A Community Approach to Climate Resilience

A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, supported by the Kresge Foundation and the JPB Foundation, is committed to a greener, fairer future for all. This post was originally published in Water Innovations.

In New Orleans, a devastated neighborhood seeks to revive their community after Hurricane Katrina.  They begin by regaining access to a bayou where earlier generations hunted and fished. 

In Toledo, Ohio, 400,000 people go without drinking water for two days, due to a toxic algal bloom brought on by water pollution and high temperatures.  In response, low-income residents work together on green infrastructure projects that can reduce polluted runoff while improving property values.  

In Fredericksburg, Virginia, an historic community comes together to protect their river from development and pollution.  Working collaboratively with builders, a low-impact development ordinance is unanimously adopted and a new riverside trail becomes a place where residents connect with each other and with nature. 

In Portland, Oregon, a watershed association unites urban, suburban and rural neighbors in support of creek restoration projects that reduce frequent episodes of flooding and restore salmon habitat.

As these examples show, water is a ready source of common cause. Neighbors come together to defend against floods, droughts and water pollution, and to obtain the quality-of-life benefits of being near, on, or in clean, sparkling water.  There is a vital lesson here for freshwater organizations and agencies.  Projects to build natural capital in the form of protected or restored rivers, wetlands, watersheds and green infrastructure that mimics the natural water cycle can also build social capital, in the form of trust, collaborative skills and shared values.  In return, social capital can strengthen and sustain freshwater natural capital. 

Catahoula Lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in Louisiana. Photo Credit: Ken Lund via Flickr

The synergistic role of freshwater in building natural and social capital becomes increasingly important in a changing climate.  Since most of the ways in which Americans experience climate change are connected to the hydrological cycle, freshwater organizations and agencies can make important contributions to help communities and regions become more resilient to extreme weather events. 

Yet too often, freshwater conservation strategies focus solely on protecting, restoring and replicating natural hydrological functions.  But, social capital is also extremely important to community resilience.  A recent report finds that “promoting social cohesion—in which a society’s members cooperate to achieve shared well-being—in communities is an additional and overlooked tool for strengthening climate resilience, with particularly good outcomes in low-income communities."

Social capital improves freshwater plans and projects, thanks to the knowledge and support provided by engaged local residents.  The resulting freshwater assets can then be monitored and maintained by involved neighbors whose collective efforts to rescue a local stream or protect a watershed reinforce social capital by delivering results that people can see, touch and feel.  Shared success builds community pride and reinforces the value of learning to work together. 

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