Geographic Social Networks and Surviving the Storm

It began with the zip and flash of the computer powering off. A Nor’easter (or Bomb Cyclone) was making its way up the East Coast and powerful winds were knocking down power lines and poles across the region. What we hoped would be a brief outage turned into multiple hours and as the sun set an entire neighborhood was left in the dark.
And that’s when the magic happened. A network of neighbors began texting one another, checking in to see what assistance might be needed. In the hours that followed, these neighbor-friends found themselves in basements bailing water, troubleshooting downed generators and shoveling driveways not their own.
This community of geographically-situated people (my neighborhood) had the capacity to adapt to a challenging stressor like a power outage based, in part, on the network of social relationships that had been built over time.
Unfortunately, there are many neighborhoods in which this capacity does not exist.

Becoming Impotent

 Since Robert Putnam popularized the term “social capital” with his broad examination of declines in American civic life, we have continued to see societal changes that inhibit the capacity of geographic social connectedness. These barriers include suburban backyards, long commutes driving alone and the ubiquitous smart phone (Putnam blamed the rise of television for much of the decline in social capital over the years– now, we have these televisions in our pockets!). A ton of research has been done to demonstrate this trend, so I’ll just highlight three quick data points here.
  • According to the 2018 County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, 30% of Americans commute more than 30 minutes alone each way to work, with 236 US counties in which this is more than 50% of the population
  • In the 2016 General Social Survey, 32% of people reported that they would never spend a social evening with their neighbors.
  • In the Less in Common survey, data show that only 30% of people today say that “most people can be trusted” compared to about 50% in 1970

While this may make us sad from a sense of loss of social connectedness, it has profound impacts on our ability to thrive as a people.

In his 1838 volume, “Democracy in America”, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the necessity of civic associations in American life. “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small”. He goes on to contrast the democracy of America with the “aristocratic” societies of Europe at the time.
“In aristocratic societies men have no need to unite to act because they are kept very much together. Each wealthy and powerful citizen in them forms as it were the head of a permanent and obligatory association that is composed of all those he holds in dependence to him, whom he makes cooperate in the execution of his designs. In democratic peoples, on the contrary, all citizens are independent and weak; they can do almost nothing by themselves, and none of them can oblige those like themselves to lend them their cooperation. They therefore all fall into impotence (emphasis mine) if they do not learn to aid each other freely.”
These geographic social connections it turns out are essential tools for a potent and effective response to daily functioning and a critical resource when things go wrong.
Based on a study that found that 46% of people expected to rely on people in their neighborhoods within 72 hours of a disaster (while that is a significant number, it does indicate that more than half of individuals would not expect to rely on their neighbors–indeed one-third of them don’t even know their neighbors), the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) build a “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” approach to improve emergency response by enhancing geographic social relationships. In developing the National Preparedness Goal,
the Department of Homeland Security defined social connectedness as the “capacity of the community to engage and employ formal and informal social networks to build the overall resilience of the community”. The simple goal is to create “a secure and resilient nation with the capabilities required across the whole community to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from the threats and hazards that pose the greatest risk”
It’s all about how resilient we are– not just as individuals, but as a community.

Community Resilience and the Power of Weak Ties

The RAND Corporation has defined this community resilience as “a measure of the sustained ability of a community to utilize available resources to respond to, withstand, and recover from adverse situations”. In a systematic literature review, Patel and colleagues identified three type of definitions of community resilience. Some definitions emphasize process e.g. Norris et al.’s definition  as a “process linking a set of networked adaptive capacities to a positive trajectory of functioning and adaptation in constituent populations after a disturbance”. Other definitions focus more of a set of attributes or abilities in a community (e.g. social support network structures) or an outcome focus resorting to the absence of adverse adaptation– in other words, nothing went too horribly.
Despite which viewpoint is taken from a definitional perspective, the emphasis here is on the creation of capacity. RAND identified three different types: 1) absorption capacity (How big of a stressor can the community resist and maintain the same level of function?), 2) adaptive capacity (How adept is the system at adapting to stressors while still functioning?) and 3) restorative capacity (How quickly can the system get back to normal after a shock?). While there are a number of attributes that contribute to the creation of this capacity (certainly socioeconomic factors play a tremendous role for example), the quality of geographic social networks is key in determining how much we can take and keep going, or how quickly we can rebound.
So, knowing your neighbors may be an attribute that promotes community resilience, but what is special about those relationships? To answer this, I’ll briefly return to social capital theory in which much has been discussed about strong versus weak ties. Strong ties are closely associated with bonding social capital. They involve shared experiences, mutual affiliation and identification and what most of us would describe as friendship. While it is certainly nice to have those type of relationships in a neighborhood where you might attend dinner parties together or go on outings, that may not be feasible or desirable for everyone. After all, strong ties take time, investment and emotional capacity–and we only have so much of that to spread around.
But, it is the second type of tie — the weak tie– that may hold the most promise. Weak ties are associated with bridging social capital. We aren’t best buddies, but we have access to that person or group as a resource when needed. Weak ties take little time and energy to maintain, but can be especially effective in connecting to another set of resources. Imagine that you have a weak tie with your neighbor on one side of your property who has a connection into a good plumber. By having this tie, you now have access to a network that you may not have had without it. And neighborhoods are great places to form weak ties.

Tools to Build Your Community Resilience

So, how do you get started? You can (and probably should) march down your block and introduce yourself (maybe with cookies!). Beyond that, there are so many ideas and opportunities. Watch this space on a regular basis for ideas, stories and research on how to promote community well-being and resilience.
Here a couple awesome tools that you can use to get you started:
1. Digest and share a toolkit. 
RAND has released a really cool “Learn and Tell Toolkit” where you can get more information about community resilience and some scripts to follow to communicate this with others.
Similarly, the Los Angeles County Community Disaster Resilience Project (LACCDR), produced a Resilience Builder that gives information that is easy to put into action.
2. Sign up for Nextdoor.
In the age of social media, Nextdoor is a geographic-based tool to help neighbors connect around local issues with a mission to “provide a trusted platform where neighbors work together to build stronger, safer, happier communities, all over the world” Think of it as your Facebook without all your family and friends from around the world and focused on local action. It can be used to find recommendations for services, share information or, as we’re discussing here, help people navigate challenging situations from a string of robberies to a hurricane. As of mid-2017, Nextdoor is in 145,000 U.S. neighborhoods . Find out how you can join your neighborhood or start it at www.nextdoor.com.

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