#05, May 2020


Social Capital in Montreal: A Vector for Community Resilience and the Ecological Transition

By Marieke Cloutier, Sidney Ribaux and Irène Cloutier

Photos de Sidney Ribaux, Marieke Cloutier et Irène Cloutier - Résilience, Raccords 05, Maison de l'innovation sociale

Montreal developed its first resilience strategy as part of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, and in 2016, it created its first-ever Resilience Office. Three years later, ecologist Sidney Ribaux was appointed to head the Office for Ecological Transition and Resilience, which is set to play a leading role in the city’s efforts to achieve carbon neutrality.

For almost two years now, the city of Montreal has been implementing its first-ever urban resilience strategy action plan. The plan aims to support the development of an informed, engaged and inclusive community ready to face social, economic and environmental challenges. With the creation of the Office of Ecological Transition and Resilience (BTER) in January 2019, Montreal has anchored urban and community resilience at the heart of a profound societal transformation and highlighted the urgent need to establish measures to achieve its 2030 and 2050 goals for GHG emissions, carbon neutrality, climate equity, social inclusion, ecosystem protection and climate change adaptation.

The BTER team is composed of highly qualified, diverse and distinguished experts in resilience, sustainable development and climate change. This gives it an exceptional ability to fulfill its mandate to advise and plan with operational units. It is now possible for the team to devote itself to developing new measures that will have a real, systemic impact on the municipal government’s ways of doing things. The BTER also collaborates with public service units in order to ensure that the resilience strategies undertaken by different municipal entities are completed and contribute to a common goal.

In terms of community resilience, Montréal’s Resilient City Strategy focuses on actions that develop citizens’ capacity to act. One of such actions is centred on developing, assessing and fostering understanding of social capital among Montrealers. Social capital, as defined by Daniel Aldrich, Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University in Boston, is the combined resources available to individuals through their social relationships. Whether it’s a sibling, a child or a friend looking out for us; a neighbour or representative from a community organization giving us the support we need; or a public authority acting on our behalf or standing up for our rights, all of these people generate immeasurably valuable social capital in everyday circumstances and in times of crisis like now.

More and more research shows that an individual’s social capital is a major factor in their own personal resilience and that of their community. During a heatwave, for example, the social isolation experienced by certain individuals becomes a major source of vulnerability. The epidemiological investigation carried out by Montreal’s regional public health department (DRSP) on the summer 2018 Montreal heatwave confirms just that. American sociologist Eric Klinenberg went even further in his analysis of Chicago’s 1995 heatwave. By examining the social conditions and infrastructure in two of the Windy City’s poorest neighbourhoods, he demonstrated how social indicators can explain differences in mortality rates. Citizens living in areas with safe and vibrant public spaces, active commercial zones and multiple community organizations and infrastructure are better equipped to face this type of climate shock.

Social capital is also an important part of collective action: the large-scale mobilization for the environment in fall 2019 in Montreal proved that friendship, parental support and help from key organizations all play a major role in a movement’s success. We now need to channel that energy and social cohesion into bringing concrete change to our communities. That’s why mobilizing citizens and activating community resilience are so central in the climate plan that the BTER has been crafting with internal and external partners for the past year. The transition in Montreal will only succeed with everyday support from its citizens.

That said, social capital will never be able to replace a strong social net. Access to universal healthcare, affordable housing and the resources required to meet our basic needs are primordial in ensuring social equality. But strong social connections in a community, trust between citizens, a sense of safety and belonging to a neighbourhood, and the will to take part in city projects and plans are essential elements of a community’s resilience capacity. These elements also support social cohesion and individual well-being, all while countering isolation. They are often intangible and hard to quantify.

Montreal still needs more local data before it can properly grasp the strengths and weaknesses related to social capital in our neighbourhoods. More specifically, we need to understand how the municipal administration can support the development of social capital to strengthen resilient communities in a context of ecological transition. The current COVID-19 pandemic confirms the need to act quickly to protect our community and our environment from climatic and other disruptions. It is also a cruel reminder that urban centres and their citizens are the most vulnerable. Cities are both the problem and the solution. Cities are places with higher energy consumption, exacerbated inequality, and concentrated health, industrial and technological risks. But they are also home to dense and diverse populations, as well as infrastructure and organizations that foster economic development, neighbourhood densification and the emergence of innovative solutions.

The current crisis has laid bare the socio-economic inequalities that continue to affect a large number of our citizens. But it is also an incredible opportunity to learn about how community organizations and socio-cultural infrastructure adapt in times of crisis and analyze the real-time implementation of solidarity and support networks in Montreal. What mechanisms, regulations and technological tools facilitate agility? How do these initiatives and organizations support individual and collective resilience in Montreal? What additional role should the city of Montreal play to support and strengthen such initiatives in the coming years? The answers to these questions will strengthen our urban resilience plan which, in 2020, has reached a turning point. At the end of the year, the BTER will publish its mid-mandate report. This will an opportunity to look back on the work done thus far and review our priorities in light of the current global pandemic.

It is still too early to draw conclusions about Montreal and its citizens’ resilience capacity in the face of this health and economic crisis. However, the will to transform our city sustainably and equitably remains strong and is gaining ground elsewhere in the world. Valérie Plante, the mayor of Montreal, has joined the Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force, a group of 11 international elected officials who are reflecting on the post-COVID recovery. Social and environmental components will play a central role in Montreal’s economic recovery and will be developed synergistically to promote equality and resilience. This is a major departure from crisis recovery plans of the past. It is also a positive sign for Montreal’s ecological transition, which is as important as ever in the battle against climate change.

Sidney Ribaux, Director, Office for Ecological Transition and Resilience
Marieke Cloutier, Head of Division, Office for Ecological Transition and Resilience
Irène Cloutier, Planning Consultant, Office for Ecological Transition and Resilience

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