As cities prepare for climate change in earnest, the importance of community connections cannot be overstated.

When dealing with severe weather events, the type that climate change is making more common, improved infrastructure is important. But the social ties of a neighborhood – the kind of relationships that are nurtured by trips to the corner coffee shop and chats on the sidewalk – might prove equally important when it comes to saving lives.

In a New Yorker article this week (behind a paywall), sociologist Eric Klinenberg looks at the impact that solid, place-based social networks can have on protecting lives in a natural disaster. He takes as his example the Chicago heat wave of July 1995, which killed 739 people. As you might expect, the mortality rates were highest in poor neighborhoods. African-American communities were particularly badly affected.

But in two adjacent neighborhoods that were demographically nearly identical – mostly black, with high concentrations of poverty and elderly residents -- Klinenberg reports the death rates were vastly different. Englewood recorded a fatality rate of 33 per 100,000 residents. Right next door, Auburn Gresham’s rate was 3 per 100,000, better than many rich neighborhoods on the city’s mostly white North Side. From the New Yorker piece:

The key difference between neighborhoods like Auburn Gresham and others that are demographically similar turned out to be the sidewalks, stores, restaurants, and community organizations that bring people into contact with friends and neighbors. The people of Englewood were vulnerable not just because they were black and poor but also because their community had been abandoned. Between 1960 and 1990, Englewood lost fifty per cent of its residents and most of its commercial outlets, as well as its social cohesion….Auburn Gresham, by contrast, experienced no population loss in that period. In 1995, residents walked to diners and grocery stores. They knew their neighbors. They participated in block clubs and church groups….

[D]uring the severe heat waves that are likely to hit Chicago and other cities in the near future, living in a neighborhood like Auburn Gresham is the rough equivalent of having a working air-conditioner in each room.

After Superstorm Sandy, neighborhood networks like the ones that Klinenberg references in his piece were activated quickly around the five boroughs. Community-based groups such as Red Hook Initiative in Brooklyn (where I volunteered after the storm), which already had deep roots in the area, were able to call on existing relationships and get help where it was needed, even as government and national relief organizations were falling short.

What’s more, in places where different social groups had robust internal connections but didn’t really interact with each other, storm survival and recovery provided a framework for building new alliances. They haven’t always been seamless or comfortable, but they have been happening.

It happened in Red Hook, where residents of the public housing projects found themselves working alongside business owners from the gentrified streets nearby. It happened in the often fractious Rockaways, where surfers and firefighters and everyone else has pitched in to clean the streets and rip moldy sheetrock from homes, despite past resentments and divisions. For the most part, strength has built on strength.

"I don’t think in any way did it change the tight-knit community, other than to make us tighter," says one Rockaways surfer and homeowner in a video about the storm’s aftermath produced by Surfer magazine. "Because I don’t know anyone who didn’t help out."

As cities prepare for climate change in earnest, they’re going to need to harden infrastructure, change building patterns, and overhaul government emergency procedures. But they’re also going to have to put a greater value on the human connections that can be found in walkable neighborhoods where people know each other and support local businesses. It’s not just about quality of life. It’s about survival.

Top image: Volunteers sort through food and supplies in the Oasis Christian Center in the Midland Beach area of Staten Island. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

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