Saturday, February 21, 2009

Neighborhood Resiliency - An Introduction

You tell me there's an angel in your tree.

Did he say he'd come to call on me?

'Cause things are getting desperate in our home,

living in the parish of the restless folk I've known.

“Burn Down The Mission,” lyrics by Bernie Taupin

As I have become more aware of Peak Oil, resource depletion and environmental destruction, I have also become more aware of the probable effects these crises will have on the communities in which we live. While the biggest part of those effects is economic, there are and will be many other effects. The result of all these effects is likely to be hugely negative unless a neighborhood has existing neighbor-initiated, community-based systems, relationships and connections which are resilient in the face of stress. “A neighborhood's resiliency depends on the stability of its initial equilibrium state. A neighborhood that possesses a large stock of social and physical capital is not easily dislodged from its beneficial equilibrium, but if dislodged by adverse shocks, its reservoir of capital enables it to return to its initial equilibrium.” – Margot Breton, “Neighborhood Resiliency,” Journal of Community Practice, June 2001.

The problem is that many (perhaps most) of the neighborhoods, communities and cities in America are now very fragile. They do not possess large stocks of social and physical capital; instead, no one knows his or her neighbors and almost everyone is dangerously in debt. The present economic crisis is unraveling a great many of the people in these neighborhoods, and the government on all levels is doing very little to fix this.

When I think of neighborhood resiliency, I do not look to the government to provide answers or help, although sometimes I am pleasantly (even delightedly!) surprised by some of the things my particular city is doing. Yet I have decided not to waste my breath/writing paper/Internet time trying to tell Washington my idea of a policy solution. I don't think even now that they're really interested in helping us. Instead, I believe that building up resilient neighborhoods is up to the neighbors who live in them. We will have to be the fix for the problems we face.

Nor have I decided to abandon cities and neighborhoods altogether in favor of holing up on a spread of several wilderness acres with a stash of five tons of baked beans and 5,000 rounds of ammunition. Some may elect to do this, but it's very clear that we can't have 300 million Americans all trying to do this, and it seems to me to be a rather short-sighted and selfish approach to our present times. Instead, I see myself as being somewhat like Billy Joel in the 1970's, who was living in Los Angeles and heard that New York City was going bankrupt, as well as hearing the smug sneers of Angelinos gloating over New York's potential demise. The sneers made him so angry that he said, in effect, “Hey! I'm a New Yorker! If that city's going down, I'm going down with it; we stand together!” As a result, he returned to New York, and wrote, “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.”

I live in a city. Yes, the city has problems and challenges, and the stress of our present emergencies may very well make those problems worse. But I'm getting a little tired of people (even though these people are very smart and far-sighted) who only have time to talk about the likely negative effects of Peak Oil and economic collapse, who have no solutions other than to “bug out and head for the hills,” nor any predictions other than rapidly spreading crime and chaos, who seem to relish the potential onset of “Mad Max – the 3D, Real-Life Version.”

For me, it seems a nobler challenge and a fight worth fighting to try to improve the place where I live, trying to make it a decent place in which decency is honored. (“So why didn't you stay in Southern California?” some may ask. Sometimes I wonder if I should have – but when I left I was trying to pick my battles wisely, and I had a mortgage on which I still had 25 years of payments to go.) So here I am, kicking off an on-again, off-again series of posts on building a resilient neighborhood. I'll be writing about some of the efforts I will undertake here in my own neighborhood. One thing: I have decided I'm going to have a bunch of my neighbors over for coffee some time in the next three weeks. So I have to get the house ready for company. And now that I've said it over the Internet, I guess I have to go through with it.

But I will also write more analytical posts dealing with building neighborhood resiliency, starting with an exploration of the factors which have contributed to making our neighborhoods brittle. This applies particularly to minority neighborhoods, though the factors are now present in almost all American neighborhoods. I will focus especially on the role governments and big businesses have had in undermining neighborhood stability. An understanding of how things got to be so broken and messed up is crucial if we're going to have any chance of fixing things.

One last thing: Both Jeff Vail ( and John Robb ( have written about resilient communities in the context of adapting to Peak Oil. You may want to check out their articles. I will take a slightly different approach in my analysis, however.

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