Thanks very much to Jack and Kim Johnson and the whole team at the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation for matching donations to smallwater’s project on ioby. smallwater began serving the Rockaways in the days immediately following Hurricane Sandy, on Beach 96th Street (across the street from Rockaway Taco), and now, with serious elbow grease put in by neighbors and Jack Johnson himself, a vacant lot that was just six months ago used to deliver food and clothing to people in the Rockaways is now being transformed into a community center and garden. Give to the project now, and the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation will match your donations.
Resilience. It’s a word many sectors use to mean many things. Because Anne Marie Healy and Andrew Zolli have already contributed a lengthy assessment of the term and its many uses in their eponymous tome released last July, we won’t repeat it here.
Superstorm Sandy augmented the use of the word, contextualizing it in city response to disasters like Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, even September 11th.
Turning to the smartest people we know, we found a remarkable body of thought that blends resilience definitions from the fields of ecosystem, biological, climate, social, and behavioral sciences. The thrust seems to be an assertion that, with smarter planning focused on resilience, our cities will be better able to return to an earlier state after a disaster, and, when that is not possible, reimagine themselves into a better future (like we’ve seen with Detroit Future City).
However, there is one important point that can’t be addressed even by the most careful city planner, municipal agency, or local government. No amount of planning can build the critical social aspects of resilience without involvement and participation by citizens.
If a city wants civil society to be part of a more resilient urban environment, we feel it must take a close look the social cohesion of its neighborhoods. Myriad indices and analytical tools (like Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community, Tale of Two Cities) are available to help cities assess social fabric.
But, there are few mechanisms by which city planners or urban designers might affect such social indicators in the same way that they might address infrastructure changes. Cities may try to catalyze citizen participation through programs like matsuri and others shared by Daniel Aldrich at Purdue. But there is a vast conceptual and practical gulf between being able to support neighborhood resilience by, say, increasing community participation at a block party and being able to support infrastructure resilience by, say, increasing the height of a sea wall.
Further research is certainly needed to better understand how the various systems in an urban environment—the complex interconnectedness of built infrastructure, natural systems (including ecology, geology, climate, etc), and social systems (including cultural, economic, governance, etc)—can produce a more resilient city and better prepare cities for disasters in different ways. But decades of work in fields as diverse as neighborhood development and social justice advocacy will make one thing clear: we’re not going to design or plan our way to the social side of resilience.
Building neighborhood resilience requires grassroots effort, patient capital and patience. Opportunities for participation must build on local successes, and local successes must build on more opportunities, over time.
ioby supports citizen-led, neighbor-funded projects that make stronger, more sustainable neighborhoods. The platform provides relevant training and resource sharing to support these projects (and with future developments, we plan to bolster and reinforce this). But more importantly, the platform organizes residents to support local projects with donations and volunteer effort.
In April, the National League of Cities released “Bright Spots in Community Engagement” noting that an important step that separates an attached citizenry from an engaged citizenry is opportunities for participation in shaping the future of one’s own city and the feeling that one’s own actions can make a difference.
Small actions—donating $40 or volunteering on a weekend—are opportunities for participation with a relatively low barrier to entry. In addition, because ioby projects tend to be small scale or short term, a participant is likely to see the positive impact of her own contribution fairly quickly. We believe these small actions and easy opportunities for participation can be a gateway drug for civic engagement. This is why we believe local participation is a key element, if not a backbone, of any definition of resilience that accounts for social systems.
ioby tracks a variety of baseline data and key performance metrics related to the neighborhood impacts of all of the projects that use our platform, including some basic information about the donors and volunteers that support this work. We have clear demand for our services, and a strong and growing base of supporters who want to become more involved across the country. But there remain some very important questions about the effects of this type of work on neighborhood cohesion, and further, about the effects of this scale of work on a city’s ability to respond to emergencies of any kind.
Because of the nature of our work with active and involved citizens, ioby has tremendous potential to contribute meaningful data to these questions. We would like to expand our data collection and tracking to include a variety of possible key indicators of resilience at the neighborhood scale, including the following. But we’re going to need your help making our data useful to others in this emerging field, and we’re going to need support to make it robust. Please join us along the way.
Key Performance Indicators of Neighborhood Resilience
After participating in a neighborhood project, do ioby users (especially donors and volunteers):
- know the names of more of their neighbors?
- recognize more of their neighbors faces?
- participate in more/other local civic opportunities?
- feel more comfortable leading change in their areas?
- feel capable of making change in their neighborhood?
- feel more confident in citizens’ ability to improve the neighborhood?
- feel like they can play an important role in their community?
- feel more able to shape the future of their community?
- feel more responsibility to shape the future of their community?
