What About the People? Unlocking the Key to Socially Sustainable and Resilient Communities

Children play in flood waters after torrential rains in Kampung Melayu, Jakarta. Photo by Kate Lamb, Freelance journalist

Rapid urbanization, economic growth and climate change are putting increasing pressure on urban communities around the world. While strong physical structures are important, social relationships play a key role in determining urban communities’ resilience during adverse weather events.

Community resilience is influenced by the strength of neighborhood social networks and cohesion, two features that determine a community’s social sustainability (its viability, health and functioning). Interacting, getting along—with or in spite of social or ethnic differences—and collaborating on group initiatives help sustain communities in ordinary times and respond resiliently during times of crisis. These social factors can improve residents’ health, well-being, daily quality of life and collective capacity to cope with, and adapt to, disasters.

Built environments that promote social interaction can contribute to socially sustainable, resilient communities. City policy makers, planners and designers can adopt “socially-aware planning:” the intention to promote positive social interaction and social impacts through the mindful planning, designing, construction and management of cities.

Urban development projects and built structures, such as housing, public spaces and transit stops, can influence people to think and behave in ways that are indicative of strong networks and cohesion. Psychologists label these behaviors, thoughts and feelings “pro-community,” meaning that they benefit their communities. An action as simple as greeting neighbors regularly means that during a crisis, the lines of communication are already open. A new report—What about the people? The socially sustainable, resilient community and urban development by Cathy Baldwin and Robin King— uses case studies to explore how built environments influence pro-community behaviors, thoughts and feelings, evaluating their impact on community resilience. We discuss three here:

1.  Neighborhood Co-Design Projects Foster Socially Sustainable Communities 


Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Stalls beside Khayelitsha Metrorail station. Photo by Stokperdjie

Two crucial elementsurban form and community participation in urban developmenthave the greatest influence on community behavior, thoughts and feelings.

In Khayelitsha, a township in Cape Town, South Africa, the Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading Programme (VPUU), has transformed its previously rundown and dangerous streets into a safer, vibrant and more attractive place. Through a survey and interactive events, residents and professionals co-identified crime-related problems, community needs and organizational patterns in urban spaces. To deter crime in these locations, residents helped implement new features, including paved pedestrian walkways and street lighting, providing “safe routes” through dense informal settlements. These new features made the community safer. In fact, the murder rate dropped by 39 percent between 2003 and 2010, the highest in a low-income community. Additional positive social impacts include employment opportunities for residents and trauma counselling for women. These solutions foster positive community behaviors such as collaboration and feelings of pride and safety.

2.  Communities Experience Measurable Positive Social and Psychological Effects

Residents restore neighborhood squares in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Jan Semenza

While the Khayelitsha project provided distinctive social and economic benefits, a co-design project in Portland, Oregon, identified quantifiable clinical health benefits. The community conceived, designed, permitted and constructed three neighborhood pedestrianized squares with the objectives of improving participants’ social networks and mental wellbeing. With support from urban development professionals, residents implemented features such as community-designed street murals, benches, planter boxes, information kiosks with bulletin boards and hanging gardens. Psychologists systematically surveyed 265 participants before and after the intervention within a two-block radius of the sites. They measured mental health, sense of community, community capacity and social networks and recorded improvements seen through community empowerment, participation and collective action.

3.  Built Environments Influence Community Behavior Before and During Disasters

In many informal settlements, such as in Surat, India, community resilience is inhibited by poverty, low-quality built structures and exclusion from city government disaster planning. Including these communities in neighborhood management is the most immediate factor to address.

Where residents have strong networks but are vulnerable to, for example, flooding, resettlement requires a nuanced understanding of the social relationships and organizational strategies that enable resilience. In Jakarta, Indonesia, the diverse residents of riverside neighborhoods (kampungs) have strong social networks and cohesion, partially due to the close proximity of low-quality housing, and formal organizations that enforce participation in neighborhood cleaning (kerja bakti) and security systems (ronda).

The kampung of Manggarai, Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo by Mario Wilhelm

During floods, residents use their informal communications networks as a warning system, pooling resources and participating in clean-up activities. Despite attempted relocation, some kampung residents may return to their original dwellings if their networks and support systems are not also transferred. Adequate housing is an urgent priority, but, before relocating populations, planners must research the spatial and organizational features of neighborhoods to maintain social communities.

Designing for Social Networks and Cohesion Is the Crux of Community Resilience

By examining urban development and disasters across 12 countries, the report reveals the behaviors and feelings that stem from social networks and cohesion, emerge under the influence of urban form and community participation and are common to communities that are both socially sustainable and resilient:

  • Feeling connected and emotionally attached to neighborhood and community
  • Feeling safe and secure
  • Monitoring the neighborhood
  • Residing long-term
  • Regularly interacting with neighbors and participating in events
  • Being socially cohesive
  • Having community spirit
  • Having a voice and influence in neighborhood planning and governance

Projects involved different creative steps to influence these behaviors, which urban planners can tap into for implementing socially-aware planning:

  1. Incorporate clear social objectives into planning
  2. Conduct social research to understand the local interpretation of the urban landscape, and document communities’ social needs and strengths
  3. Employ democratic and inclusive community engagement and participation
  4. Match the evidence of communities’ needs and strengths with sensitive planning and design decisions
  5. Allow communities to co-design, implement, construct and manage spaces and infrastructure
  6. Create off-shoot community and economic development opportunities
  7. Include communities in ongoing monitoring and evaluation, ensure social objectives are honored and generate future learning

Government sustainability and resilience plans tend to prioritize the “hardware” of cities, but change is needed. Adopting the socially-aware planning process will make cities more robust and responsive to the needs of their residents. The report offers a global perspective and evidence from 12 countries to show its’ relevance and applicability everywhere. As adverse weather events increase, people, as well as the planet, must be protected.

The report is available through Oxford Brookes University

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