Why Is There Air?

When you don’t understand something, you often laugh.

Bill Cosby

In my youth (and, yes, dear Cassius, I can still remember parts of my youth), I spent some of my allowance and gas-cutting money on comedy albums. I enjoyed the classic comedic riffs of Bob Newhart, Johnny Carson, Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley (I saw her in one of the raunchiest “concerts” ever – just what a hormonal teenager didn’t need to see!).

The central theme of one of my favorites was Why Is There Air? The answer – to blow up the volleyballs, of course?! And that brings us to communities (What?! How?).

Think of a community as a volleyball (or at least try to). Instead of air, it’s filled with all of those things that make up a community – people and their skills and connections; businesses and financial capital; buildings and the natural environment; a culture derived from its history, its people and their beliefs, and its mechanisms for making decisions and acting – what are called the community capitals.

Now think of the ball resting on a table, sitting in front of a big fan. When the fan is turned on, it blows the ball down – and it bounces. Depending on how well it’s inflated, the ball may bounce almost as high as the table. Just like the ball, a community’s bounce – its resilience – is determined by how full it is; how much of each capital the community has.

Let me torture this analogy just a little further. No matter how well-sealed the volleyball is, there will still be small leaks, i.e., the community will tend to lose capital over time. Infrastructure may age; bureaucratic regulations may take the place of governance. The ball may also be used hard, opening more serious leaks: social tensions may tear the community’s social fabric; key people may move away. If I don’t keep the ball pumped up, it inevitably deflates: community’s require infusions of capital to stay resilient – or to become more resilient.

When the deflated ball is blown off the table, it won’t bounce: communities without capital aren’t resilient.

How do I make the ball “bouncier?” The obvious way is to pump more air into it. When we pump external resources into a community, we’re effectively doing the same thing: making it more resilient. Another way to increase the ball’s bounce is to raise its temperature – in physics terms, increase its ability to do work. For a community this means reinvigorating it – raising its internal temperature so that it is more vibrant and more is happening. Then it can come back farther and faster after it’s been blown down.

A few years ago, I was drinking coffee with Liesel Ritchie and she challenged me to think about chronic conditions vs crisis-inducing events. One of the things I like about this hokey analogy is that it provides a context that incorporates both to provide an understanding of what happens over time in real communities. Communities that don’t spend the capital to deal with chronic conditions (e.g., aging infrastructure, a stagnant economy) lose their bounce – become less resilient. When faced with a crisis, they must heavily rely on external resources to recover.

So a question to you: how much air is in your community?

3 thoughts on “Why Is There Air?

  1. As I have argued before, the core problem is that most communities know that they should improve their resiliency , but other short-term issues consume all of the available funding. How do you get communities to change this behavior? I have not seen any workable solutions.

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    1. Some ideas…

      1. Not all the “community capitals” John describes require dollar funding. Many can be helped by community stakeholder volunteer efforts and initiatives.

      2. Many resilience enhancing initiatives and projects have their own intrinsic business case which will attract capital if properly marketed and designed to generate a return on someone’s investment.

      3. Substantial public and private funding is available for resilience enhancing projects through a quite large variety of federal, state, and private grant programs. Capital stacks for projects can have multiple components from multiple sources. The criteria vary and the proposal process takes work. But the funding is often there for worthy projects. The challenge here is the expertise and due diligence required to find the funding sources.

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    2. Scott P makes the point that not all resilience improvements require money. There are plenty of examples of communities that have improved various aspects of their resilience. The problem is that no one has really looked at the “why.” The answer, in part, lies in something you’ve often said – people won’t change until the pain of not changing becomes too great. The communities in SE FL are taking action against rising seas because the pain of not doing so has become too great, for example. These actions have real financial costs, but many resilience-building actions have at most marginal costs, e.g., local government supporting community festivals. Never underestimate the power of a party!

      Another part of the answer lies in the preconditions required to take action. There has to be leadership that can mobilize resources – people, money; there has to be enough trust within the community so that no one vetoes action; and there have to be people in the community who care enough to take action. Again, too little has been done to understand how “governance” – decision making and implementation – occurs.

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