People Are Human Beings Too

July 9th 2013: This is another part of my response to the talk ‘Community Based Resilience: Frontline Stories from the United States and Canada’. (Go to the first part here)

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Two comments by members of the audience reminded me that an opportunity to share insights was one of the reasons I go to public discussions.

1. “In a disaster, people of Vancouver will be at each other’s throats”

The honesty of this comment doesn’t prevent me from looking at it as defeatist. There’s a funny little phrase from an obscure little song that says, “People are Human Beings too” *. The conflicting streams of our own existence lie at the heart of this phrase. Yes, people definitely are capable of being at each other’s throats. In times of crisis, the intricate web of social structures displays its strengths as well as its weaknesses. In our planning for disasters we can only try to provide resources and erect barriers for what we’ve already recognized as human traits.

It is valuable to acknowledge our own capabilities of destruction when discussing the needs of the future. We all are used to asking ‘Why’ and other questions. Why would people be at each other’s throats? Who were they in documented incidents? What would have prevented them from unwanted behaviors?  What would facilitate support and collaboration? Planning for disaster is not only learning from the past. It is also an opportunity to know something about ourselves today. We create a reality in the present for the benefit of the future.

2. “I think some of those places need to be removed”

If a neighbourhood is destroyed you have people to work with. The removal of a broken place is definitely an option. The farther away you are from that place the easier it is to suggest it. What Mary Rowe stressed in her talk was the conditions that had built up to become the disaster. In New Orleans the collapse of infrastructure exposed the ongoing neglect in the various layers that support a society. There’s a need for balance between our search for perfection and the reality of breakage and renewal. If your house is broken you are mostly free to decide whether to leave it behind or fix it.

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Can we really plan for disaster? Or, is what we call disaster really it? The danger  people face following a disaster is no longer bad infrastructure. Their danger is a return to the process that has dragged the already fractured infrastructure to its knees. Planning for disaster can be surprisingly easy. By making sure that our habitat is built and maintained in response to its surrounding you achieve the first step. Providing access to resources in the event of restructuring is the next. This step is bound to be a challenge. But if the first step is done right, the other might not turn into an overwhelming struggle.

The story of a place is made up of the intricate fragments of human life and their connections to it and each other. An engaged community doesn’t need endless resources to become one. People have been resourceful throughout history. As the means for communication become more available and far reaching, our societies can become more connected and collaborative. The circles of engagement are what makes us resilient.

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The talk was presented at Robson Square by Bing Thom Architects and the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning. It was led by Mary Rowe and discussed with Moura QuayleJoji Kumagai and Gordon Price

* PUGGY BaPITA, 1974: Protest Song (Antibiotics)

One thought on “People Are Human Beings Too

  1. YarOn – thanks for continuing this compelling debate. Although I can’t provide a direct link to the source, I believe history has shown that when a disaster affects everybody more or less equally, the civic response seems to be cooperative. It is when impacts a felt differentially that conflict can arise. Fukushima may be an example of the former, and Katrina the latter.

    Also, various authors over the 20th century have observed how different – and unique – Vancouver really is. The Belgian humanistivc biologist Rene Dubos, writing of his experience in the 1920s, was quite surprised by th esocial differences between Seattle and Vanacouver, despsite their physical similarities. It led him to write a seminal book, “Man Adapting,” on how place (or environment)affects our social constructs and our very selves.

    Will and Ariel Durant, authors and touring lecturers over many decades came and talked here twice, first in the 1930s and then in the 1960s. The first time they were booed off the stage for being too radical (during the Red Scare of the Depression) and again for being too conservative during the hippy dippy ’60s.

    One would have to be be rather naive to not notice how negative people react to many things, almost at a gut level, in comparison to cities with much more community spirit, like Calgary, for example.

    This is a rather long-winded way of saying that I do fear that the social fabric here is too fragile and tenuous for us to endure a major disaster with a high level of cooperation and mutual support. We might indeed be at each other’s throat for, say, bottled water, as another attendee noted happened during a simple boiled-water advisory.

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