This series of articles represents the outcomes of a two-part webinar, titled Bottom-Up Resilience and hosted by APRU Plus in July 2020. Through a partnership between Pacific Rim Community Design Network and the APRU Sustainable Cities and Landscapes Hub, the discussion brought together a group of activists, organizers, and researchers across the region to critically reflect on their ongoing work in supporting the local communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Learning from Civil Society and Civic Resilience
What exactly can we learn from these different types of civil society responses during the pandemic? What do these cases tell us about social and community resilience from the bottom up? What do they reveal about the longstanding disparities in society? What can we look forward to in terms of sustaining these networks and momentum?
Besides the disproportionate impacts on the mainstream society and the marginalized communities, the contrasting responses from the state and the civil society groups present another parallel across the different geographical contexts. In Manila, Tessa Maria Guazon found the state’s bureaucratic response to daily emergencies like food supply, mass testing for the virus, and the provision of public transport to be, as usual, delayed and inadequate. As a result, communities turned to self-help and mutual aid as a way to address urgent needs, a pattern also found elsewhere.
“[A]s the pandemic spread, the government’s one-size-fits-all directives could not respond to the detailed needs of all sectors of society,” said Yang Bao and Shuyun Cao.
The experience in China offers a different scenario. In Wuhan, the local government did react relatively quickly but failed to account for the less privileged. Yang Bao and Shuyun Cao argued that “as the pandemic spread, the government’s one-size-fits-all directives could not respond to the detailed needs of all sectors of society.” It was in this context that the self-organized civil networks have emerged in response to the urgent needs of those who have not been helped.
In Tokyo, the support from the government in terms of temporary accommodation for the homeless was critical but short-lived. After seven days during the crisis, “people were back on the streets,” said Mago Yoshihira. She went to note, “we were worried about them and that was why we started free ‘food delivery’ to homeless people […] so we can visit them directly and conduct short interviews each time.” “Face-to-face conversation is best to feel empathy,” said Yoshihira. YUI Associates also began to accept people who had newly become homeless due to COVID-19 and assisted them in finding jobs, according to Yoshihira.
In other cases, the government response has been a source of longstanding challenges. In Hong Kong, Michelle Wong described the dilemmas faced by the homeless and social service organizations, “even before COVID-19, they stay in tunnels; they stay on the streets, or they stay in McDonald’s.” “They move around quite often, and the reason why they need to move is that the government would remove their stuff in the tunnel or park frequently,” said Wong. This has made the work of volunteers and social service organizations difficult because they cannot locate the homeless, build relationships, and provide support for them.
Trust and empathy
As a discussant on the first day of the webinar, Kian Goh of the University of California, Los Angeles highlighted the presence of place-based and historically informed local experiences as illustrated by the speakers. Goh noted that many community self-help and mutual aid practices “really have to be built on trust and empathy […] developed among close-knit circles.”
Indeed, local practices that built trust and empathy appeared to have played an important role in engendering community responses during the COVID-19 crisis.
In Manila, Tessa Maria Guazon pointed out the notion of Namamangketa as “a way of life” and “a manner of thriving” among the community members she worked with. Asked about how empathy was developed, Guazon noted that empathy among the women partners was built from shared experiences, particularly the struggles with local law enforcement and government. Working with the women partners through the SEANNET project, she learned that a way to live together was “to be with another, to feel the pain of another, to empathize with others.”
“There was no money involved; transactions were just purely made on trust and generosity within the community Facebook group,” said Mateo-Babiano.
In the case of LuMo Road Rescue in Wuhan, Yang Bao found trust was already established and deeply rooted in the group, “making the rescue, their donation [drive], and mobilization of resources [go] quite smoothly.” Iderlina Mateo-Babiano also found community resilience to be underpinned by trust in the case of Life Cycles PH. She noted that many of the transactional activities, including the borrowing of bicycles, were based on trust and community spirit or Bayanihan. “There was no money involved; transactions were just purely made on trust and generosity within the community Facebook group,” said Mateo-Babiano.
Asked about how trust was developed for Life Cycles PH, Mateo-Babiano suggested that the transactions became a form of relationship building. Following the online transactions, “the group would go and meet up with people to exchange bicycles,” said Mateo-Babiano. The social media platform also allows the group to build trust by being transparent about their actions.
Reciprocity and Scalability
As place-based and locally-specific actions, Kian Goh wondered about the potential of looking across scales to include different community groups and different levels of government, and if these efforts are bound to one place and one community. In other words, are these civil society responses scalable?
In Singapore, Tan Beng Kiang found an untapped resource of people who are interested in helping: “I think there are a lot of people during the lockdown who were at home and they all want to do something [to help] but they can’t get out,” said Tan. Tapping into the potential of these individuals presents opportunities for scaling up.
“It keeps these efforts going. Some of us may fall out because of fatigue but I think others will be interested to help,” said Tessa Maria Guazon.
In Manila, Tessa Maria Guazon found evidence of “a cycle of generative reciprocity” in the example of a chef who converted her restaurant kitchen into a community kitchen and came up with a set of guidelines for establishing community kitchens and for making them safe. A colleague from the university then translated the guidelines into Tagalog or Filipino so they can be widely circulated. “It keeps these efforts going. Some of us may fall out because of fatigue but I think others will be interested to help,” said Guazon.
