As climate change accelerates climate-related disasters worldwide, communities with stronger connections will be better prepared to weather the coming years.
Prof. Shorna Allred, natural resources and environment, emphasized the importance of strengthening social ties as part of natural disaster preparedness in her March 15 seminar, “The Role of Social Capital in Community Resilience to Climate Change.”
As part of their weekly climate change challenges series, the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering and the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability featured Allred, where she is a faculty fellow.
Prof. Peter Hess, biological and environmental engineering, organizes the series to expose students and community members to scientific and social perspectives on challenges including changing food systems, unpredictable weather patterns and fragmented ecosystems.
In the Monday talk, Allred outlined her research on nearby Binghamton’s social approach to flood preparedness. According to Allred, other regions can learn from Binghamton’s example as they prepare for the future.
“River cities really have the river as a cultural resource [and] a natural resource,” Allred said. “And the question becomes: How do you live with water in these changing conditions, in this changing climate?”
Binghamton, located between two rivers, has experienced major flooding in recent years, particularly after tropical storms in 2006 and 2011. However, according to Allred, the rivers also serve an integral part of the city’s mission to replace the “rust” of its once-flourishing industrial sector with sustainable prosperity.
In collaboration with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences program Rust2Green, Allred worked to investigate how community factors have shaped Binghamton’s responses to recent floods. Rust2Green conducts community-based research to address the needs of Binghamton, from fostering urban resilience to developing green infrastructure.
Allred and her team distributed surveys, conducted interviews and organized story circles with Binghamton residents. Allred highlighted a “culture of resilience,” describing the community’s ability to plan for and adapt to natural disasters like floods.
Allred said that a key element in building this resilience is “social capital” — social resources that facilitate cooperation toward damage reduction and community safety.
Social relationships facilitated the exchange of support between close neighbors and near strangers during the floods. Residents provided one another with an “informal insurance” of resources that they couldn’t otherwise access, Allred said.
Between 2006 and 2011, Binghamton also developed relationships with the New York City Fire Department. When storms hit in 2011, these connections brought personnel, resources and expertise to the city, which improved the community’s flood response.
“You want to have trust and established relationships in place,” Allred said. “This gets back to that culture of resilience, of really having those relationships established well before an incident, versus trying to develop them in the moment.”
Allred added that innovative thinking can help communities establish resilience and also further environmental justice. Low-income communities are typically the most vulnerable to natural disasters, so investing in these neighborhoods can greatly improve community resilience.
“Building social capital is not only about strengthening the fabric of community but also recognizing and respecting the knowledge that the community has to contribute to determining their future,” Allred wrote in an email to The Sun. “To address climate change we need all hands on deck and social capital and environmental justice considerations are central to ensuring that no one is left behind.”
As the seminar closed, Allred emphasized that social infrastructure can be just as important as physical infrastructure in developing proactive approaches to climate change and natural disasters.
“Strengthening social capital and community capitals more broadly — such as social, human, political, cultural, financial, natural, and built — can improve resilience to an array of issues, including climate change. If communities are stronger, they are better able to withstand and adapt to changes,” Allred wrote in an email.
The Atkinson seminar runs every Monday from 2:45 to 4 p.m. The webinar link and an archive of seminars from the past six years can be found here.