All of us first responders

Judith Rodin argues that the resilience of cities lies in the strength of their neighborhoods. (Árni Torfason for PopTech/flickr/cc)

Ask about natural and man-made disasters that hit communities, and most people think about the official government response. Will police, firefighters, ambulances and hospital emergency services be readily available?

Those services do count. But the most fundamental answer, in any city or community across the globe, isn’t “out there.” If a disaster is serious enough — a superstorm, a severe earthquake or a 9/11-style terrorist attack — government services are often overwhelmed for hours or days. The most fundamental answer — real strength — lies in what we can do for ourselves. And where’s that strength centered? It’s in the neighborhoods where we live.

That’s a fundamental message of Judith Rodin’s new book, “The Resilience Dividend.” Rodin is the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which has increasingly turned its attention to helping cities around the world improve their ability to bounce back from disasters, economic crises and other shocks. (Disclosure: The Rockefeller Foundation is a funder of Citiscope.)

In the book, Rodin cites examples that circle the globe. Community self-help capacity — or its lack — figures in practically all of them. Among them are Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident of 2011, Hurricane Katrina’s crushing blow to New Orleans in 2005, and the Indian Ocean tsunami that took a quarter million lives when it struck Indonesia and other parts of Asia in 2004.

Rodin is also able to analyze the dynamics of disaster and recovery from her experience as co-chair of the NYS2100 Commission that studied the impact — and lessons learned — from Superstorm Sandy’s devastating blow to New York City and its region.

And while she doesn’t discount the importance (and oftentimes bravery) of police, fire and ambulance services, she notes that “regular” people are just as important: “In almost every case, your neighbors, fellow workers, family members, or passersby will be the very first people on the scene and the ones who will take the quickest, and sometimes most important actions … rescuing, sheltering, informing, tending, comforting.”

Fragmenting neighborhoods

This may pose special challenges in the more technologically advanced corners of the world, where closeby neighbors often remain strangers. Before television, before telephones and then smartphones, and before air conditioning, people in neighborhoods tended to meet, talk, exchange thoughts (and gossip) far more regularly than they do today. Neighborhood pubs and playgrounds, churches, synagogues or mosques contributed to interaction. All that’s not entirely lost — but in most societies it’s far weaker.

One wonders: Can the threat of disasters act as a motivator for closer neighborhood interaction, or even joint planning in advance of disasters? An easy answer is “no” — that until emergencies strike, or there’s an immediate threat, the possibility of mutual aid generally isn’t enough to draw people together.

On the other hand, levels of neighborhoods’ social resilience can vary sharply within cities and countries. And there are clues to how we might go about strengthening it.

A prime example comes from a study that sociologist Eric Klinenberg made of how two almost exclusively African-American and poor Chicago neighborhoods survived the heat wave of 1995, which took 739 lives. Both neighborhoods had a large number of elderly people living alone. In Englewood, the death rate was roughly 33 per 100,000 residents. But in adjacent Auburn Gresham, with almost identical demographics, it was just three per 100,000.

And why? Klinenberg explains Englewood had less social interaction, fewer people who knew each other, and high degrees of housing abandonment. Its residents were quite reluctant to venture out from their homes. But in Auburn Gresham, there were small stores that drew people out. Socializing and checking on each other had become a way of life. The neighborhood actually has a life expectancy five years longer than Englewood’s.

Building cohesion

Change is possible: Klinenberg has more recently reported fresh social life in Englewood, including new community gardens that provide shade and opportunities for social mixing.

In her book, Rodin sees hope as well. She appropriately notes the rise, from its original roots in India, of Shack/Slum Dwellers International. The group has spread to other parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, with chapters building local savings groups, engaging and challenging city governments, and creating high levels of collaboration among groups of slum dwellers in 33 countries.

Rodin also tells the story of the recovery of the ancient city of Surat, India, following a crushing 1994 flood from monsoon rains that engulfed the Tapi River and then triggered flooding as high as eight feet (2.5 meters) in portions of the city. Streets were left littered with mud and filth, including drowned animal carcasses and swarms of flies and mosquitoes.  Soon illness spread, with victims coughing up blood and some dying.

An epidemic of the plague had broken out; as many as 200,000 residents fled. Before long, spraying insecticides killed the fleas that were spreading the disease. The recovery was headed by a strong local leader who spearheaded such steps as installing sirens for flood warning, improving sanitation systems and demolishing structures built illegally on public land.

But it turned out not to be enough in 2006, when when engineers controlling an upstream dam reacted to heavy storm waters by opening the sluice gates. Without warning, they allowed a wall of water to rush 100 kilometers to Surat, engulfing 75 percent of the city and killing more than 250 people.                         

“Surat is proof,” Rodin concludes, “that resilience-building is a continuous process, requiring a constant assessment and reassessment of vulnerabilities and threats.”

And, one can add, understanding that there’s a “new normal” in today’s world. It’s one of heightened risks and instability from storm floods and rising seas, extreme heat, epidemics, earthquakes, and potential terrorist attacks. They require no less than policymakers’ constant attention.

Wise mayors and city leaders across the continents will learn to take the challenge seriously. And not just with proclamations honoring the United Nations’ yearly “Resilience Day” — as commendable as it may be. Cities’ real challenge is to push for strong social- and disaster-preparation efforts across each and all of their neighborhoods. A world, in short, in which we’ll all have to learn to be “first responders.”

The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong, Public Affairs Press, New York, 2014.

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Neal Peirce is the founder and editor-in-chief of Citiscope. Full bio

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