Resilient cities need resilient citizens

In the days after the Boston Marathon bomb­ings, dec­la­ra­tions of sup­port from across the country flooded my Face­book feed in the form of graphic memes, pho­tographs, and simple status updates from friends and family. There were lots but the one that struck me most showed the Brooklyn Academy of Music at night illu­mi­nated with a message:

Photo by Lucky Tran of the Illuminator collective

Photo by Lucky Tran of the Illu­mi­nator collective

I later learned that Yankee Sta­dium broke out in song around the same time with the lyrics to “Sweet Car­o­line,” the unof­fi­cial Red Sox anthem, to show its sup­port for our suf­fering city. Though I’m not much of a base­ball fan, this song always gets me in the mood for a little home-​​town pride, a hot dog, and a beer. And though I could nor­mally care less about who wins or loses, the impor­tance of the rivalry between the Sox and the Yan­kees has been deeply ingrained in me to the point that I actu­ally watched a game on the tele­vi­sion in 2005 (you know why).

So when I saw this image, my heart flut­tered a little bit. It meant so much to see those let­ters in those par­tic­ular fonts on the side of an iconic Brooklyn building showing that they, our ulti­mate rivals, were standing with us.

A few months later, psy­chology pro­fessor David DeSteno stood inside that same building talking to an audi­ence of hun­dreds at a summit on urban resilience con­vened by PopTech and the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion, The City Resilient, last week. “Humans respond to dis­rup­tions in one of two ways,” he said. “We stand together, or we stand alone.” And it turns out that choosing the first strategy affords the best long term out­come, according to evo­lu­tionary and math­e­mat­ical sim­u­la­tions, DeSteno said.

David DeSteno at the PopTech City Resilient conference at Brooklyn Academy Of Music. Photo by Agaton Strom.

David DeSteno at the PopTech City Resilient con­fer­ence at Brooklyn Academy Of Music. Photo by Agaton Strom.

The City Resilient took place in Brooklyn in recog­ni­tion of the dev­as­ta­tion wrought by Super­storm Sandy there last October, and brought together sci­en­tists, gov­ern­ment offi­cials, cor­po­rate and com­mu­nity leaders from across the United States. Since Sandy there’s been an uptick in the amount of con­ver­sa­tion sur­rounding urban resilience, a term that Northeastern’s own Steve Flynn pretty much coined last decade. Already more than half of the human pop­u­la­tion resides in cities and by 2050 it’s slated to be more like three quar­ters of the pop­u­la­tion. At the same time dev­as­tating weather events and other nat­ural dis­as­ters are expected to step up their games, and with increas­ingly sophis­ti­cated tech­nolo­gies, ter­rorist attacks have the poten­tial to wreak ever more havoc.

So resilience is the buzz­word these days. If cities (and the humans within them) are to sus­tain in the face of these increasing threats, they need to be pre­pared to absorb the impacts. But all of the focus can’t be on phys­ical infra­struc­ture, said DeSteno. After all, what good is an evac­u­a­tion route if everyone is tram­pling on top of each other to get out the fastest?

A study con­ducted by the Asso­ci­ated Press and NORC at the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago on Resilience in the Wake of Super­storm Sandy released last week and pre­sented by its authors at the Brooklyn summit found that “indi­vid­uals in slowly recov­ering neigh­bor­hoods are less likely to believe that, gen­er­ally speaking, most people can be trusted.” Their coun­ter­parts in the faster-​​to-​​recover neigh­bor­hoods were more likely to think the storm brought out the best in people and reported lower levels of hoarding food and water, looting, stealing, and vandalism.

As DeSteno said in his talk, choosing to stand alone, choosing to hoard, price-​​gouge, and steal, has a long-​​term neg­a­tive effect for the community…and the indi­vidual: “In the long-​​run, it’s a poor strategy. The social bonds and sup­port of a society — your social bonds and sup­port — fall apart,” he said.

So clearly we need to stand together, we need to create a social infra­struc­ture that encour­ages people to coop­erate and feel com­pas­sionate toward one another. Well, that’s awfully easy to say. But how do you do it?

DeSteno thinks it goes back to the Sox and the Yanks. It was “simply by cat­e­go­rizing them­selves as fans of base­ball rather than opposing teams” that allowed our pin-​​striped ene­mies to become our friends.…and allowed us to accept their support.

The world is full of more people than any one of us can help. How do we decide who deserves our compassion? We thought one way the mind does it might be by using the simple cue of sim­i­larity,” DeSteno said. “If that’s true, it has a huge impli­ca­tion: It means our sense of people’s dis­tress doesn’t depend on the objec­tive sit­u­a­tion; it depends on whether we see our­selves in them.”

In one study, DeSteno’s team found that people were more likely to be com­pas­sionate toward a stranger if they observed a reg­ular med­i­ta­tion or mind­ful­ness prac­tice. “That’s great,” DeSteno said to me on the phone, “but when you’re staring down a hur­ri­cane?” Not so easy to quickly assume lotus posi­tion and start med­i­tating then, is it?

But what med­i­ta­tion strives to do is pro­duce a state of equa­nimity, DeSteno said. It allows false bound­aries like race, reli­gion, and eth­nicity to be broken down until you see your­self in others, you see that everyone is inti­mately and uniquely con­nected, he said.

Other studies from DeSteno’s lab showed that simply high­lighting a com­mon­ality between two indi­vid­uals, be it as mun­dane as wearing the same color paper bracelet or tap­ping a table in synch, is enough to cause them to be more com­pas­sionate toward one another. If we can leverage this knowl­edge through social media and public mes­saging during dif­fi­cult times — from city bomb­ings to hur­ri­canes — per­haps, DeSteno said, we’ll see a more resilient pop­u­lace inter­acting with that more resilient city that urban plan­ners, gov­ern­ments, and archi­tects are trying to build.