Disasters hit vulnerable communities harder—here’s what we can do about it - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Disasters hit vulnerable communities harder—here’s what we can do about it

Metropolitan Planning Council

Sarita Turner of PolicyLink speaks at the event.

“When you talk about the [1995] heat wave or we think about natural disasters, certain groups that are already vulnerable are probably less likely to get the help that they need.”  –Tiffany McDowell, executive director at the Adler University Institute on Social Exclusion

What does the term “resilience” mean? Lately the buzzword brings up images of New Orleans’ efforts to rebuild after Katrina, or the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Maybe we think about the winter storms and cold fronts that have shut down some northern cities in recent years. But what about the economic recession? The foreclosure crisis? What about a heat wave or simply any community’s access to resources and services they need during challenging times?

In its broadest sense, “resilience” means that a city takes care of all its residents in such a way that when disaster strikes—any disaster, sudden or prolonged, of any magnitude—every community is prepared and can get the help it needs.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in the Chicago region. We all know that foreclosures went through the roof in the wake of the Great Recession, but this did not hit Cook County evenly. Foreclosures have disproportionately affected Cook County’s southern and western communities. And Center for Neighborhood Technology recently found that the greatest number flood insurance claims came from communities earning the lowest quartile of household incomes.

The Metropolitan Planning Council understands that inclusive planning practices are a fundamental part of a resilient region, which is why we recently hosted a roundtable entitled “Building Resilience: How to Engage and Mobilize Vulnerable Communities.”

This event is the second in a resilience series, one of the ways that MPC is supporting our region’s joint application to the National Disaster Resilience Competition.

What is a vulnerable community?

Vulnerable communities have limited capacities to plan for, avoid and bounce back from the impact of natural and man-made emergencies. These communities are typically socially isolated, or systematically blocked from access to the resources, rights and opportunities that are normally available to members of a society.

Tiffany McDowell, executive director of the Institute on Social Exclusion and associate director for the Center on the Social Determinants of Mental Health at Chicago’s Adler University, highlighted this issue of imbalanced resilience during her presentation. McDowell noted, “When these [disasters] happen, it reifies that disparity and creates larger gaps.” The panel, which also included Sarita Turner, senior associate at PolicyLink, and Jacqueline Patterson, director of NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program, discussed the severe impacts these communities disproportionately experience in the face of natural disasters, such as Katrina or Sandy, as well as prolonged struggles like Chicagoland’s periodic heat waves and floods. Even with economic disasters such as the great recession, unemployment and foreclosure rates spiked much more in our lower-income communities.

Given that this equity disparity exists, some of the questions our panelists explored were:

  • What does it cost us if we don’t engage these groups and continue to isolate them?
  • What tools are available to help guide more inclusive engagement strategies?
  • How do we measure progress?

Regional resilience is characterized by livable, inclusive communities that can withstand disasters together, without a disproportionate impact that increases the gap between haves and have nots. But key to achieving this ideal is understanding equity and why it’s needed. As the economy begins to pick up after the great recession, planners and policy advocates are taking stock of the impacts that unexpected disasters leave behind, and realizing that addressing inequality is more than just the right thing to do.

The bottom line is that inequities hurt regional resilience. Sarita Turner of PolicyLink pointed out that by 2043 the majority of the population in America will be people of color, yet these same communities that drive population growth are the ones getting poorer and poorer over time. These communities require a seat at the table, a mechanism that goes beyond simple engagement. Chicagoland won’t be a resilient region until we can improve everyone's resilience. 

MPC’s ongoing resilience series will highlight other related issues that we’d like to see more stakeholders talking about. We are glad to see this discussion playing an increasingly important role in how we plan our cities.

Do you have a resilience-related idea for a topic that we should explore through our roundtable series? Let us know in the comments below!  


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For more than 85 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has partnered with communities, businesses, and governments to unleash the greatness of the Chicago region. We believe that every neighborhood has promise, every community should be heard, and every person can thrive. To tackle the toughest urban planning and development challenges, we create collaborations that change perceptions, conversations—and the status quo. Read more about our work »

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