Civil society in the event of a disaster
Bo Tackenberg / Dr. Tim Lukas
Civil protection and disaster relief
Photo: Bo Tackenberg

"The Importance of Civil Society in Disasters."

Dr. Tim Lukas and Bo Tackenberg from the Chair of Civil Protection, Disaster Relief and Property Security conduct research on neighborhood support preparedness.

Christiane Schneider lost everything last year. The operator of the Landhaus Bilstein excursion restaurant is one of the prominent Wuppertal examples of the devastating flood disaster in the Bergisches Land region. However, Christiane Schneider also received a great deal of help in her time of need from neighbors, friends and even strangers who simply went out of their way to help where it was needed. In many cases, the neighbors' willingness to help began before the authorities were even on the scene. In a new project at Bergische Universität, Dr. Tim Lukas and Bo Tackenberg from the Department of Civil Protection, Disaster Relief and Property Safety are investigating this spontaneous neighborly assistance, which the scientists call social capital and whose use in the event of a crisis can represent an important resource for municipal civil protection.

Social coexistence = social space

"Cities, for example, have administrative geographic area divisions that are called social spaces," says Bo Tackenberg, a collaborator in the research project 'Development of a Social Capital Radar for Social Space-Oriented Population Protection`, or Sokapi-R for short, but this description does not quite fit the term, because social spaces are rather areas where social coexistence takes place. "You can't simply demarcate people geographically," the scientist explains, "because people can pursue activities and maintain social relationships in several different geographic spaces, so the geographic boundaries become blurred," and Tim Lukas, head of the project, adds, "Social spaces can be city neighborhoods, but it can also be the workplace or a club. Social spaces are spaces where people form social relationships with each other."

In the past, cities were merely divided statistically, i.e., there was, for example, the city district of Elberfeld, which in turn was subdivided into individual neighborhoods, i.e., smaller spatial units. That changed in the 1990s as a result of urban sociological research, Lukas explains, which led to the realization that the boundaries of these districts or neighborhoods were not necessarily always congruent with the areas in which people located themselves. "A big street in my part of town doesn't equal the end of my statistical district, but it feels like what's beyond it is no longer my neighborhood. That's already on the other side for me. I don't go shopping there because my supermarket is on my side of the street. And that's why it was said that we need an urban geographic division that is more oriented to people's perceptions and the reality of their lives. And that's how the idea of social space came into urban statistics."

A social capital radar for Wuppertal

Since summer 2021, the two researchers have been working on the 'Sokapi-R` project, which is funded by the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK). As a tool for professional civil protection and disaster management, the scientists would like to develop a kind of dashboard that can be used to read off the neighborly willingness to help in the Wuppertal urban area and coordinate it in a meaningful way in the event of an emergency. "We would then like to formulate recommendations for action for civil protection, which should then also be given greater consideration in the risk analysis of civil protection," says Tackenberg, because the previous guide available to municipalities only takes very limited account of neighborly willingness to provide support. "We have often seen in past disasters that it is precisely neighborhood assistance that is quite central in coping." Last year's heavy rain event and what happened in the Ahr Valley, he said, highlighted the limits of civil protection and the importance of civil society. "On the one hand, it's the affected people themselves who help each other," Tackenberg enumerates, "but it's also other people who feel affected, have compassion and say we have to get involved there. These people even take on long distances to help the people on the ground." The goal of the project is therefore to develop a tool that can show coping resources throughout the city. In the event of an emergency, professional civil protection can thus quickly identify where people have the opportunity to help themselves first, so that the available reserves can then be planned for elsewhere. "In the future, population protection should thus gain knowledge about life in individual neighborhoods even before an event occurs, so that resources can be better sounded out."

Risk analysis in population protection is the duty of every city

Neighbors are usually on the scene before the fire department and THW, Lukas knows, they are usually the first responders. However, he says, the risk analyses for population protection, a mandatory task of every city, hardly take this fact into account. "When they look at this procedure, it's all about how many vehicles of what type do I have, how many goulash canons do I keep on hand, how many cots can I set up. That's where civil protection is good at," Lukas points out, continuing, "but it's less good at networking with local actors." Yet, he says, a neighbor knows a lot more about the situation on the ground, about the number of adults and children in a house, about fellow residents who are sick, or even animals in homes. Neighborly willingness to provide support in such cases could lie in caring for the sick or supplying food: "It's about unused knowledge and unused capacities on the part of the population."

Findings of the preliminary project are incorporated into the new study

In the precursor to this new project, the researchers had already looked at social cohesion and people's willingness to provide support in Wuppertal's social areas in a survey and found that this willingness varies greatly across the city. "In our new project, we want to deepen these findings and analyses. To do this, we are taking a closer look at the influences in the social spaces," says Tackenberg, explaining the approach. With this approach - the researchers call it "application-oriented basic research" - they want to better network the stakeholders involved in order to achieve greater usability for population protection, adds Lukas. "In the recommendations of the preliminary project, we formulated about 50 measures on how to strengthen social cohesion, especially through the cooperative work of different organizations. That's where measures on civil society cooperation, communication strategies, the reduction of inequalities or the promotion of tolerance are included, which can improve people's lives in the neighborhoods," says Tackenberg. He says it's necessary to improve the climate in certain places in advance of a disaster event and try to get people more in touch with each other. Lukas cites an example in Oberbarmen. There is a neighborhood office there. "They do fantastic work there, bringing people together and activating the population. That not only has added value for the everyday lives of the people there, but it also has added value for civil protection."

