When the coronavirus pandemic began, individuals and members of community groups sprang into action. Without the need for coordination from the local authorities or national governments, people instinctively knew how to support each other.
Here is an important lesson for those learning how to build resilient, equitable communities – ones that are more able to withstand a shock or emergency, whether it is a pandemic, food supply failure, or extreme weather event due to climate change.
Distributing surplus food
Clare Jackson started Penparcau Planting Project in Wales, UK, in the summer of 2020 with one other partner and a few donated planters. The aim was at first to show kids how to grow in a community garden because planting can be done with social distancing outside and is great for well-being and health.
The project grew rapidly, now supporting seventy vulnerable families on a difficult housing estate, by distributing surplus food from supermarkets, giving cookery lessons (as part of an aim of tackling obesity and food poverty) and composting the waste, which feeds the growing beds – all developing organically as needs were identified and opportunities arose.
“During Covid it’s been great to be outside doing this,” Clare says. “But with social services and other agencies not being allowed to go into homes because of the lockdown restrictions I am the only person able to go in, by using the food connection.
“I take surplus food into flats of drug addicted parents in shocking deprivation to make sure the kids have something to eat. Often they’ve never seen a vegetable. Their diet is terrible and they’re at awful risk and I’m the only one able to help.”
Heather McClure of Aber Food Surplus adds that “Food waste is a community resource, an asset”.
Anyone can help themselves to food from the project’s planters in the streets, which don’t get vandalised because the community is involved in looking after them. “We’re now going to plant an orchard and the football club now wants a community garden and has donated land,” says Clare.
The project was given the local council’s £10,000 budget for flowers for flower beds – which couldn’t be maintained because of the pandemic – to buy vegetable and herb seedlings for their planters.
The local youth probation team is now using the project to let youths on probation volunteer on tending the beds. The ambition is to have the beds all over the estate within six months, allowing people to grow what they like.
Necessity has been the mother of invention
Necessity is the mother of invention and the pandemic has sprouted similar projects around the world. The Newtown Blessing Box began with Maureen Lee deciding to feed a hungry refugee woman outside her home in Sydney’s Newtown.
In Bogotá, community kitchens have proliferated, and the city has changed the way it is taking care of health. They now use both public and private networks to guarantee that every citizen may have proper health care no matter their affiliation to the health care system, and have implemented special care zones, tailored programs depending on vulnerabilities, and a 24-hour day scheme for the economy.
In Bangkok, cupboards were left on pavements to be filled with food (“community pantries”) that residents could take for free.
In São Paulo, so-called “street presidents” have been delivering masks, visiting vulnerable residents, and crowdfunded for local COVID reception centres.
In my own town in Wales, 60 volunteers jumped at the chance to deliver prescriptions to vulnerable people who could not get to the chemist and use online methods like craft games to support those with mental health problems suffering from isolation.
In Sydney, a Housing Defence Coalition spontaneously formed to protect vulnerable tenants at risk of eviction because they’d fallen behind with rent due to the pandemic.
These are just some of tens of thousands of examples of everyday heroism and selflessness that have come to the fore in the last year.
Support for communities
We have learnt that people value caring and well-being more than making money, and that this begins at home in your community.
But such initiatives cannot be sustained forever without support. Often these groups soon have to find funding, and grant-giving bodies have refocused their philanthropic efforts on supporting community efforts and health.
Cities’ direct response to the pandemic has also put a strain on budgets and capacities. Local authorities who seek to support community efforts have to learn that people at the grassroots may have a better idea of what’s going on and what communities need than they do, and must not let red tape and bureaucracy stand in the way.
Nevertheless, over the last year we have seen an institutionalisation of such efforts – inevitable as long as it does not inhibit spontaneity.
There has been a deluge of reports, such as UNESCO’s, Arup’s and PwC’s, not to mention the Resilient Cities Network, all attempting to draw lessons from the experience of coping with and adapting to the pandemic.
The focus is now on rebuilding communities that have been devastated by the experience in a way that will make them more secure in the future. Arup and PwC issue their reports because they see an opportunity for advisory work in this new space.
By contrast many cities have appointed Resilience Officers, including 90 per cent of city members of the Resilient Cities Network. Properly mandated, these officers are able to take a cross-departmental bird’s-eye view of their city’s operations to maximise the benefits of any given initiative.
The pandemic has highlighted the disproportionate extent to which minority groups and the impoverished are more vulnerable to shocks.
Ms Andrea Laverde, deputy director of international relations of the office of the mayor of Bogotá, says that the pandemic has led the city to “revisit their four-year plan to build a more resilient society” with a social and environmental focus, and there is a need to “fight disadvantages and structures shaped by racism, classism and chauvinism in our society.”
The pandemic has also become an opportunity for community groups to draw attention to previously neglected issues.
In New Delhi, Swechha, a youth-led youth-run NGO, has used the pandemic to draw attention to air pollution in the city. “Air pollution doesn’t attract attention as much as this virus is attracting. We have been dying. The poorest of the poor have been dying,” its founder Mr Vimlendu Jha told an online conference run by UNESCO.
If nothing more comes out of the pandemic than a better recognition of the vital importance of grassroots action and the need to reduce inequality, at least all these lives and livelihoods will not have been lost in vain.
David Thorpe is the author of ‘‘One Planet’ Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits and Director of the One Planet Centre Community Interest Company in the UK.