Resiliency is a worthwhile pursuit, both for individuals and communities. But how to build strength into our lives as citizens? And into our towns? The answer lies within our neighborhoods.
The neighborhood is where sustainability meets preparedness. It is one step beyond caring for your own family, and one step back from what the emergency professionals do best at a national level. Self-sufficiency for every citizen is not only unattainable but also undesirable. The answer is a resilient community.
In our neighborhoods, we can focus on what is changeable but significant to surviving and recovering quickly from a wide scale event, whether it is a short-term natural disaster or a long-term economically induced emergency.
The quest for community has never been stronger. The recognition that all is not well is becoming universal. We need a way to take action. Action that can move us from a paralyzing fear to an activating hope. And those actions can begin in our own homes, streets, and neighborhoods.
Neighbors taking care of neighbors with a bit of positive-focused foresight and planning can move us further along the sustainability continuum, toward a more resilient and bright future!
Watching the great natural and economic emergencies of our time impacting our country, from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to the meltdown on Wall Street, my family has journeyed from a blissfully-clueless state through an informed-enough-to-be-worried state, finally arriving at the act-now state.
During our journey, we began to blog at Opt Out En Masse about our successes and failures with semi-rural homesteading experiments. It became clear that true self-sufficiency was not only unattainable but also undesirable. In addition to opting out of the negative aspects of the American system as we know it, we also needed to opt in to something new. Something positive. Something local. Something community-building.
We began talking to others about emergencies beyond our own country as well. The Japanese tsunami. The Christchurch earthquake. The financial woes of the European Union. This emerging worldwide crisis presents opportunities for us to look at who we are. Who we are as a species living on a fragile space station. Who we are as caring neighbors. Who we are as citizens. It’s a conversation that is increasing finding a wider and more mainstream audience (witness this in-depth Foreign Policy write-up – note the subscription to gain access is free or if you prefer, here is a downloadable PDF).
Learning From Our Elders
My grandfather maintained a significant victory garden until his death and had a wide variety of practical homesteading skills. Despite my father’s Ph.D. and years of experience running organizations (quite successfully), my grandfather’s hands-on knowledge simply did not transfer down to him. I notice many folks of his generation lack the practical experience to grow their own food or weather a two-week winter storm without electricity.
These are skills I learned myself only in the last ten years from books, blogs, and buddies (plus a fair amount of trial and error…mostly error!). More than once my father has remarked to me with a bit of humorous wonder in his voice how proud my grandfather would be of my efforts to develop self-reliance. We are learning the practical skills (e.g. farming) of a previous generation not by ourselves, but in conjunction with our neighbors. Individual self-reliance is not the goal; community-based self reliance is much more attractive.
As we learned these new skills from books on individual family preparedness, we also found a huge amount of literature at the the other end of the spectrum, at the federal and international levels. But this knowledge is useful primarily for very large groups of people (like mass exoduses of refugees), full of technical jargon, and difficult to scale down to the neighborhood level.
The Neighborhood is the Key
And yet the neighborhood level is exactly where we find the sweet spot for resiliency, which consists of small groups of citizens bound by their geographic neighborhoods who are able to care for themselves during an emergency, whether it is a short-term natural disaster or a long-term economically induced emergency.
We must be able to care for ourselves without the aid of professionals during a short-term emergency because they are simply not coming (as they will also tell you). After a natural disaster, the fire and police departments are required to do drive-by assessments of the entire damaged area before even beginning to respond to the first house fire or victim. And in a wide scale emergency like an earthquake, our professionals will be overwhelmed with acute situations.
In our country’s new economic reality, these professionals will find themselves underfunded, understaffed, and simply stretched too thin to provide care for citizens street by street. It’s up to us to create more resilient neighborhoods, before the emergency hits. And we can!
By going one step beyond individual- and family-level planning, and one step back from state and federal planning, we arrive at the neighborhood, where preparedness meets the sustainability movement.
Preparedness, Please Meet Sustainability
By beginning the conversation with emergency preparedness, positive social and environmental change can be created with millions of Americans who normally shy away from any conversation about “the green movement”. Neighbors who would not normally engage in a conversation about sustainability become deeply involved in local green projects as they see the direct benefits for themselves.
These interpersonal connections will be crucial to thrive in the coming “long emergency” as James Kunstler has aptly named our new economic reality. We’ve entered an interesting period of the American story marked by the decline of cheap energy and the rise of do-it-yourself victory gardens.
We’re seeing a groundswell of activity among both citizen and professional groups in towns across North America – from Bellingham to Boston – that is building resiliency into our systems. And there are countless families that have begun shelter-in-place preparations for weathering a natural disaster in their home, just do a quick online search for urban homesteads. What’s missing in many of those locations is the bridge between two efforts: the neighborhood.
And yet that is the point in scale at which we can see rapid progress being made. This is not a new concept; we’ve been reading about the Amish and other intentional communities for years. We marvel at their ability to quickly rally around a single family or project and push it to completion. We’ve seen more recently how citizens dig in after a natural disaster to begin life again after the first responders leave.
“How to Rebuild a City” by Gisleson, Thompson, & Burke is an excellent short book that gives us insights into how individual citizens, streets, and then entire neighborhoods in New Orleans took on the task of rebuilding their city when aid from state and federal sources was nonexistent. Many of the projects became sustainable in nature. In the wake of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, the book documents the natural progression of emergency preparedness (and direct response, in this case) to sustainable engagement and reconstruction, much of it citizen-led street by street, one neighborhood at a time.
Let’s Get Started
The quest for community has never been stronger. The recognition that all is not well is becoming universal. We need a way to take action. Action can move us from a paralyzing fear to an activating hope. And those actions can begin in our own homes, streets, and neighborhoods.
The neighborhood is where we can build lasting resilience and will be the focus of this conversation to help North American citizens move further along the sustainability continuum together, toward a more resilient (and bright!) future.
Photos by DVIDSHUB, David Berkowitz, and Sunset Parkerpix.