Resilient cities need resilient citizens

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

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.