Until a few weeks ago, I had never heard of Eric Klinenberg. Then, he was front stage and center of a news story that mesmerized me and now, I’m stalking him.
Dr. Klinenberg is a professor of Urban Studies, Culture and Media at New York University. In 2003, he wrote the book Heatwave, detailing the 1995 Chicago summer temperature surge and the severe distress that it created in the communities there. More than 700 lives were lost that July due to extreme heat and poor response.
Despite this grim topic, the research that Klinenberg conducted in order to write his book produced a golden nugget finding that should be smack center of every community building and economic development agenda.
Klinenberg examined the outcomes of two adjacent Chicago communities. Despite similarities, the loss of life was drastically different between the two. Englewood and Auburn Gresham are both Chicago suburbs. They’re characterized by very similar demographics yet in Englewood, 33 people died for every 100,000 residents while in Auburn Gresham, only 3 people lost their lives per 100,000. Further, the average life expectancy in Auburn Gresham is 5 years longer than in Englewood.
Each of these communities yields similar physical infrastructure in terms of housing stock, roads, access to electricity and other services. What separates them is access to small commercial establishments of which Auburn Gresham has many. These small establishments such as neighborhood coffee shops, restaurants and local pharmacies had the effect of drawing people from their homes into a social setting. In other words, residents had somewhere to go when it got hot and each of those locations produced human interactions that were critical to survival. The residents of Auburn Gresham were not only more likely to know their neighbors but they were more likely to survive a disaster. Put another way, the social infrastructure of the community was as equally as important as the physical infrastructure.
Applied broadly, Klinenberg suggests that this knowledge can form the basis of a new brand of homeland security – a type that not only protects us from the elements but that also focuses on making conditions better. Consider the possibilities: the nurturing of local businesses, the development of urban gardens that provide not only shade and food but also social interactions, the creation of multigenerational community opportunities.
In this period of capital scarcity, I take comfort in knowing that resiliency is also a social issue. The effects of communications, relationships and neighborhood are as important, if not more so than the physical engineering of the spaces.
How can we put this knowledge into practice?