Bouncing back

From terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, to earthquakes in Kumamoto and Christchurch, cities reeling from natural and human-made disasters must rely on social cohesion to survive, recover – and thrive.

Last month’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Ecuador killed nearly 700 people and destroyed over 600 buildings.

It was just the latest in a string of natural disasters to hit throughout 2016, alongside more sinister terrorist attacks in Belgium, Pakistan, and many other countries.

Whether occurring naturally or otherwise, these events shake proud cities and regions to their collective core, while compounding the existing pressures facing communities both rich and poor.

Social cohesion – the common beliefs, values and behaviours that hold a society together – is key to helping communities cope in these difficult times. By facilitating the sharing of information, resources and support whilst also making our lives richer through social connection, friendship and understanding, cohesion can also reduce the likelihood of some events occurring.

Governments, corporations, and education and service groups are catching on, with some prioritising the development and maintenance of social cohesion as a critical response to reduce the likelihood and consequence of shock events on our communities.

AECOM’s Practice Leader, Sustainability and Resilience – Will Symons believes socially cohesive communities cope better in times of great adversity.

“Communities that are strongly inter-connected and that raise young people with a sense of hope, belonging and opportunity bounce back stronger after disaster strikes,” he explains.

“Futhermore, criminals, whether extremists or the more traditional variety, struggle to find a toe-hold in such communities.”

Closer to home, and through the Rockefeller Foundation’s ‘100 Resilient Cities’  program, Melbourne and Sydney now boast a Chief Resilience Officer, a unique position that supports communities to become more confident in both managing – and bouncing back – from planned and unforeseen events.

Last year in Mexico City, Chief Resilience Officers from around world gathered to create new resilience building initiatives – including the establishment of partnerships between the public and private sectors, and citizens – using themes of collaboration and integration as their driving force.

Key areas of focus include the ongoing support of communities to take more responsibility for their own health, safety and wellbeing in the context of strained public sector finances, the pursuit of innovative approaches to living given the changes to rainfall patterns brought on by climate change, the reduction of the urban heat island effect through urban forestry initiatives, and ensuring that our infrastructure is developed with the creation and maintenance of social cohesion as a central objective.

With Melbourne to release Australia’s first urban resilience strategy soon, Mr Symons said the commitment to tangibly increase the resilience of our communities was encouraging.

“Deprived communities have always been at greater risk from crime and radicalisation. The disconnected have always fared worse in difficult times, and both are unequally affected by the hazards associated with living in our beautiful country,” he said.

“Supporting all our communities to build social cohesion must be part of the response, and will protect them from the increasing natural and man-made threats of the 21st century.”

As New York demonstrated in the days, weeks, months and indeed years following 9/11, unified cities can stare down both natural and human-made threats of modern life and survive – and go onto thrive. Cities and regions without that social cohesion, however, make their respective journeys back from disaster all the more long, and costly – in every sense of the word.