June 19, 2013

A Resilient New York City Requires Social Infrastructure Too

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s $50 billion worth of damage to New York City, resilience has become the new buzzword. Last week’s report release from the Mayor’s Office Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency explores how this term applies to NYC. Titled “A Stronger, More Resilient New York”, the report offers a series of recommendations for “rebuilding the communities impacted by Sandy and increasing the resilience of infrastructure and buildings citywide.”

So, what exactly is a more resilient NYC?

Simply defined, resilience is the ability to recover readily from adversity. Put in the context of a disaster affected community, resilience translates to the ability of a population to return to its everyday functions after being subjected to a shock.

In the post-Sandy exploration of approaches to boost NYC’s resilience, discussions have largely focused on the merits of hard versus soft infrastructure. Hard infrastructure, such as flood walls, are defense systems to keep the sea out. Hard infrastructure systems have been employed in the Netherlands and Venice with great success, but also at great cost. Soft infrastructure, such as wetlands or sand dunes, utilizes natural barriers and is generally less costly.

There are advocates for each approach, and others who advocate a strategy that makes use of both. But all of these voices ignore a third–and equally critical pillar–to resilience: social infrastructure.

Unlike static engineered solutions, whether hard or soft, social infrastructure provides communities the ability to respond, reorganize, and adapt at a highly local level to cope with shocks. Soft infrastructure taps into existing community capital, institutions, and networks to build trust, enable learning, and provide individuals with the resources to prepare and respond to crises. Social infrastructure can often be simplistic, but it is also extremely impactful.

In the response to Sandy, for example, local community organizers with established networks were best able to communicate with those in need to provide crucial resources. Pat Simon of the Ocean Bay Community Development Corporation organized private donations to help her community when multiple emergency response groups failed to deliver what was needed, such as diapers and baby formula. Instead, the response groups brought generic goods like blankets and ready-to-eat meals, which resulted in a surplus of unwanted items and an undersupply of what really mattered.

Similarly, another Rockaway community relied on social infrastructure, the Beach 91st Street Community Garden, to meet their needs after Sandy. The vegetable garden served as their primary food source during the days the community was isolated from transportation networks and outside assistance.

“During the first weeks after the storm, a group of people gathered at the farm every night to build a fire and cook dinner,” Lee Altman, a Five Borough Farm initiative fellow at the Design Trust for Public Space, explains. “The garden offered a valuable community resource in creating a gathering place for people to share food and conversation when they had no electricity or heat and very little else to rely on.”

Stories like these illustrate the importance of developing and strengthening NYC’s social infrastructure. But Governor Cuomo’s home buyout program announced earlier this year,  which will use federal disaster relief funds to purchase homes in vulnerable areas of New York for public reclamation, could actually do the opposite. The program will likely displace many low-income residents who cannot afford disaster repairs. The program also poses a prisoner’s dilemma to residents: what will happen to the community if some families leave but others choose to stay? Most likely, the community will lose existing social infrastructure and the ability to recover quickly–this is the antithesis of resilience.

For those like Susie (she declined to provide her full name), a retiree from the Rockaways who was displaced during Sandy, these issues are all too real. “This is my home,” she says, “I’m not going to move because of this storm or the next storm.”

To cope during the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, she relied on friends in her neighborhood for housing and other basic needs. In the absence of this social infrastructure, Susie would have had nowhere else to go. The surge in displaced residents following the storm sent rents through the roof, making affordable housing extremely difficult to find, especially since Susie has yet to receive any relief aid to rebuild or relocate. Social infrastructure filled the void where the official response fell short.

Last week Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city will not retreat from it’s shoreline. The newly released report solicits strategies to build robust transportation, coastal defense, and other technical infrastructure to allow communities to remain where they are. But, if New York City is really to ‘build back stronger’, the social infrastructure of its neighborhoods cannot be ignored.

Megan Marini is a designer, urban planner, and former Rebooter. She is currently the co-founder of 3×3 Design.

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