Study supports government crisis management

Applying the project's findings is the researchers' biggest concern. Designed as a federal project, the survey will be implemented exclusively in Wuppertal, but in the long term it should also support state crisis management nationwide. "It is important," Lukas emphasizes, "to understand connections between population behavior during crisis and disaster and the socio-structural conditions in the neighborhoods. This knowledge is shared with other municipalities. Every major city has a Bureau of Statistics that collects and continuously updates all the social structure data needed to establish such a dashboard." This study also incorporates lessons learned from past years, as problems in individual neighborhoods do not change overnight, but often last for decades.

Population survey: Searching for the best possible common denominator

The survey will be conducted at the beginning of September. In addition to an online survey, nearly 7,000 randomly selected households will also receive the newly created questionnaire by mail. "So we are also doing a written-postal population survey and hope for a lively participation of the citizens. So that the foreign population of Wuppertal can also participate, the survey will be multilingual, translated into four other languages," explains Tackenberg. Experience has shown that the participation of foreign citizens in such surveys is often very low. That makes specific statements difficult, and yet one knows from research "that there are strong social ties within one's own ethnic group and networks that support each other," Lukas says. "But when neighborhood structures are very heterogeneous, the challenge is a lot greater, and that's where population protection has to pay attention." Even if the results show a lower willingness to provide support in individual social areas, Tackenberg explains, that doesn't mean there isn't a high level of willingness in the event of a disaster. "You actually always have very strong prosocial behavior in disasters. Disasters also activate social cohesion." Ongoing crises, on the other hand, could exacerbate conflict situations in the long run.

Recommendations for communities are often difficult because their individuals are also always highly diverse. "When we look at the questionnaire, we can expect that everyone will of course answer individually," Tackenberg says. "We then want to see if there are perhaps any particular patterns. To do that, we use special statistical testing methods that take that into account. It's finding the best possible common denominator. And when you find that common denominator, you can formulate a recommendation for action based on that denominator."

Incorporating civil support readiness into crisis management

The starting point of the overall project is the actual cohesion in social communities, which becomes particularly visible in crisis situations. Therefore, according to the scientists' expert opinion, civil protection must involve the civilian population in its processes to a greater extent than in the past in order to prevent signs of fatigue in the willingness to help. The crises of recent years have also often pushed the helpers to their limits. In 2015, the refugee situation with a civic welcome culture setting in, the flood disaster in NRW and Rhineland-Palatinate last year, Corona and the war in Ukraine with all its repercussions. In order for people's willingness to help to continue, he said, there is a need for appreciation and involvement in state crisis management, which is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of civil society's willingness to provide support. "There is a reason why people are talking about a reorientation of disaster control and civil defense in Germany," Lukas says. "There are also new challenges there with the war situation and the consequences of the gas and energy crisis. It's all connected, after all, and that naturally gives our research a different status. We started our project shortly after what happened in the Ahr Valley, and it's had a great response since then."

Improving living conditions in social areas through partners

"If living conditions in social areas are improved, then it can be assumed that there will be a greater willingness on the part of civil society to provide support," says Tackenberg. By participating in this, civil protection can also benefit from it in the future, he adds. However, he says, it takes time to develop a new understanding of roles. "Recognizing differences in the willingness of the civilian population to help, both in everyday life and in crises and disasters, is an important approach here."

In the Sokapi-R project, the researchers are working closely with the German Red Cross. "It is immensely important for us to have a practical partner involved," Lukas emphasizes, "We are cooperating with the General Secretariat of the German Red Cross in Berlin. After all, the DRK is organized in associations, and it's important that we match what we develop with their competencies. They bring with them experience from other projects on social-space-oriented civil protection and can better assess the need for action in practice. In addition, it is important that we also reach people in the municipalities who can work with our tool against the background of their professional orientation." To this end, the scientists are taking part in numerous events and promoting their project in the administrations.

After all, municipalities are facing enormous challenges. The digitization of the administration, the traffic turnaround or the adaptation to climate change are mammoth tasks that cities have to face. But the research of the Chair of Civil Protection is also becoming increasingly important in times when the number of crises, disasters and extreme weather events is steadily rising. Municipalities will have to deal with this more and more in the future.

And then people's willingness to support has another very important social aspect, which the restaurateur described at the beginning of this article described in an interview as follows: "Many came as strangers who left as friends."

Uwe Blass (interview dated 07/21/2022)

Dr. Tim Lukas heads the Spatial Contexts of Risk and Security research group at the Department of Civil Protection, Disaster Relief and Object Security in the Faculty of Mechanical and Safety Engineering at Bergische Universität. Bo Tackenberg, M.A., is a research project assistant in the research group.

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