Resilience in the social and physical realms: lessons from the Gulf Coast

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Carpenter, Ann Marie
Elliott, Michael
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Community resilience to disasters is an affected area’s ability to rebound after a catastrophic event. The mounting frequency and scale of natural disasters, increasing urbanization, a growing reliance on interdependent technologies and infrastructure systems, and inflated expectations of interventions are responsible for greater disaster vulnerability and demonstrate the need to develop more resilient communities. Given the increasing shocks of natural disasters, a more complete understanding of resilience is important for creating safer, more sustainable communities. One factor that is known to impact resilience is social networks. Urban planning research has shown that walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods can encourage the development of social networks and place attachment through an increase in interactions and a higher density of neighborhood amenities, including characteristics of the built environment that influence social networks, such as varied land uses and pedestrian-oriented design. The built environment connects residents to a place and can serve as a benchmark for recovery. Therefore, it is possible that the traditional planning domain of urban design can be harnessed to foster greater resilience by facilitating stronger social networks. In order to determine the legitimacy of this supposition, this research examines how social networks and the built environment create greater resilience to disasters. Given that social networks increase community resilience to all types of disasters, social networks are shown to be influenced by certain types of space, and the built environment is a common intervention for planners, this research explores the potential for creating cities that are more resilient by creating spaces that foster social networks. The Mississippi Gulf Coast was chosen as a case study area in order to explore the above relationships. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the region, resulting in massive wind and storm surge damage to the Mississippi Coast. Communities in the area have recovered at varying rates and levels. Therefore, this region provided an opportunity to contrast higher and lower resilience communities and to test the above research questions. The research was conducted in two stages. In the first stage, a quantitative model was developed in order to address whether there are statistically significant effects on resilience due to the built environment. In the second stage, a qualitative case study analysis of communities was undertaken using interviews with local residents. The results demonstrate that certain aspects of the built environment are associated with greater resilience, including intersection density, net residential density, the density of historic sites, and community amenities where social networks gather. Furthermore, urban design features with the greatest capacity to increase resilience were also useful features for the types of local social networks that were found to be most important for resilience.
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