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New report highlights the importance of social connectedness for climate resilience

“You don’t want to wait until the flood waters are rising or people are dying in the streets to hope that there’s a social, connected community that can come together.”

The grasses and wild flowers on the future site of Piers Park Phase II on the East Boston waterfront turn brown due to the drought, Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022, in Boston. Michael Dwyer / AP, File

Knowing your neighbors may help you with much more than just borrowing that cup of sugar. 

In fact, connecting with others on your block is one of the key ways to build resilience to climate change in your community, according to a new report. 

Researchers at Tufts University partnered with the local nonprofit Communities Responding to Extreme Weather, or CREW, to examine over six months “social connectedness” — defined as intergroup connections, engagement in social activities, informal/formal networks and other criteria that “reflect the depth of social bonds within a community” — in relation to climate resilience in Boston’s Chinatown and Grove Hall neighborhoods. 

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The researchers said the goal of the work was to investigate with the hope that the findings could result in developing interventions that could bolster social connectedness in areas of Boston that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. 

Rev. Vernon Walker, CREW’s Program Director, said there is no way around the fact that extreme weather will impact communities. 

“It’s inevitable that we’re going to continue to see these sea level rise events, stronger heat waves, more floods, more droughts,” he said of the Boston area. “And because these are becoming more frequent, and, for example, heat waves will last longer in duration, it’s critical to form social ties. It’s critical to really get to know your neighbor.”

The study builds on previous research from the Conservation Law Foundation that looked at resilience to extreme weather events, aimed at identifying neighborhoods most at risk for future climate change emergencies. 

Justin Hollander, a professor of urban and environmental policy planning at Tufts, and James Intriligator, a Tufts professor of the practice in human factors engineering and director of strategic innovation for mechanical engineering, noticed that the CLF study did not specifically explore social connectedness and social resilience in the face of extreme weather.  

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“There was some nice data showing that people aren’t that connected by the numbers,” Intriligator said. “But there wasn’t that much looking at how that impacts — do they feel isolated, do they feel lonely, do they like to know their neighbors, why don’t they know their neighbors? So we thought it would be worth sort of digging into the underlying emotional, psychological, both causes of, and results from, this kind of connectedness or lack thereof.”

Intriligator said his hope was to understand whether there was social connectedness or not and what mechanisms or motivations can — or don’t — lead to it. 

Both Walker and Intriligator pointed to previous research around the deadly 1995 Chicago heat wave, which found that people in the city were less likely to die from the extreme heat if they had social connections. 

“It was really the socially isolated, socially non-connected individuals who perished,” Intriligator said. “It kind of makes sense, right? The little old man, the little old lady living on their own in the apartment, you don’t realize they don’t have enough AC, they suddenly pass away. And it seemed, in discussion with Vernon, it seemed like this was a real problem and a mechanism that could create future resilience.”

‘A lack of awareness’

For their six-month study, Intriligator and his colleagues used social listening projects, questionnaires, in-depth interviews, and a geodemographic analysis to gain a better understanding of social connectedness in Chinatown and Grove Hall. 

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While the study ran into some limitations, including relatively small sample sizes and a low response rate for in-depth interviews, the researchers found that while residents in the two neighborhoods were easily able to name specific people, organizations, or other supportive services related to COVID-19, they “struggled” to do the same for any services or support related to weather-related emergencies. 

“This study has enforced that there is a lack of awareness of extreme weather resources and further outreach by organizations such as CREW or the City of Boston is critical to ensuring that these resources are shared,” the researchers wrote. “There are various reasons people do not feel supported or do not want support, but this does not excuse the lack of knowledge of these support systems.”

Both Walker and Intriligator stressed that the COVID-19 pandemic is an example of how socially tied together the world is and how much of a difference it makes for a community when it pulls together in the face of an emergency. 

“It was a good demonstration of the harsh inequalities in our society, but also the power of communities to come together in the face of disasters, which is wonderful and lovely to see,” Intriligator said. “But at the same time, it’s the kind of thing where you don’t want to wait until the flood waters are rising or people are dying in the streets to hope that there’s a social, connected community that can come together.”

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Social connectedness, Intriligator and Walker agreed, is an area that could be a powerful force for climate resilience. 

And they argued it doesn’t take much to make it happen. 

“The problem is that we’ve become socially isolated and socially disconnected as we’ve gotten in social media and linked up to people all around the world, but we don’t know any of our neighbors,” Intriligator said. “Everyone complains about that issue. But it’s only by knowing your neighbors … that when a flood happens or some kind of heat wave comes you can really have a security net to rely on.”

‘For most people it just feels overwhelming’

The researchers found that some residents in the communities they studied greatly relied on informal support systems, such as church or religious communities, workplace environments, and neighbors. 

But Intriligator said that while it was encouraging to find pockets of social connectedness, it more broadly seemed to be lacking. 

“In terms of the number of participants who felt deeply socially connected, even knew the names of more than one or two of their neighbors, it was a pretty small number of people who seemed to have strong connections,” Intriligator said.

Chinatown residents participate in the Stabilize Chinatown Block Party in 2019. Researchers believe block parties are one mechanism for building social connectedness. – Lane Turner / The Boston Globe, File

In the instances where there was a strong social connection, however, it was clear the connectedness made the quality of life better for those touched by it, even separate from any emergency response, he said.

Intriligator said there were indications that events like block parties played a role in sparking some of those strong social connections. 

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“So that is one mechanism, the more I’ve been thinking about it the last couple months, I’m a big fan of trying to create more block parties,” he said. “I wish the city would just hire someone who basically is like a university student who is really good at planning parties and their job is to just go around to neighborhoods and help facilitate the planning of a block party. Because I don’t think it’s rocket science. But I think for most people it just feels overwhelming.”

Taking steps like that are going to be essential if Boston wants to build community resilience against climate change and extreme weather events, the professor said. 

It’s the kind of work that CREW has already been engaged in, through workshops around extreme weather preparedness and holding events where attendees are given meals and material resources, such as cooling kits or energy efficient air conditioners. The organization’s “CREW Teams” are made up of community residents who are interested in building community climate resilience through outreach, education, and service projects. 

“We try to foster community when we go into the community and host events,” Walker said.

The CREW program director said he hopes the study with Tufts will be the start of more research being done on social connectedness and resources being directed toward building community connections. 

New Englanders, he noted, don’t always have a reputation for being as friendly as residents of other regions. 

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“We are slowly but surely penetrating that wall and trying to help folks connect,” he said. “And we believe that this report is a step in the right direction to increase opportunities to focus on building social connectivity in the community.”

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