Strengthening social networks crucial in building resilient cities, say experts

As the impacts of climate change such as rising temperatures and erratic weather take hold, research groups worldwide are coming up with innovations to help cities be more resilient and cut their carbon footprints.

Experts at an urban planning conference here last week - organised by the Centre for Liveable Cities and Urban Redevelopment Authority - also highlighted the importance of strengthening social ties, as this may determine how well communities overcome threats.

Speaking during the World Cities Summit, Dr Jonas Joerin, co-director of future resilient systems at the Singapore-ETH Centre, said social resilience is especially important during disruptive events such as natural disasters or pandemics. Well-functioning social networks allow for quicker and more efficient responses.

National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Vincent Chua noted during the conference that even weak ties with people such as acquaintances and neighbours can help boost a society's resilience.

He added that these weak ties are different from strong ties with family members or a best friend. He said it is useful to think of communities as a combination of these ties.

"Strong ties are tactile and supportive. Weak ties channel opportunities and connect subgroups that link different communities to make a whole society. If all the world were strong ties, society would be cellular - self-sufficient circles or enclaves, but with no bridges between them," he noted.

A 2016 study by Associate Professor Chua, Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser, Dr Gillian Koh and urban planner Drew Shih showed that those with more diverse networks - consisting of both strong and weak ties - experienced a greater sense of belonging to and pride for Singapore.

These individuals had relationships with people from more segments of society, and tended to have a stronger national identity.

But generating social ties is not just a matter of putting people in mixed neighbourhoods, an ongoing study has found. Efforts must be made to coax people out of their silos and mingle.

Preliminary findings from a study by associate professors Leong Chan-Hoong of the Singapore University of Social Sciences, as well as Tambyah Siok Kuan and Tan Soo Jiuan of NUS, show that those living in neighbourhoods, where both minority and immigrant density are high, expressed the lowest levels of social trust and life satisfaction.

They found that community organisations or facilities such as community centres may help to bridge the gap between those from different backgrounds.

Prof Chua described these centres or organisations as third-party brokers. For instance, residents' networks can roll out activities to connect those living in private and public housing .

"The challenge posed to every urban planner is this: How do we turn neighbourhoods into communities? The physical infrastructure is one. The social infrastructure is another," he added.

He cited residents' committees and Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles as important avenues, adding that they provide opportunities for weak links to be formed, thus contributing to societal resilience.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2021, with the headline Strengthening social networks crucial in building resilient cities, say experts. Subscribe