Neighborhood Connections Key To Surviving A Crisis

Know thy neighbor — it's not just a creed to live by, turns out it can save your life. Steve Inskeep talks to sociologist Eric Klinenberg about how vibrant, tight-knit neighborhoods could fare better in a disaster. Klinenberg is a professor of sociology at New York University. His article "Adaptation" appears in the current issue of The New Yorker.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Sandy prompted calls for greater resilience for America's cities, stronger tunnels, better electrical grids, flood barriers. Turns out reinforcing the social infrastructure may be just as important. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg writes in The New Yorker magazine, about what makes communities resilient in the face of climate change. His best example involves the city of Chicago. In July of 1995, more than 700 people died in one of the worst heat waves on record.

But two adjacent, nearly identical neighborhoods had very different rates of survival.

ERIC KLINENBERG: One is called Englewood, the other is called Auburn Gresham and they're literally next to each other. They have the same microclimate; both very poor, both lots of older people living alone. In Englewood, the death rate was about 33 per 100,000 residents.

INSKEEP: Really bad.

KLINENBERG: One of the highest in Chicago. In Auburn Gresham, it was three per 100,000 residents. It was safer than many places on the far more affluent and white north sides of Chicago.

INSKEEP: Auburn Gresham was safer in the heat wave?

KLINENBERG: Auburn Gresham is a neighborhood that has poverty, yes; and it's segregated, yes. But it has small commercial establishments that draw older people who are vulnerable to heat waves out of their homes and into public life. It has a viable social infrastructure.

INSKEEP: OK. So you're telling me that if I were to live in an old-style urban neighborhood, where there's a coffee shop down the street, where there's a corner store, where there's a corner dry cleaner, where people walk around and they may know the neighbors, and kids play on the street, that I am more likely to survive is a disaster because of the kind of community that I'm in?

KLINENBERG: For many disasters, that is absolutely true. And it's certainly true in everyday life. In Englewood, it's a neighborhood that had suffered from decades of abandonment. So many people had moved out and there'd been so much transition that people know their neighbors as well. Older people were more reluctant to leave their homes. And it turned out to be much more dangerous place during the heat wave.

It's also, I should say, much more dangerous every day. If you live in Auburn Gresham, you have a life expectancy that's five years longer than if you lived in Englewood - literally, the neighborhood next door.

INSKEEP: Well, let's extend the conversation. You learned this lesson looking at a heat wave in Chicago. You've now got cities across America and around the world facing a variety of challenges or potential challenges, because of climate change. How do you apply that lesson broadly?

KLINENBERG: Well, we need to think about when we invest in the new kind of homeland security - the homeland security projects that protects us from climate change, as well as from terrorism - that we invest in systems that have dual uses. They should protect us from an attack of the elements or extreme weather, but they should also make living conditions better every day. And there are all kinds of examples of that.

In fact, in Englewood, residents are trying to take their disadvantage, which is abandonment, and turn it into an advantage by creating urban gardens and urban farming; providing shade and better climate but also food and opportunity for more social cohesion.

INSKEEP: You know, we talk about resiliency, I think many people start out thinking of it as an engineering problem - where do we put the seawall against a hurricane, where do we put the concrete barrier against a terrorist bombing. And it seems that you're saying that resiliency is more of a social problem. How do we build a strong community that can deal with whatever may come up?

KLINENBERG: It's at least a combination of the physical and the social systems that we need to do. We always talk about the physical engineering that we need to protect cities, and systems and people during crises. We have failed to recognize the significance of our social infrastructure, the way in which communications matters, the way in which our relationships with neighbors, and family and friends matters; the way in which our neighborhood can protect or imperil us, depending on where we are.

As we remake our system for homeland security, in light of the risk we face with climate change, I sincerely hope that we invest in the social infrastructure. Because when a real disaster strikes, it's the social stuff that might make the difference between life and death.

INSKEEP: Eric Klinenberg is professor of Sociology at New York University. His article, "Adaptation," is in the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine.

Thanks very much.

KLINENBERG: My pleasure, thank you.

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