To build resilient communities, start with social connection

Social ties are the building blocks for community resilience. As extreme weather events increase, our connections can be the difference between life and death.

Photo of kids and adults working together to paint a concrete barrier beside a bike lane with a colourful mural, that includes a dog walkng on a leash and a figure skateboarding.
Community spaces and activities can help bring neighbours together, fostering greater social connection and resilience. (Isabel Garcia / Happy Cities)

Jun. 13, 2023

By Leah Karlberg

An extreme reality

Resilience is a buzzword these days, especially after each extreme weather event and with wildfire smoke in the air every summer. Each year, we learn new words to describe our changing reality—heat dome, atmospheric river, polar vortex. What isn’t new is the connection between our social ties and resilience in the face of disaster. 

This link was most clearly first recognized after the 1995 Chicago heat wave. Peaking at 48.3 degrees Celsius, the heat wave took the lives of over 730 Chicago residents within the span of a week. Hospitals overflowed, the power grid was overwhelmed, and water was out in many neighbourhoods. Research found that it wasn’t income, neighbourhood, gender, or even age alone that predicted mortality. Rather, the leading risk factors were living alone, being physically and socially isolated (especially elderly), and not having anyone to check in on you—whether neighbours, family, or loved ones. The Chicago Heat Wave is considered one of the worst urban disasters that should have never occurred. 

Emergency and health care systems are mainly ready to respond to day-to-day needs. For example, an ambulance is called in response to a car accident. These systems are quickly overloaded when hit by large scale events, limited by the number of available resources, facilities, and staff. A more proactive system might give families, friends, and neighbours the tools—and a nudge—to check in on one another, leaving institutions to focus on responding to the most critical needs. 

Closer to home, the 2021 heat dome in the Pacific Northwest overwhelmed local paramedics. It was estimated that 600 people across B.C. died of heat-related deaths that week—the majority of whom were seniors who died at home. In Vancouver, the extreme weather warning had been announced a week prior to the heat dome. Many of these deaths could have been prevented—not by the emergency responders, who were stretched thin, but through small community-led actions. Instead, 30 years after the devastating Chicago heat wave, we are still seeing the same deadly outcomes from an increasing number of extreme weather events. Many of these deaths are preventable. We can and must do better. 

The value of social ties 

Social connection is a key ingredient of community resilience. People who know and trust their neighbours are better able to support each other during an extreme weather event or crisis, by making sure that no one is left behind and alone. 

The challenge is that many of us are more isolated than we would like to be. For example, the Vancouver Foundation’s 2017 Connect & Engage survey found that one in four people find it hard to make new friends in the city, and residents are less active in community life compared to five years ago. In the U.S., key indicators show a decline in meaningful social connections, and that our trust in each other is at a low.

Social connections impact how we feel, just as much as our physical health. Isolation is considered to be more deadly than diabetes, with the long-term impact on our health comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Social connections can also buffer the negative impacts of stress, lowering our risk of mental health conditions, obesity, and heart disease. To build more resilient communities, we need to bring social connection back to the agenda.

What do we mean by resilience?

More than ever, people are interested in resilience. Suddenly, infrastructure, ecosystems, social systems, and individuals all need to be resilient.  

There are different definitions of resilience, across physics, ecology, psychology, and more. In physics, resilience is the ability of elastic material to spring back after receiving a shock. Ecological resilience speaks to a natural system rebounding after a disturbance. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as adapting through mental, emotional, and behavioural flexibility. More simply, the Oxford Dictionary defines resilience as “the capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties; elasticity.” 

Newer conversations are pushing the definition of resilience to better capture the capacity to move forward constructively and to develop new capacities in response to stress and challenges, rather than returning to a previous state. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t want to bounce back to what “normal” was in 2019. Instead, we can learn from the challenges of the pandemic, identify the holes in the fabric of our social systems, and apply these insights to advance our collective wellbeing. 

By placing this new definition of resilience at the centre of our work in urban planning, we can design stronger policies and more purposeful spaces.  

Fostering resilience in our own communities 

Cities play a key role in responding to crises such as extreme weather events. But resilience is not only top down. When cities provide practical tools for communities to be proactive—and see themselves as a protagonist against crises such as extreme weather—it’s a win-win. 

The good news is that you don’t have to be an expert in any field to make your neighbourhood a more resilient place. Community resilience starts with small, everyday actions—for example, an introduction or an invitation. What’s more, many studies show that neighbours want to get to know each other better, and are interested in social gatherings, community festivals, and working with their neighbours on projects. 

Stories of strength, care, and generosity abound during crises such as extreme weather. During the heat dome, neighbours around Vancouver left out coolers of ice and water to anyone in need of cooling down. During the flooding that followed the atmospheric river later in 2021, the Sikh community in Surrey, B.C. rallied to feed thousands of Lower Mainland residents who were displaced by flooding. This reflected the same spirit of many individuals and communities when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. 

These acts of care can be encouraged through design, policy, and programming. Recognizing the impact of grassroots initiatives, many governments are offering toolkits and small grants to support community-led projects and events, like garden plots, block parties, and even a teepee at one Indigenous modular housing building. In Vancouver, for example, individuals can apply for a Neighbourhood Small Grant of $500 to do almost anything creative with the goal of creating community. The City’s recent Resilience Strategy delves more into the nuance of risks and opportunities to improve emergency preparedness at a community level.

Similarly, local businesses and community spaces can foster connections and share resources, such as through neighbourhood houses and tool libraries. It’s these simple human interactions that make us more resilient and prepared. These connections highlight who may need support when their family is out of town, who has medical training, who has power tools, and may prompt you to think about what you can offer back in return. 

At Happy Cities, we also seek to promote social connections—and resilience—through the design of physical spaces. The design of shared spaces—such as hallways, lobbies, building entrances, parks, and more—can provide the opportunity for a first connection, and for repeat interactions over time. In this way, designers and developers have a responsibility to create spaces that don’t isolate us, but rather give us the choice to comfortably participate in community life—spaces where we might say hello to a neighbour, or share a meal with them. 

Diagram of cartoon people along a horizontal axis to illustrate the spectrum of social connections. The five steps along the spectrum are: 1) Building design, 2) Repeated encounters, 3) Doing things together, 4) Forming friendships, and 5) Mutual support. At stage 1, building design can encourage residents to bump into each other and linger in shared spaces. At stage 3, programming starts to play a role, along with design, by helping people make the jump from casual encounters to meaningful relationships.

Our choices every day—where we go and who we interact with—are opportunities to make new connections. If you’re open to it, these choices might even transform your day-to-day life. These connections are the foundation we need to not just be ready for the next extreme weather event—but to come out the other side even stronger. 

Recommended reading

Contrary to what might make the headlines, natural disasters often bring out the best in us. To learn more about community responses during times of crisis, here are some related resources:

  • Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman 
  • Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago by Eric Klinenberg 
  • A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit 
  • Rethinking Community Resilience: The Politics of Disaster Recovery in New Orleans by Min Hee Go
  • Fault Lines with Johanna Wagstaffe on CBC 
  • Indigenous climate perspectives: A series of case studies from the Canadian Climate Institute

What’s on your list? Share your thoughts with us by email:

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