Came across an interesting article from The New Scientist on social cohesion in communities, which I think is very relevant. Thanks to Kate McCallum for sending my way.
When disaster strikes, it’s survival of the sociable
In the drive to climate-proof cities, we can’t just focus on buildings. Social infrastructure is just as important, says sociologist Robert Sampson.
When hurricane Sandy struck last year, I watched in awe from a battened-down Boston as the superstorm unleashed its deadly fury on New York City and the Jersey Shore where I had spent many a childhood vacation. There is a push to climate-proof our cities – from building sea walls and laying water-resistant power lines to introducing stricter building codes. But in the drive to reduce the impact of future calamities another vital element that saves lives tends to get forgotten – the social infrastructure.
Take the brutal heatwave that hit Chicago in 1995. The risk of dying varied greatly between two adjacent neighbourhoods with similar economic and demographic profiles, according to research by sociologist Eric Klinenberg. He traced the difference to social connections between residents and how involved they were in public life. In one community, residents checked in on each other during the heatwave, while in the other they were isolated and afraid to leave their homes largely because of crime. Social ties became a matter of life or death.
Similarly, political scientist Daniel Aldrich found that communities with robust social networks coped better in Japan, after the earthquake in 1995 and in Tamil Nadu, India, following the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.
These examples suggest the social infrastructure of a community plays a critical role in how prepared a city is when disaster strikes. My research has also shown that the social character of a neighbourhood can alleviate everyday challenges, such as the steady drip of violence that plagues many cities. Indeed, neighbourhoods have an impact on a surprisingly wide variety of outcomes, including child health, high-school graduation, teen births, adult mortality, social disorder and even IQ scores. The power of place to influence our lives in multiple ways and over long periods of time is what I call the “enduring neighbourhood effect”.
Over the last two decades, I have investigated the science of how cities and their neighbourhoods work, using Chicago as an urban laboratory. My research team and I followed more than 6000 families wherever they moved, as well as studying the city’s neighbourhoods themselves.
A key factor we identified that differentiated some neighbourhoods from others was the extent of social cohesion among residents and their willingness to intervene on behalf of the common good – we called this “collective efficacy”. Even after accounting for poverty and kinship ties, collective efficacy was directly related to lower rates of violence, teenage pregnancy and social disorder within the community.
Our research is part of a larger effort to develop tools to measure and evaluate the social-ecological infrastructure of cities, known as “ecometrics”. This can be directly applied to disaster planning. Cities can use ecometrics to identify and support not only those neighbourhoods that are physically vulnerable, but also those that lack a resilient social infrastructure.
Community organisations provide more than advice and material resources – shared expectations and trust are enhanced by coordinated activities, whether they are run by neighbourhood groups, tenant associations or after-school centres. This makes sense: organisations generate a web of routine activities and associations that lubricate collective action, although they are seldom planned as such. What is important is not the existence of any specific type of organisation but the overall organisational infrastructure of a community and overlapping networks among participants.
Technology can also help bring neighbours together for a common purpose. Contrary to prevailing assumptions, there is evidence that the boom in social media that connects users globally may have simultaneously increased local connections. In many cities, citizens use their smartphones to report on their neighbourhood’s physical infrastructure – potholes and light outages, for instance – and potentially, on its social structure. Some organisations and city governments use the web to encourage local civic engagement, and companies like nextdoor.com have built platforms for neighbourhood social networks.
The lesson is that crises are mediated by the social as well as the built environment. Qualities such as the shared willingness to intervene and civic engagement constitute a social resource that helps explain the well-being of communities – in good times and bad. We can measure these qualities and monitor efforts to build and sustain their sometimes fragile hold. Just as humans need social connections as well as physical resources to survive and thrive, so too do communities.
Amen to that.