The role of community-based organizations in post-disaster recovery: Planning for mass emergent sociality

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Wednesday, 5 February 2014: 11:00 AM
Room C107 (The Georgia World Congress Center )
Joyce Klein Rosenthal, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, MA; and T. Johnson

The problem

How can planners at all levels of government support communities in emergency relief and response following disasters? In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, community residents were often the first to provide relief, responding to the practical needs of neighbors for food, medicine and safe shelter. This phenomenon is known as mass emergent sociality; the tendency for those affected by disasters to provide care and relief for fellow survivors. The level of community preparedness for the extreme conditions following Sandy varied, as emergent local leaders struggled, often by calling on personal social networks, to meet the daily needs of residents and vulnerable populations in hard-hit communities in New York City, including Red Hook, Brooklyn and the Rockaways, Queens.

Research strategies and methods

To understand ways in which community-based organizations (CBOs) led in the initial relief and recovery activities following Sandy, we conducted a comparative analysis of the role of neighborhood organizations and other grassroots networks in Rockaways, Queens and Red Hook, Brooklyn. Through field research including semi-structured interviews and observation, a survey through social media and archival research, we identified the CBO's active after Sandy and inventoried their range of responses. We are particularly interested in the spatial dimension of their response, and how their mobilization and logistics were managed within the constraints of disaster-stricken neighborhoods lacking essential infrastructure and resources.

As a frame for the relationship between formal planners and groups in these communities, we consider the scholarship of planning theorists and political scientists Mayer, Sandercock and Fainstein, among others, who conceptualized the shifting dynamics of formal and informal urban actors during the era of neoliberal restructuring as including a shift of the traditional responsibilities of the state to informal, often community-based actors. While neo-liberal globalization has led to a subordination of social policies by the state during recent years, it has fostered an ‘enlarged sphere' of local political action and a more central role for negotiation and collaboration at the local level amongst all political actors, public and private (Mayer, 1994). In this context of greater mobilization of urban citizens groups and local agencies, participatory planning initiatives are central to entrepreneurial collaborations and social movements seeking to sponsor community initiatives to enhance resilience (Sandercock, 2003).


State restructuring of urban social policies in the last decade impacted the ability of low-income residents in these neighborhoods to respond to basic needs in the weeks immediately following the storm. While emergent leaders based in neighborhood networks and CBO's mobilized to meet these challenges, further formal initiatives to provide support for CBO's in this capacity will be useful to enhance resilience and preparedness for future disasters.

Given the critical role of community residents as first and flexible responders, planners seeking to encourage and collaborate with local organizations should create channels in advance of extreme events to provide the financial resources, data and training that will support community-based groups in their leadership capacity, while developing new protocols for rapid assistance to local organizations and networks following disasters. We discuss some recent examples of planning and design to support community-based resilience to extreme weather events.