Social Capital Builds Resilience—and Planners Can Build Social Capital

Connections with neighbors and local institutions can play an important role in how a community responds to disaster.

4 minute read

September 11, 2023, 5:00 AM PDT

By Christopher Holtkamp

Close-up of people wearing white gloves and Covid-19 masks exchanging unlabeled can of food at food bank

Halfpoint / Adobe Stock

When Hurricane Ian hit North Port, Florida last year, residents were trapped in flooded neighborhoods. Rather than waiting for emergency crews, boat owners used their personal craft to rescue stranded neighbors and bring in supplies for those who stayed behind. Last month, when the Gray Fire blocked roads in Washington state, one resident loaded his neighbors onto his pontoon boat and sailed them to safety.

Neighbors who know one another are more likely to help each other before, during, and after a disaster strikes. Most will call this being a good neighbor, but there’s a formal name for it: social capital. Defined as networks that enable collective action, social capital can mean the difference between life and death in a disaster. Fostering social capital is a necessary element of resilience planning because it increases the capacity of residents to respond to and more quickly recover from a disaster.

Innumerable stories have been written about the loss of community, the lack of neighborliness, and the growing atomization of society and culture. These stories decry the impact on crime, quality of life, and economics, but we should also discuss the effect on natural disaster response and recovery.

Low social capital is correlated with lower access to information, such as evacuation orders, as well as reduced access to resources to respond to and recover from a disaster, exacerbating the impacts. As we continue to see population growth in vulnerable areas, conventional approaches to hazard mitigation are insufficient for the challenges our communities face. Planners and emergency responders are recognizing that building social capital must be part of the holistic response to growing threats from natural hazards.

Social capital is grounded in networks, relationships, and trust. In high social capital neighborhoods, people are more likely to receive communication and information that enables them to respond more effectively to a disaster. Additionally, residents will be more likely to return and reinvest in their neighborhoods. 

For example, West Street Recovery began as an informal effort to recover from Hurricane Harvey in a Houston neighborhood. Committed residents helped during the immediate aftermath to clean up homes and, over the long term, invested in rebuilding. The informal group became a non-profit that has contributed to response efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic, urban unrest, and Winter Storm Uri.

Finally, the networks and relationships that define social capital can create access to resources that can benefit recovery as well. Connections to civic organizations, local businesses, and local politicians can all create opportunities for investment and assistance in the recovery process. After a disaster, there are enormous demands on these entities. Having connections can make a difference in how much attention a community may receive. It may be an unfortunate fact to acknowledge, but it is sometimes who you know that can make a difference.

If we recognize the importance of social capital in building resilient communities, what is the role of planners in this effort? Social capital cannot be created through top-down initiatives; it must be created at the grassroots level. However, there are practices for creating an environment within which social capital can develop.

One approach is to build more walkable communities. This contributes not just to neighbors knowing one another, which increases the likelihood of assisting one another during a disaster, it also fosters more trust and connection, which means people are more likely to get important news and information to respond to a disaster more effectively.

Too often, the low-income and marginalized communities most impacted by disasters are those least engaged in community decision-making. This also contributes to lower responsiveness to official communication and outreach, leaving these populations less informed about potential disasters. Planners have a responsibility to engage those communities, making every effort to connect and build meaningful relationships. The first step is identifying individuals who can help introduce us to those communities and establish the necessary trust to begin building connections.

It can be done. In Paris, local officials are working to create ‘super neighbors’ through a grassroots effort to build connections at the neighborhood level. The idea is that these informal connections create capacity within the neighborhood to respond during crises such as urban unrest, heat waves, and other disasters. This is especially important in marginalized communities where connections are often lacking and can become the foundation for improving trust and communication.

When we think of preparing for natural disasters, it is easy to overlook the role of community in effective resilience planning. We tend to focus on things like infrastructure, emergency services, and government capacity while overlooking the enormous resources of family, friends, and neighbors. By strengthening neighborhoods, we can create safer, more resilient communities with greater capacity to respond to, and recover from, the growing threat of natural disasters. 

About the author

Christopher Holtkamp has been a certified planner since 2006. In 2018, he earned his Ph.D. and became an Assistant Professor of Environmental Planning at the University of Wisconsin River Falls. He brings his professional experience into the classroom, focused on preparing students for successful careers. His courses revolve around issues of sustainability and the role planners play in building sustainable and resilient communities.

View of Interstate 205 bridge over Columbia River with Mt. Hood in background.

The Unceremonious Death of a Freeway Expansion Project

The end of an Oregon freeway project didn't get much fanfare, but the victory is worth celebrating.

September 19, 2023 - Streetsblog USA

A derelict sign on a barbed wire fence reads “Golf Course, Private, No Admittance.”

Converting Golf Courses to Housing Never as Easy as the Market Would Like

Thousands of golf courses have closed in recent years, but the obvious redevelopment opportunity represented by many defunct courses isn’t always easy to realize.

September 19, 2023 - The Business Journals

Close-up of red Houston BCycle bike share bikes parked at a station

Houston To End Bike Share Program

Lacking the funding it needs to continue, Houston’s BCycle bike share system will end operations in the coming months.

September 18, 2023 - Houston Chronicle

Close-up of Unalakleet, Alaska on map.

FTA Announces Tribal Transit Program Grants

The agency awarded close to $10 million to 22 communities around the country for transit improvements.

3 hours ago - Mass Transit

View from inside glass top floor of Amtrak passenger train with Rocky Mountains scenery outside.

Making Colorado’s Front Range Rail a Reality

Local leaders are scrambling to bring together the funding and political support to create new intercity rail service in the fast-growing region.

4 hours ago - Governing

Students walking on sunny walkway on college campus.

How College Campuses Fulfill an Urbanist Dream

Most college campuses in the United States are inherently walkable, mixing various uses with diverse housing options and transit networks.

5 hours ago - The Daily

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.