Why are some neighborhoods able to withstand crisis, and why do some implode under the pressure?
Robert J. Sampson, a Harvard sociologist, delves into the question, using the deadly heat wave of 1995 in Chicago as a case study. He compares neighborhoods that had radically different fatality rates despite being demographically indistinguishable, Eric Klineberg reports in his article for the New Yorker, “Adaptation.”
Sampson’s work shows what community activists have known for decades: resiliency comes from within. The difference between strong and vulnerable neighborhoods is as simple as the ties that bind us. “[S]idewalks, stores, restaurants and community organizations that bring people into contact with friends and neighbors” determine a neighborhood’s durability and flexibility.
In areas with little communal infrastructure and few or no neighborhood organizations, isolated individuals succumbed to the effects of the deadly heat wave. Fewer people died in areas where neighbors knew one another.
Interconnectedness functions like an immune system, preventing damage and accelerating healing. Sampson’s studies even note a five-year difference in lifespan between residents in the two types of neighborhoods.
This doesn’t mean communities don’t require outside assistance in the aftermath of crisis, but it does indicate that well-planned neighborhoods and active neighborhood organizations lessen human suffering during and after disaster. Supporting community groups and marginalized neighborhoods isn’t just about enhancing quality of life. It’s about saving lives.