Committee chairman R. Saibabu said, "In view of the cyclone threat to the coastal districts, as well as ensuing festivals, we have decided to call off the strike temporarily. Our protests would continue but all our members would join their duties on Friday and restore all services."

Safety concerns and the desire to honor local holidays activated weak ties between the striking workers and their fellow citizens, overcoming a political dispute and alleviating community fears.

Solutions for Increasing Social Resilience

Hurricane Sandy provided a perfect, assessable example of how emerging technologies can not only help citizens weather and rebuild, but also how the government can use technologies to build and strengthen weak social ties before, during, and after an emergency.

Two weeks after Sandy hit, the New York Times reported that the “Bloomberg administration [had] formed a partnership with Airbnb, the peer-to-peer apartment rental service, to find volunteers willing to provide free housing to displaced residents,” and that the “Federal Emergency Management Agency worked with Waze, a crowd-sourced traffic app, to help ease the fuel shortage.” What’s more, the technology required for building strong-weak ties isn’t difficult to implement. Many governments and non-governmental institutions used text notifications during Sandy to coordinate activity.

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) provided proof that government can not only build new ties, they can strengthen these ties. A report from the Rudin Center for Transportation at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service argued that the MTA garnered “great goodwill” from the public when they posted pictures of the relief efforts of their crews to social media channels. Instead of becoming panicked while waiting for a train or bus, customers were content to sit tight while recognizing and appreciating the heroic efforts of the MTA to get the system back online.

In her book Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, Martha Nussbaum writes, “Emotions directed at the nation and its goals are frequently of great help in getting people to think larger thoughts and recommit themselves to a larger common good.” She goes on to argue that the state must cultivate strong-weak ties — feelings of responsibility for one’s anonymous neighbors — in order to strengthen the resilience of its social and political infrastructure.

It is vital that cities find innovative ways to engender feelings of trust and compassion amongst communities and community members. As Nussbaum notes, social resilience not only prepares citizens to work with governmental and disaster relief agencies in times of crises, it enables them bounce back stronger. 

Head photo: Jim.henderson, WikiCommons