Scaling up: New York neighborhoods take small steps toward big resiliency outcomes

Scaling up: New York neighborhoods take small steps toward big resiliency outcomes

A resilient city is one that is better able to return to an earlier state after a disaster (including those related to climate change) or reimagine itself into a more prosperous future. That is, a city should be able to bounce back or bounce forward.

Those most often involved in designing resilient cities are planners and municipalities, and rightly so, they see cities from an important and distant vantage. That said, we at ioby believe no amount of careful planning can build critical social aspects of resilience without involving citizens.

ioby supports individuals and groups who step up to lead positive change in their own neighborhoods. Part digital tool, ioby provides every ioby Leader a unique crowd-resourcing platform to collect tax-deductible donations, provide project updates and recruit local volunteers. Part service organization, ioby offers grassroots fundraising, online communications and campaign planning trainings and assigns a success strategist to support every ioby Leader as a sideline coach, providing additional technical assistance as needed.

While some ioby projects have direct resilience outcomes (e.g., mitigation projects like installing rooftop solar, or adaptation projects like replanting oyster beds, or social resilience like creating a neighborhood emergency response program), ioby’s approach itself inherently builds resilience by focusing on increasing citizen involvement and participation. This includes:

1. Supporting solutions created close to the problem
2. Providing opportunities for neighbors to practice working together
3. Experimenting with new solutions for sustainability

First, ioby supports solutions created close to the problem. We focus on residents of a neighborhood because they are the most knowledgeable about that community. They have that unique and necessary bundle of information about the built environment and social fabric that make them best equipped to create, implement and steward local solutions. We believe this approach inherently builds resilience because our support infrastructure directly responds to community needs, led by those living closest to the problems.

For example, imagine this scenario based on a real ioby group. Members of a community garden in the Rockaways in Queens wanted access to water for their garden beds. The only public access to water was across the six lanes of 40 mph traffic, that senior citizens had to cross, carrying buckets of water with them. They asked the city to provide a spigot in the garden, but the request was denied so they built a rain catchment system with a pickle barrel instead. Because of this experience, later during a crisis this group was able to locate sources of fresh water available to the public.

Second, ioby opens the door to local participation with small actions—donating $40 or volunteering on a weekend—with a relatively low barrier to participation. In addition, because ioby projects tend to be small scale or short term, a participant is likely to see the positive impact of her own contribution fairly quickly. This positive feedback encourages participating again in the future.

ioby trains leaders of great ideas to organize their neighbors and ask them to invest their financial and sweat equity in the neighborhood. This step is simply an opportunity for neighbors to practice working together to fix something or to solve a problem. It exercises the citizen muscle and builds connections among neighbors. 

A great example of this is the story of Betsy Robinson in Memphis, Tennessee, who never imagined herself a community activist. But she had an idea to transform parts of her neighborhood into something more beautiful that neighbors could rally around. She raised funds to paint a mural on a famously dilapidated train trestle and invited anyone to participate in a visioning process for the mural. Dozens of people showed up, the majority of whom had never participated in a civic project ever before. They responded to Betsy’s vision and ratified her motivations with their own unhappiness about this blight in their neighborhood. The mural – which illustrated strong muscular arms reaching out of homes and holding hands – was so successful that the community requested Betsy lead a second community-designed mural, which began in late January.

Finally, ioby projects are small-scale or short-term for sustainability. They’re lighter, cheaper, quicker, tactical and flexible, and often aim to demonstrate the usefulness of or demand for a new idea. With ioby projects acting as prototypes and experiments, ioby’s platform acts like a living laboratory where people can test new ideas in their neighborhoods.

Temporary installations allow opportunities to audience test a new idea without going through traditional, slow, bureaucratic project delivery processes. ioby projects allow neighborhoods to imagine their blocks without car traffic, to visualize their neighborhood with a thriving commercial district, to see the delineation of a new garden where only garbage had previously existed, or to future-tize a new “next bus” timetable system.

And like good scientists, we have created a way for ioby projects to share data from the results of their work with the public. Our hope is that this accelerates the process of iterative design for sustainability.

ioby’s name and theory of change are derived from the positive opposite of NIMBYism. In our conversations about founding ioby, the three founders of ioby felt that the environmental movement – the actual people power of environmental policies and decisions – had for too long been using one tool: stopping bad things from happening. Stopping polluters, asking people to give up something (cars, meat, stuff, etc), and banning certain behaviors that were baked into the systems we all live in.

Rarely did the environmental movement focus on positive change that either addressed small local problems or big systemic issues felt at all scales. We wanted to create an online tool to power thousands of offline actions for change. Moreover, we knew that most low-income neighborhoods and communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of environmental ills with fewer resources to address them. We wanted to create a tool that could serve the residents in communities that suffered from many of the comingled symptoms of common neighborhood scale issues. And so ioby was born.

Image of Betsy Robinson mural via