At 'The City Resilient,' systems for handling change

Hundreds of participants gathered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater on June 24 for PopTech's 'The City Resilient,' a day-long exploration of the diffuse and increasing threats to cities and communities around the world. The event also featured a full day of presentations and Q&As that tugged at strands in the tangle of strategies designed to make cities more resilient.

It started with an honest and sometimes frightening accounting of the risks. Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin joined a number of speakers in delivering a sobering account of the trends facing cities. When the Rockefeller Foundation opened in 1913, 1 in 10 people around the world lived in cities. Now half of us do. By 2050, around 75 percent of humanity will live in urban areas.  

Those mega-cities will face greater risks from global challenges like climate change. And disruptions will metastasize, as cities become more interwoven as a result of globalization. Rodin said 'The City Resilient' wasn't about rebuilding after disasters like Superstorm Sandy, an example that dominated much of the discussion Monday, but more about the systems that will better prepare cities for the next challenge. "We have to build back stronger and smarter,” she said. (Nancy Kete, who leads the Foundation’s global work on resilience, also moderated a panel that further explored those issues.)

This scary era of increasing threats may already be upon us. Dr. Irwin Redlener, who is the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, examined nine major disasters over a 215 day period starting in late 2012, including Superstorm Sandy, the Newtown shootings, the Boston Marathon bombings and horrendous tornadoes in Oklahoma.

Irwin Redlener

Redlener says we are not doing well. He described recovery efforts in general over the past decade as often "very, very slow and painful." He said in some ways that U.S. disaster recovery efforts are strangely backward, leaving victims to muddle through a complicated web of efforts that are supposed to help them. "We have actually put people who have suffered in a disaster setting the stage as the coordinator of their own recovery," he noted. "And this is an impossible situation.”

So what works? The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs early Monday released a new poll conducted among people in communities hit by Sandy that showed just how much they valued friends and family — the immediate community — before during and after the storm. (The Center's Director Trevor Tompson discussed the new findings from the stage at 'The City Resilient.')

Peter Durandt

Those survey results were widely reflected in the research of some of the speakers Monday as well as community and local government officials on stage that day from communities hit hard by one major disaster or another. Robert Sampson, who conducted a decade of research about community resilience in Chicago, said that resilient neighborhoods have a strong social fabric — what he called "collective efficacy." This can be measured in a series of factors like how much people know and trust their neighbors or by the prevalence of nonprofits and other community organizations in a neighborhood. "These kinds of networks vary tremendously," he explained. "We can measure them."


Other speakers broke down the building blocks of resiliency all the way down to the personal level. David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University who conducts research on how to provoke compassion and altruism. His research shows how simple cooperative activities in a laboratory like having strangers pounding on a table together in a rhythm made tremendous impact on how likely his subjects were to behave altruistically towards each other. His research also shows that mediation also has a dramatic impact on provoking compassion.

Erika Svendsen

And some experienced civic leaders echoed similar sentiments about breaking resilience down to the level of the individual in the community. "When we talk about resiliency, it is about people," said LaToya Cantrell, a New Orleans City Council representative who fought to re-establish damaged areas after Hurricane Katrina. Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken New Jersey, which was flooded in Sandy, agreed. "The core of being prepared is preparedness for the individual."

But it is also about physical systems. Landscape architects, designers and technology researchers took the stage at BAM to explore everything from designing Internet and cell-phone technology in interconnected "web" formations to resist outages to mixing man-made infrastructure and natural infrastrcture along coastline to better cope with storms. Hopefully it can all be woven together into a tapestry to be ready for the increasing threats to come. 

Photo by PopTech

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