Building Resilience From the Community Up

Building Resilience From the Community Up

When disaster strikes, we tend to think big. What will the city do to help the affected population? The federal government?

But in fact, many of the innovations that have helped communities respond to and recover from disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Sandy, and the Boston Marathon bombing have originated in living rooms, community centers, and town halls, rather than city halls. And so have many of the most promising ways to address longer-term disasters like climate change and economic shocks.

In other words, almost all resiliency is local. And that means our centralized disaster-response infrastructure requires a rethink: Instead of only sending out federal personnel to disaster sites to lead and manage local officials and first responders when a crisis hits, it's becoming clear that we need to build and support a network of local and small-scale, long-term resiliency organizing.

One key reason that large-scale, centralized solutions aren't the future: Disasters affect neighborhoods in a city or state differently -- and that requires us to examine our policy response. When Superstorm Sandy swept the entire Eastern Seaboard, it created a tale of (at least) two cities just within Manhattan -- the dark city below 40th Street and the lit one above -- and isolated those less fortunate in their apartments or housing projects without heat, electricity, or any way to contact the outside world.

Sandy, like Katrina and other emergencies, made visible underlying social disparities that had been ignored or not well understood. Zooming in, we see the worst instances of isolation and harm in vulnerable places with weaker physical infrastructure, fewer resources, and less investment -- for instance, areas of Brooklyn and Queens with big public-housing developments, or the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans during Katrina. When the large communications networks we rely on fail due to network overload and power losses in a disaster, local neighborhoods become islands unto themselves, relying solely on existing resources and local connections.

This isn't always a bad thing; the localized experience of disaster often inspires neighbors to, quite literally, weather the storm together. People find their local storm shelters, and they visit the local library branch for heat, for help with their insurance forms, to get online, or to charge their devices. They bring their neighbors food or water or blankets. Eric Klinenberg's work has shown that communities with strong social ties and denser, more connected urban fabric have lower mortality rates and better recovery in a crisis. In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit talks about how people behave altruistically and resourcefully in disasters: "Normal roles and boundaries that confine people are removed, and it's absolutely necessary that people connect with each other, that they make strong decisions, that they take care of each other. And that's what they do."

The federal government is starting to realize that it may have something to learn from local disaster-response efforts. In May, the Department of Homeland Security released a report called "The Resilient Social Network" laying out the lessons that traditional response and relief organizations should take from grassroots efforts. One of the main conclusions: Efforts by Occupy Sandy, the self-organized grassroots disaster relief network that emerged to provide "mutual aid" to affected communities (especially where FEMA was unable to), should have been better integrated with the official federal response. In fact, FEMA has begun to call for a "Whole Community" approach -- though it has not explained how power sharing would work, or how roles would be designated.

This is a far cry from the uncoordinated and sometimes downright hostile treatment that non-governmental responders received from federal officials during the 2005 Katrina disaster. Most if not all experts seem to agree now that resilient systems can and should be built at every scale.

This matters for efforts like the Red Hook Initiative's Red Hook WiFi project -- itself a self-organized effort that became an essential part of FEMA's response to Sandy. (The initiative is a partner of the Open Technology Institute, or OTI, where I work.) As a local community resource run by a trusted neighborhood institution familiar with local needs, RHI WiFi was able to organize a digital response and provide aid in a way that federal, state, or even city-level agencies could not.

This project, and OTI's current proposal to scale it organically from the ground up in additional NYC neighborhoods, are not just a response to immediate threats and sudden shocks, but are also intended to build everyday resilience through workforce development, knowledge transfer, participatory methods, and community ownership. Most importantly, they do this at the local level.

Thinking local may also be key to growing the innovation economy across a city, in all of its neighborhoods. Rather than scaling innovation from designated "innovation districts" outward, could we take a "resilient" approach to innovation and scale up by neighborhoods, blocks, or communities? After all, transformative innovation doesn't just happen in special zones or in downtowns. True innovation is distributed -- it comes from the grassroots and the edges, and spreads organically by virtue of the power of its ideas.

The most innovative approach to scaling up resilience efforts is to keep them local, distributed, and in conversation -- person-to-person, neighborhood-to-neighborhood -- to ensure that models are adaptable and intentional. As I once wrote with Diana Nucera of Detroit's Allied Media Projects, "When individuals are invested in growth, a symbiotic relationship occurs between the systems designed and those that use the systems, allowing growth to emerge organically. This type of symbiotic relationship, which is present in healthy ecosystems, is less likely to occur when a system is simply placed into a new environment without consideration of existing knowledge, relationships, and efforts that already exist there."

In the field of resilience, response, and recovery overall, we should be pushing to understand and develop local capacity and knowledge, and acknowledge and support local leadership -- and innovation -- in local places, right now, before crisis hits. Key steps that policymakers at all scales, innovators, and organizers can take:

1. Learn from survivors. Local librarians, Occupy Sandy volunteers, and city-council members in places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, all have stories to tell about what people needed, what worked, and what could have been done better. Document and share these.

2. Start building relationships now. Facilitate workshops and conventions for local community groups, HAM operators, librarians, interested residents, FEMA's Citizen Corps, etc. These coalitions can collaborate to make contingency plans or work on hands-on resiliency projects like local wireless networks or landscaped stormwater swales that have peacetime as well as crisis benefits.

3. Find out what's already happening in your city, town, or neighborhood. What are people already up to that could help in an emergency? Community gardens and tech meet-ups, for example, can be integrated into resiliency planning.

4. Don't separate economic development and innovation investments from resilience efforts. Greater stability and reduction of vulnerability create economic benefits too. Distribute funding and incentives broadly, not just in designated zones or districts.

Once crisis hits, we should rely on the relationships we have built with local leaders and partners and officials, as well as new tools and platforms and traditional coordinated central response teams. We'll need our relationships, and organizers at every scale, to support and build more diverse, efficient, autonomous, strong, interdependent, adaptable, collaborative, equitable, and innovative communities for a more resilient future.

Greta Byrum is an urban planner and a senior field analyst with the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. Her work focuses on digital access, disaster response, and the community development and resilience potentials of small-scale local infrastructure such as low-power FM radio and local wireless networks.

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