Nothing endures but change: lessons in community resilience

[this blog post was originally published May 30 in the CHS Seattle blog HERE]
A couple of years ago, I helped to facilitate a retreat at an old Boy Scout camp near Monroe. It was a cold wet November weekend and the accommodations were Spartan, which is generally code for uncomfortable and in this case, moldy.

Somehow the weather and smelly cabins didn’t faze the participants, a few dozen bright eyed volunteers with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). These 20-somethings had agreed to be paid $100 per month and live in shared housing for a year while working in various direct service jobs in the Pacific Northwest. The theme of the retreat was “living in community.”

PRAG House

(Image: PRAG House)

Some folks love communal living. PRAG House on Capitol Hill is “an urban housing cooperative that seeks to foster community and sustainable lifestyles” and many others live on Capitol Hill in less formal shared arrangements because it’s more affordable than a 1-bedroom apartment and it can be nice to have a ready group to hang out with on the weekends.

At the retreat I opened my talk with a quote from Heraclitus of Ephesus, aka the “Weeping Philosopher,” who said, “Nothing endures but change.” Heraclitus was a recluse with few friends, which is not so surprising. He reminded everyone that the universe is dynamic, ever changing, and that shit happens. That makes for a good bumper sticker, but isn’t a very popular message.

I don’t think people actually dislike change as much as they dislike the ambiguity and chaos it implies. The gray area between now and then that makes us anxious and causes us to dig in our heels like four-year-olds faced with a trip to the doctor’s office. “Ambiguity aversion” causes people to react as if they have received no information at all when what they really have received is ambiguous information. Ambiguity is the unpleasant first cousin of uncertainty.

Here’s where I introduced my audience to unpopular idea number two: Communities are complex systems and complexity increases uncertainty. When you’re living with a bunch of people, things will blow up that may be hard to predict. Some of these will be more annoying than devastating, like when your roommate enters a relationship with a barnacle-like boyfriend who insists on addressing everyone in the house as “bro” and consistently leaves your towel wet on the bathroom floor. Or worse, the rent suddenly goes from a third to half your paycheck. Or perhaps a big bad wolf is coming to blow your house down to make room for shiny new apartments over a gastropub.

“Our ability to cope with uncertainty is one of the most important requirements for success in life, yet also one of the most neglected. We may not appreciate just how often we’re required to exercise it, and how much impact our ability to do so can have on our lives, and even on the whole of society.” – Dylan Evans

We constantly face uncertainty and change in our homes, especially when we live with multiple people. I suggested that the JVs look to natural ecosystems for clues on how they’ve managed to keep calm and carry on during eons of uncertainty and change.

The resilience of natural ecosystems stems from two key ingredients: diversity and interdependence. Genetic diversity within a single species prevents the rapid spread of diseases and helps a species adjust to changes in their environment. A diversity of species allows for ecosystems to adjust to disturbances like fires and floods. For example, if a single insect species goes extinct (I vote for mosquitoes), a forest with 200 other insect species is likely to adapt better than another forest with only one type of insect. Interdependence means that every organism needs other organisms to survive, and every species needs other species—to eat, to shelter, to breathe, to reproduce, and to thrive. As John Muir, the legendary founder of the Sierra Club, famously said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

So, how does this translate to the resilience of communal living?

LESSON 1: Respect diversity. When you’re living with a bunch of people, take time to understand what each person brings to the table in terms of skills and biases. Also, make sure everyone is heard in your house decision-making. The diversity of opinion is important. Understand that people have different communication styles and needs. Honor your introverts! You may think a game of drunken jenga is a great way to wind down after a long workday, but your introverted friend might disappear with a book.

LESSON 2: Practice interdependence. Have clear expectations about what communal living means to each housemate and make sure that every person has a role in keeping house. When something changes, and you know it will, don’t wait too long before bringing it up. The obnoxious boyfriend won’t become less annoying if you try to ignore him. Share stuff and skills. Perhaps most importantly, establish clear lines of communication and be intentional about checking in on how things are going.

Dealing with the complexities of communal living takes trial and error. This is true in any complex system. Most habitat conservation organizations practice adaptive management, which is a science-based resource management strategy that assumes a degree of uncertainty. It involves exploring alternative ways to meet management objectives, using scenarios and modeling to predict the outcomes of the alternatives, then implementing one or more alternatives and closely monitoring its impacts.

Adaptive management is a group-learning model that involves careful experimentation based on “the current state of knowledge” or what’s more commonly called the “best available science.” The term “best available science” suggests humility: “Here’s our best guess, but keep in mind there’s a bunch of stuff we don’t know.” Scientists use the term to remind us that natural systems are complex and dynamic, which means they can change and that making decisions based on current knowledge should be done cautiously and with great attention.

DP_107_adaptive_management_framework_v2

Adaptive management framework

Experimentation and shared learning are critical in resource management and in shared housing. The model also applies in urban neighborhoods. Capitol Hill is experiencing rapid change and a lot of uncertainty. Last winter, Resource Media hosted focus groups to determine what Hill residents love about living in the neighborhood, and what most concerns them about where the neighborhood seems to be going. The focus groups revealed that residents feel uncertain how to influence the rapid changes to the neighborhood, and that development is happening to them, not with them. Residents don’t know where or when the next shoe will drop or what to do about it. The neighborhood is bristling with ambiguity aversion.

The Kresge Foundation defines urban resilience as “the capacity of a community to anticipate, plan for, and mitigate the risks—and seize the opportunities—associated with environmental and social change.” This suggests that changes can be anticipated. Some can, like the fact that more people are going to move to Capitol Hill and want places to live. Other changes will surprise us, so how do we as a neighborhood address our own resilience?

As with natural systems and shared housing, diversity is a critical asset for neighborhoods. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs writes: “Dull, inert cities… contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.”

Of course, diversity itself isn’t enough. The seeds Jacobs describes will only germinate in a community committed to its own resilience. In his recent post on this siteCHCC’s Zachary Pullin writes: “If we continue building community, if we further seek a connection to our land, our history, and our neighbors, then we can shape the change happening to us. If we continue building connectedness, we will avoid becoming refugees from our own community.” Sounds like interdependence to me.

Next comes careful experimentation, or to use a less scary word, innovation. The Capitol Hill EcoDistrict hopes to be a catalyst for innovation in the neighborhood, a place to try promising strategies for building resilience. Last fall we launched a community solar project to help finance renewable energy on affordable housing. It is the first project of its kind in the state. This past week, we published a report that lays out a vision for piloting a shared parking district in Pike Pine, the first of its kind in Seattle.We are doing some interesting things, but we need to broaden our work to include more of the neighborhood’s diversity. One of our next big initiatives, assuming we can get it funded, will seek to engage renters, a group often missing from important community decision-making, in helping to define how the next wave of development flows through the neighborhood. This will be an experiment in democracy that honors the diversity of the EcoDistrict’s residents, and we hope builds a greater sense of power in a neighborhood that has been rocked on its heels by a succession of changes.

If you live in an apartment, either by yourself or in a shared living situation, we need you and your perspective! The EcoDistrict renter engagement effort will inform future EcoDistrict efforts and, we hope, the next update to the Capitol Hill neighborhood plan, which hasn’t been updated since 1998. We will be recruiting “Building Ambassadors” from apartment buildings across the neighborhood help lead this effort. Please email me,jsisolak@capitolhillhousing.org, if you wish to be involved.

Nothing endures but change. Thankfully, Capitol Hill contains the seeds of its own resilience. We hope the EcoDistrict provides fertile ground where we honor diversity, practice interdependence and where, through shared commitment and innovation, we come together as a community to seize the opportunities before us.