Photo: Joe Shlabotnik, Wall Street Journal.

In today’s ever-changing environment, with pressing challenges like increasing income inequality and imminent climate change, what seems to remain stable is the meager capacity of low- and moderate-income communities to respond to shocks and make the necessary adjustments to adapt to and thrive in such circumstances.”

I wrote the above excerpt four years ago in my doctoral dissertation, titled “Dealing with Uncertainty: Infrastructures for Resilience in Urban Communities: Making progress in and with Resilience?” In this work, I wanted to learn from two extraordinary practices of resilience in New York City that portrayed just how resourceful low- and moderate-income urban communities are in the face of system failures. They also illustrate the communities’ own capacities to “absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change, so as to still retain their basic functions, structure, identity, and feedbacks,” which is generally defined as resilience (Folke et al., 2010:20).

I was, however, not satisfied with capturing and telling the remarkable stories of communities that had devised ways to overcome obstacles and earn the “resilient” stamp. I was, and still am, convinced that the concept of resilience has to be used more critically in policymaking, where it has become prevalent. My sense was that the conversation about resilience was not capturing the urgent need to examine the systemic reasons and causes why such communities were being forced to be resilient. Most importantly, the urge to build resilient communities seemed to be distracting governments and stakeholders from addressing such systemic causes. My critique is in line with Wilkinson’s argument that the analysis of resilience “significantly undertheorizes powers, politics and conflict” (Wilkinson, 2012:10). Communities must certainly be lauded for their determined efforts to keep it together in the face of persistent challenges, but they would also like to move beyond being resilient for mere survival and be able to prosper.

We are now seeing how the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, an infectious disease that requires constant hand washing and social distancing to reduce the spread of the virus, has been hitting hardest in urban areas where density is high, and incomes are low. In New York City, the United States hotspot for the virus contagion, it is the area of Corona/Elmhurst in Queens that has had the highest number of COVID-19 related deaths. With a median household income (in 2017) of $52,984 (15% less than the citywide of $62,040) (NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, 2020), Corona-Elmhurst has the city’s highest number of severely crowded households (11.2% of all renter households) (NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, 2020), which refers to those where there are more than 1.5 members for each room (excluding bathrooms) in the unit, thus making social distancing impossible.

As of 2017, Corona/Elmhurst had the highest percentage of foreign-born population across New York City (63.9%), a total of which 55.8% identified as Hispanic. Partly because of their immigration status, the types of jobs that most Corona residents have are the low-income jobs considered ‘essential’ during this crisis, such as deliverers, cooks, house cleaners, and storekeepers, and nannies. Often without benefits or healthcare insurance, such jobs require them to commute to work for a daily average of 45.6 minutes, with 76.3% of them doing so by foot, bicycle, or public transport, which increases their exposure to infection during their commute and back to their households. Moreover, with almost 40% (37.6% in 2018) of the households in the area having children under 18 years old, they are also coping with homeschooling now that all schools are closed (NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, 2020).

Indeed, while the community is showing an admirable resilience in the face of the shock by continuing to work to sustain their families while some of us are able to experience it working remotely to keep social distance, the dire conditions that forced them to face this crisis on the front lines with such tragic results, is an example of how the system that allowed and pushed them to function — very resiliently and even ‘heroically’ — in such circumstances, must be revised. The COVID-19 crisis is shedding light on such systemic cracks and has somehow provided further evidence to my critique of the over-prescription of resilience to urban communities without acknowledging the systemic aspects of power, politics and inequality.

We have now a unique opportunity to review what we accepted as normal up until a few weeks back, and build one that will not force any community to be resilient, but one that will minimize risks for everyone while preparing and building resilience skills to face the shocks that we cannot control in a less tragic and ‘heroic’ way. This systemic change is critical to allow everyone to thrive.

Antonieta Castro-Cosío, PhD. Holds a PhD in Public and Urban Policy from the New School for Social Research. She has worked as a researcher and program officer in sustainability and social policy in Mexico and the US, and is currently a research consultant for an investment firm in New York. She serves on the board of the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization and the steering committee of the NYC Metro Urban Sustainability Meetup.

References

Folke, C. et al. (2010) ‘Resilience thinking: integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability’, Ecology and Society, 15(4), p. 20.

NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy (2020) New York City Neighborhood Data Profiles, Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. Available at: https://furmancenter.org/neighborhoods/view/elmhurst-corona (Accessed: 9 April 2020).

Wilkinson, C. (2012) ‘Social-ecological resilience: Insights and issues for planning theory’, Planning Theory, (May), pp. 148–169. doi: 10.1177/1473095211426274.