Faced with the increased threat of natural disasters, some community-based organizations are trying to link their efforts to better plan for catastrophic events with their existing efforts to address issues like affordable housing and economic development, according to “Bounce Forward, Not Back: Leveraging Resiliency to Promote Equity,” a new working paper jointly published by the Joint Center for Housing Studies and NeighborWorks® America. Written by Caroline Lauer, a master in urban planning student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design who was a 2017 Edward M. Gramlich Fellow in Community and Economic Development, the paper draws lessons from the growing literature on resiliency and from two case studies of notable initiatives carried out by organizations in NeighborWorks’ national network of independent, nonprofit organizations focused on affordable housing and community development.
The first case study describes work done by the Community Development Corporation Brownsville, which has worked with several other community groups to develop RAPIDO, a holistic approach to disaster recovery that, “aims to quickly and affordably rehouse individuals and families, building social capital within the community, and stimulating the local economy.” The key to this effort, Lauer explains, is providing families with, “a simple 480-square-foot [structure] that contains essential facilities,” and training a group of “Navigators” who can lead residents through the disaster recovery process. The units, which cost about as much as the temporary manufactured units typically provided to people who have lost their home to natural disaster, “can be built easily at local lumberyards, transported by basic trailers, and assembled on-site in three days by four people.” Moreover, unlike the temporary housing, the units are permanent and can later be expanded.
The second case study focuses on NeighborWorks® Umpqua‘s Southwestern Oregon Food System Collaborative (SWOFSC) Seafood Project, a multi-faceted effort to address the struggles of the region’s small-scale fisheries. This effort does so by investing in and fostering local processing facilities and other infrastructure to support local fishermen. At the same time, it also uses marketing and other strategies to increase the local and regional demand for less traditional types of seafood that, because of warming oceans, comprise increasingly large shares of what local fishermen are bringing into port. Moreover, the project leveraged these economic development initiatives to help the region prepare for both slow-moving disasters, such as the effect of climate change on the fish population, and for acute disasters, such as a storms, tsunami, or earthquakes that might reduce or even cut off the region’s access to the mainland for an extended period of time.
Although the initiatives are quite different, and while it is too soon to fully gauge their effectiveness, Lauer contends that together they offer three important and timely lessons given the hurricanes that hit Texas and Puerto Rico and the wildfires that devastated parts of California and other western states last year (after she had carried out her research). First, their differing trajectories show that while efforts to link community and economic development initiatives with projects that are focused on resiliency and disaster response can have different starting points and program structures, they can still achieve similar goals. Second, both show that regardless of how they start and are structured, such efforts should focus on creating social and physical connections and structures that can be used to address a variety of pre- and post-disaster conditions, including structural inequality. Finally, she notes, such efforts strengthen a community’s ability to respond not only to anticipated problems but to unforeseen challenges and potential disasters.