Social Interaction Key to Urban Resilience, Says Harvard’s Diane DavisNovember 7, 2012 By Payal Chandiramani
“Resilience is the capacity of individuals and institutions to cope and adapt in the stress of chronic violence in ways that allow them room for maneuver and hope for the future,” said Diane Davis, Harvard professor of urbanism and development, in an interview at the Wilson Center.
She said they wanted to distance themselves from existing research that focuses on the “Herculean task” of eliminating the root causes of violence and insecurity. Instead, they wanted to “be more pragmatic and more grounded” and focus on what people are already doing to cope when violence is part of their lives.
They talked to citizens in cities where chronic violence is common, like Johannesburg, Nairobi, Medellín, and Managua, to see how they live with and adapt to it. In turn, they tried to draw lessons from these experiences and create actionable, policy-oriented tools for governments, local officials, and development agencies.
One lesson they learned is the importance of the physical design of cities.
“Some types of urban investments are better than others in terms of generating resilience,” she said. Building big upscale malls or high rises – a common solution to “upgrade” an area – can actually alienate residents and displace small entrepreneurs that contribute to the fabric of the community.
These solutions are unsustainable, as demonstrated by São Paolo’s attempt to redevelop the Cracolândia area. Despite crime and violence, years of state neglect had strengthened community bonds and made residents interdependent on one another to the point that any revitalization projects that would displace them was strongly opposed by businesses and residents alike. When large-scale development went forward, the existing community was disregarded and though police patrolled the area during the day, at night drug dealers and other violent criminals returned. This situation could have been avoided had the naturally built-up resilience of the community been incorporated into the city’s plans.
As Davis and Tirman explain in their report, resilience can be increased if new development in dilapidated areas avoids mass displacement and includes parks and public transportation, to facilitate the free movement of people between neighborhoods, and mixed commercial and residential land use, to further integrate citizens in their communities.
“Small targeted investments,” like widening the streets and creating parks in Mexico City, are successful because they generate more social interaction and increase the likelihood that multiple actors will form strong relationships to combat chronic violence together, said Davis.
“Really, it’s social interaction that makes an area more resilient,” she said, not just pouring money into a project.
Sources: Davis (2012).