A thread usually breaks where it is thinnest – lessons for building communities back better

Dr Tony Robertson, Lecturer in Social Epidemiology and Public Health, Biological and Environmental Sciences (Faculty of Natural Sciences) and Co-Lead for the Extremes in Science and Society research programme, University of Stirling.

Dr Sandra Engstrom, Social Work Lecturer, Faculty of Social Sciences and Co-Lead for the Extremes in Science and Society research programme, University of Stirling.

Glasgow, Scotland – A poster on Byres Road in Glasgow’s West End, in support of kindness and community spirit during the Coronavirus pandemic.

There is an old Basque proverb “Haria meheenean eten ohi da Hil arteraino bizi, han arte ez izi”, which translates as “A thread usually breaks where it is thinnest”. In team sports, this sentiment is often modified to suggest “A team is only as strong as its weakest player”. If the pandemic has shown us one thing, it is that as humans we are connected to one another. These connections may be direct (family/friends) or indirect (someone we meet at the local shop), but despite best intentions we are all put at some level of risk from the weaknesses in our decisions and actions as individuals, communities and nations, be they through choice (e.g. going to the pub) or necessity (e.g. having to go to work as a key worker).

In our recent research published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction we explored the theory and practice of building community resilience to extreme events, like lockdowns. Community resilience represents the ability of communities to use their available resources to prepare for, respond to, endure, and recover from extreme events such as floods, economic shocks and disease outbreaks. Despite a wide range of definitions and studies into community resilience, there is a lack of clarity about what community, practice and policy stakeholders understand it to represent, and how communities can practically develop such resilience.

While it may seem like building such resilience to extreme events is a large undertaking (and it is), it is not something that can just be created ‘like that’ in times of danger or change. Most community resilience must be built and nurtured on a day-to-day basis through small interactions and relationship building that fosters and creates resilience further down the line. Do we now know who our neighbours are? Have we joined a community group and taken more of an interest in how to support the people that we see on our daily walk? These people that we may not have paid much attention to previously, we now ensure we say hello to and wave as we acknowledge our shared lockdown struggle. If not wearing a mask, we may even smile at them (and often smile with the mask on!). Our research has found that experience and shared memory as well as social ties and wider connections were some of the key components to fostering community resilience. So all those new ties to your community that may have emerged during lockdowns, even though they seem small, are actually significant steps to understanding what matters to people and creating a collective consciousness that will support our communities’ overall resilience. However, it is important to note that resilience is not an outcome, rather a process (or perhaps even a state of ‘becoming’).

Our research identified four factors that must be in place to enable resilience to develop and where we lack these four factors, we risk creating weaknesses in our ‘thread’.

The first recommendation from our study was that there must be physical spaces for communities to meet. Spaces previously only available to communities like community halls and libraries have shut over the last year (and over several years) and have not been reopened. We need to work with local authorities, communities, and businesses to reimagine what happens to these spaces, as well as thinking about repurposing high street shops and areas with large office space that have closed during the pandemic, but could offer significant spaces for our communities. In emergencies like floods, we also face the risk that outside agencies step in to claim available space, with little involvement from the community. We have seen how we can repurpose local authority and community spaces for vaccine hubs and testing centres, so we know it can be done. However, can we afford to wait as long as some local authorities are suggesting in their redevelopment plans?

The study’s second recommendation was to utilise, support and promote local community knowledge. There are power dynamics at work that decide whose knowledge is most valued and we need to make sure we are not forgetting about the different people around us. The community needs to be an equal partner with the authorities.

This relates to the third recommendation of co-production – that local community members, policymakers and other key individuals or organisations work together from the beginning to design projects of local or national importance. In the vaccination programme, for example, we can see a top-down, ‘one size fits all’ approach on television adverts and billboards, which is good for reaching lots of people at one point in time. But then we see a much slower uptake of vaccines amongst ethnic minority groups. Is that about vaccine hesitancy or lack of access to information? Making sure we have diversity at the beginning can overcome hurdles like a lack of understanding of culture or language in getting a message across.

The final recommendation is for better communication and partnership with the community, including with the informal community networks that may have emerged during the pandemic. If not, there is a real risk of disconnect between community, practitioners, and policymakers. If we do not group together and look out for each other, then extreme events, like a COVID outbreak, can develop and spread very rapidly with terrible effects. Everyone is just as much a part of this, whether they are our friend, neighbour or a stranger. We must respect that.

You can read more about our ‘Community Resilience to Extreme Events’ research project, funded by the National Centre for Resilience, on our website.

A briefing paper outlining key findings for policymakers and practitioners is also available via the University’s Public Policy Hub.

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