A year later, lessons from the Boston Marathon bombings

Long after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, the city felt a surprising social cohesion, the kind that helps bring hope and healing. Many cities try to boost 'social resilience' to act as a community shock absorber and as a building stone after a tragedy.

Visitors look at artifacts in a new library exhibit of objects and mementos left at the makeshift memorials that emerged in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

After two bombs struck the Boston Marathon last April 15, the world saw images of volunteers rushing into the smoke and mayhem to help hundreds of victims near the finish line. This year, as the city marks the first anniversary of the tragedy, Bostonians are celebrating their surprising social cohesion, not only that day but ever since, summed up in the popular postbombing slogan “Boston Strong.”

Here is what some of that “strong” looks like:

For this year’s race, thousands of new volunteers have applied to help manage the course. Tens of thousands of new runners sought to compete in the 26.2-mile race. All year long, private money has flowed into a special fund to help the victims recover, with more than $61 million collected so far at shops and other places. And on April 21, the day of the 2014 marathon, the crowd size is expected to be twice the normal number.

“In so many ways, what we saw through the success of that [postbombing] experience was the power of working together,” said Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick last month.

Boston’s solidarity – which is part defiance, part tribute, and part resolve – reflects the kind of social resilience that many cities seek these days in order to bounce back from disaster. Boston itself was so struck by its own response that the public library set up a special exhibit this month of personal objects left in a makeshift memorial right after the bombings, such as running shoes and endearing notes of hope and healing.

“Resilient societies are characterized by high levels of social and civic trust,” said Helen Clark, administrator of the United Nations Development Program, in a speech last year. “It takes hard work to establish these attributes in any society, let alone in those racked by conflict and violence.”

Ever since 2005, when hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, disaster experts have focused on ways to build up “social infrastructure” as much as roads, dikes, bridges, and other material defenses. Last year, a group of Israeli researchers even suggested a way to measure such resilience. They based their proposal on a study of nine towns and how well they exhibited six factors in the face of peril: leadership, collective efficacy, preparedness, place attachment, social trust, and social relationship.

Also in 2013, the Rockefeller Foundation began to invest $100 million in select cities around the world to set up models in “social resilience.” The foundation also funded an Associated Press survey of residents in New York and New Jersey affected by superstorm Sandy. The survey found that the most important sources of help before, during, and after the 2012 storm were family, neighbors, and friends. More than three-quarters said the storm brought out the best in the community. About half of the residents shared food, water, generators, or homes.

The quality of a community’s ties can save lives. A study of a 1995 heat wave in Chicago found that more residents survived in neighborhoods that were more sociable and where residents were involved in public activities.

Disaster can also bring strangers together. After superstorm Sandy, a third of those affected said they were closer to their neighbors or had made new friends.

The selfless, brave actions of citizens after a tragedy, such as after the Boston bombings, are the hidden shock absorbers of a community. They are essential when a government response is not possible. A community’s strongest points often show up best after a tragedy happens.

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