- feel more comfortable turning to neighbors for help?
- feel the neighborhood was able to band together to respond to a challenge?
“Resilience” is a word you hear a lot in the aftermath of a disaster. Indeed, it’s critical to think about how we can be less vulnerable in the future. In New York City during Hurricane Sandy, we saw firsthand how a downed transportation system can bring the city to a halt. After the earthquake in Haiti, we talked a lot about how to make buildings more stable by improving building codes. These conversations are incredibly important, and help us to plan for what we hope will never happen.
I have been thinking about what it takes to be resilient for a while. Before joining ioby as staff, I worked at the United Nations Development Programme as a Climate Change Policy Specialist. I supported national governments to address climate change within their countries and at the negotiating table at the UNFCCC negotiations. In my work, I spoke with people addressing disasters around the world: the floods in Pakistan, earthquake in Japan, typhoons in the Philippines and other tragedies.
Here is what I learned: resilience is personal.
When the storm hits, it’s the things that you barely thought about before the disaster that are crucial. Questions that you probably never asked yourself before in any urgent way: How can I get food and water? How can I communicate with my family and friends? If I need to leave my home, how do I get out?
In my experience, people that could answer questions like these are much more resilient to the impacts of the disaster. And in New York City, we saw this vividly – stories of the elderly stuck in apartments at the tops of buildings with no way to get food or power. They depended on the incredible army of relief workers, volunteers and concerned citizens to bring them supplies. By getting their personal needs met, they were more resilient.
Don’t get me wrong – personal resilience is very connected to the resilience of larger systems. You can’t call your family if the telephone lines are out. But in a disaster my first though isn’t “what’s going on with the grid?” It’s “How do I call my family? NOW.”
This is why I am proud of ioby’s report after Hurricane Sandy. While there have been many important discussions about how we can improve larger infrastructure – like energy grids, buildings and transportation systems – to be less vulnerable to erratic storms, ioby’s is the first to make this personal. When we asked people for ideas, we didn’t know what we would get. And the responses surprised in all sorts of good ways. Many suggestions are wildly practical and don’t cost a lot of money. Ideas like having a “buddy” in your apartment building to make sure that everyone is accounted for after a disaster. Imagine how that would have helped in the days following Sandy? Or Katrina?
I hope this is just the beginning of more efforts to talk about resilience from the personal perspective. There is no doubt that we need to rebuild in smarter, stronger ways and it will require good ideas from everyone so that, if a storm like Sandy comes our way again, we will be ready with good answers to the unexpected questions.
Hurricane Sandy reminded us all that we need to be prepared for extreme weather events. Currently New York, New Jersey and many states along the east coast are doing some hard thinking about how to make us less vulnerable to storms. But another thing that Sandy reminded us of is the importance of neighborhood cohesion during and after natural disasters. We at ioby saw this in action, we were amazed and inspired about the work being done to help neighbors in need.
This is why, in the weeks after Hurricane Sandy, ioby wanted to bring together citizens to talk about how we can make our neighborhoods stronger and more resilient. We believe that people know their own neighborhoods best and put all of the ideas together in a report, “Building A More Resilient City, Block by Block.” The report summarizes the ideas across all five boroughs, New Jersey and “everywhere else.” Over 380 people participated including, engineers, architects, energy experts, policy makers, artists, lawyers, business owners, nurses, activists, planners, academics, media and more.
We were thrilled with the result. The ideas were diverse–some practical, some not, some cost-effective, some not –but they all were thoughtful and specific to making our neighborhoods stronger. Some people thought big (modernizing the electricity grid) and others were more specific (e.g. stronger doc in Coney Island). We categorized the ideas into eight groups.
Imagine what the NYC Metro Area could look like if we had oyster shoals around lower Manhattan to blunt tidal surges, rainwater harvest systems in Brooklyn’s Red Hook, better systems to collect and recycle building materials in Western Queens, more walkability in the South Bronx, solar panels on the rooftops of industrial buildings in North Shore in Staten Island, or systems for businesses to partner with each other for recovery in Bay Shore, New Jersey. This would not only make our communities stronger in right now, but also more resilient to any future storms that come our way.
We hope that this report will contribute to the many other important conversations about increasing the resilience of NYC-area neighborhoods. We’re hosting one of the discussions today at the Municipal Arts Society’s “Charting the Road to Resilience” event, where we’ll talk more about the report and how we can bring ideas to life. You can download the ioby Report After Hurricane Sandy here.
Help Us Keep the Conversation Going
If you have ideas to make your neighborhood more resilient, we would love to hear them. Please submit your ideas here. All other information and projects related to Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath can be found at ioby.org/sandy.