Resilient communities have 1 special trait in common, research shows

Strong communities have one special trait in common — it's the special sauce that helps them bounce back from something like a tornado — or from an industry picking up and leaving town.

CBC Happiness Columnist Jennifer Moss looks at what separates cities who thrive from others

A Canadian flag flies in front of homes destroyed by a tornado in Ottawa's Dunrobin neighbourhood on Sept. 22, 2018. Jennifer Moss says the city thrived under pressure. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Strong communities have one special trait in common — it's the special sauce that helps them bounce back from something like a tornado — or from an industry picking up and leaving town.

The most resilient communities don't just survive an emergency, they rebound, stronger than before. These are the cities that never waste a crisis.

Logistical and strategic planning are obviously, still necessary for cities to rebound. For example, cities that are tied to industries like manufacturing, agriculture, mining, etc., benefit from expanding their labour force.

Windsor and Sudbury are great examples of this kind of forward-thinking. Both went from high levels of unemployment to become a destination for jobs.

In Sudbury, they focused on sustainability. With a global shift away from fossil fuels to battery-electric technologies that require nickel, copper, cobalt and lithium — Sudbury is poised to thrive economically.

Windsor realized over a decade ago that they had to reduce their dependency on one aspect of the auto-manufacturing industry, so they developed skills across the entire automotive supply chain. They went from being the unemployment capital to one of the strongest economies in Canada.

Emergency planning is key

Better emergency planning for severe weather events is another good way to develop resilient cities.

There are Approximately 80 to 100 tornadoes that happen in Canada each year. Some might remember the tornado in Goderich in 2011. It was a rare F3 tornado but Goderich, a city that had a plan and ran it every year for 16 years, was able to bounce back quickly. One year later they celebrated right where the tornado touched down, a city rebuilt.

So yes, it's obvious that planning is fundamental to recovering from an emergency or an economic downturn. But, even more so is a trait that keeps showing up in the research.

The UN has been analyzing this topic of urban resilience since 2009 with the Making Cities Resilient program and the Rockefeller Foundation has the 100 Resilient Cities project that looks at urban hardiness globally. They've obviously learned a lot since tackling this research project, but they keep going back to one major trait that is core to the most resilient communities and that is what they call "social cohesion." 

Social cohesion means that the community has a high number of positive social relationships which ends up being the bond or 'glue' that binds people. 

socially cohesive society has specific traits in common:

  • They prioritize everyone's well-being;
  • They openly battle exclusion and focus more on belonging;
  • They promote trust by fostering relationships at all levels of the community including with local government;
  • They also try to help others get ahead financially.

All of the above helps to create a strong, socially connected community, who also happen to be more effective in an emergency than communities that are socially disconnected. 

Resiliency through high-stress situations

In many cities across the world, we what happens when a high-stress event bonds its people.

Take Ottawa-Gatineau for example — after a tornado ripped through their community and 145,000 people were without power, the city thrived under pressure.

Immediately people in the community went to twitter to offer everything from basics like blankets, water and food, baby and pet food, and charging stations for cell phones. Then people started opening their homes up to strangers.

One of my favourite tweets had a photo of probably four-dozen pancakes and said this, "My address is 972 Eve Street, I have power and I'm cooking up hot meals all day, come shower, eat, charge your devices, I don't need to know you, you don't need to ask, show up (bring tupperware and I'll fill it) and you will be welcome #PlsShare."

Waterloo region is another strong example of how a community can pick itself up after repeatedly getting knocked down.

In 1914, it was the Rubber Capital and in the 1940s the Button Capital. But when manufacturing jobs died, the region didn't go the way of so many other rustbelt cities, it became the Insurance Capital and that gave way to growth in tech.

Companies such as Research in Motion emerged making KW the Tech capital in 2012.

When the city faced another crisis in 2012, as RIM started to bleed jobs, Communitech, a Regional Innovation Centre, stepped in to stem the flow. They were able to gather enough funding sources to support, among other important projects, the Embedded Executive Program.

This grant paid departing RIM execs six months of their current salary to lead at a local startup.

The result? 425 tech companies in 2011 and 1,570 tech-related businesses today. Never would have happened without resilient mindsets and a social cohesion at the heart of the city. 

Social cohesion a first priority

If leadership wants to focus on city resiliency, social cohesion should be the first priority. To ensure success:

  1. Immediately establish a measure or benchmark;
  2. Get to know the community, understand the characteristics of the people who live and work there and how this might change over time;
  3. Engage the community — be inclusive, listen, find out where any tensions exist and try to problem-solve solutions together. 

And, if anyone wants to make this a personal mission, start by building a resilient neighborhood. Create an emergency plan. Divide up roles for everyone to own — some can be the pancake makers, some can be the blanket givers, others can be the power suppliers.

Be inclusive and invite all members of the neighborhood to join. Because building social cohesion isn't just about surviving an emergency — it's about building a community where people get along and stand up for each other, where they feel included and supported, where there is trust.

Regardless of whether hard times are on the horizon or the forecast says it's all sunny days ahead, a resilient city is a happy city and worth investing time and resources into building. 


Jennifer Moss

CBC Happiness and Well-being Columnist

Jennifer Moss is an international public speaker, award-winning author, and UN Global Happiness Committee Member. She is based in Kitchener, Ontario.


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