In the case of Life Cycles PH, beyond facilitating the lending and borrowing of bikes, Mateo-Babiano found the group to have expanded their advocacy to create a culture of cycling, “a culture of just and sustainable mobility for everyone.” This includes pushing the government to build more bike lanes and cycling infrastructure to make cycling safe. She found that the conversation has moved from short-term emergency response to long-term needs for expanded infrastructure for more equitable and safer mobility.
In the migrant worker community in Hong Kong, Cecilia Chu and Marta Catalán Eraso came across additional actors that served to bridge multiple scales. For instance, they highlighted the role of banks in lending technical support to the workers as they might become future clients. “This suggests that self-help is not really entirely independent […] there is a kind of intricate relationship between institutional engagement and community self-help,” said Chu and Catalán Eraso.
Solidarity and collaboration
The answer to scalability perhaps already exists in the way that many of these groups and initiatives operate, through collaboration and acts of solidarity. In answering my own question about how organizations adapted to crises and how such adaptation can sustain in the long run, Iderlina Mateo-Babiano sees the sharing paradigm as key, particularly when “fueled by the ongoing advocacy and solidarity of like-minded individuals,” and “a common concern for social justice and human connection.”
“[A]s an organizer I always go back to solidarity as a solution,” said Michelle Wong.
Michelle Wong had a similar response, “as an organizer I always go back to solidarity as a solution.” For instance, the COVID-19 crisis has led ImpactHK to consider forming a network of homeless advocacy organizations in Hong Kong to address the problem effectively and to lobby the government. “At the end of the day, the government is the resourceful, powerful kind of machine that can do much more than a small organization like us,” said Wong.
Collaboration already played a critical role in the ongoing work of ImpactHK. During the crisis, the organization hosted around 200 homeless individuals by partnering with guest houses for travelers. In another instance, to learn about the issues facing the street cleaners and to better support them, Fixing Hong Kong organized a learning session for volunteers with the Hong Kong Cleaning Workers Union so they can “understand more about the difficulty that these street cleaners face,” said Bernard Lee.
In Singapore, during the crisis, some of the existing NGO groups have formed a coalition because their work is similar. Instead of everyone trying to replicate others’ activities, “they are combining,” said Tan Beng Kiang. According to Tan, the groups are also partnering with the government because during the crisis, “there are things you can’t do unless you get permission, such as entering the quarantined migrant worker dormitory.” As a result, “there’s now a partnership going on between the government and the NGO groups,” said Tan.
Spontaneous solidarity can also take place across borders. In Tokyo, where masks were in short supply during the COVID-19 outbreak between March and June of 2020, YUI Associates received donations of masks from regular customers of their tourist hotel in Sanya. According to Mago Yoshihira, more than 1,200 masks were sent from Shanghai and Hong Kong where the number of infections had declined at the time. YUI members brought these donated masks to rough sleepers and the homeless populations in Sanya as well as a terminal care facility for homeless individuals and a hospital.
In answering the question about how civil society responses can be sustained, Tessa Maria Guazon suggests that this can be supported through multi-nodal efforts: “When people work at various scales, if one group suffers fatigue, then another catches them.” Similarly, Masato Dohi, co-founder of ARCH, reflected on the voluntary effort of Tokyo Street Count: “[with] just a small group of two or three people, we can only count a small part of the city and small part of the homeless population, but with hundreds of people we can count the homeless people in Tokyo.” (Nao Kasai further notes that the robustness of the count is not the focus of the argument, but rather that societal inclusivity starts from “I recognize you” at the grassroots level. “Our Tokyo Street Count is an effort to scale up this ‘I’ to ‘we,’ so we can say ‘we recognize you all’ as a society,” said Kasai.)
Collaboration and solidarity are indeed keys to how responses of civil society, albeit often modest in scale and capacity, can have a greater collective impact during a crisis and in the long run. They enable groups to maintain autonomy and self-manage while working toward a common goal. By pooling together resources of different kinds, it creates efficiency and allows groups to adapt to changing needs and circumstances and scale-up.
Barriers to Civil Society Responses
With lockdowns and other extraordinary constraints during the COVID-19 pandemic, civil society responses have their share of challenges and difficulties as well.
In Tokyo, Nao Kasai noted that because of limited capacity, the work of ARCH on street homelessness had to shrink. “Many street support activities rely on volunteers, and service providers had to redesign or stop their activities without volunteers during the pandemic,” said Kasai. As a social enterprise, YUI Associates faced a financial challenge during the crisis. With almost no guests by April, they had to close one of the hotels to reduce costs even though the demand from the homeless population has increased, including people who require special care.
Other aspects of the widespread lockdown during COVID-19 posed additional difficulties. In Manila, residents from San Roque, an informal settlement in Manila’s northeast protested against the local government during the lockdown. They were dispersed and later arrested as they were deemed by the police to be defying the law against public gatherings. In Hong Kong, where there was already a ban on public gatherings issued by the government to rein in the civil unrest, volunteers handing food to the homeless in the park received warnings from the police because of the restrictions against public gatherings.
“I know that some of our homeless friends. They get tickets. They get warnings and tickets from the police,” said Michelle Wong. She suspected that the police were using the ban to “scare them off from the park.” “I think they make use of COVID to get what they want right now because of the protests and also for the homeless; they don’t want them,” said Wong. Faced with this challenge, volunteers of ImpactHK resorted to a flash mob tactic to continue serving food in the park next to their office.
Physical and mental fatigue came up as another important issue in the conversation. Tessa Maria Guazon described her experience in Manila, “after what we did for our women partners, I was totally just exhausted.” In her concluding thought on the first day of the webinar series, Shuyun Cao suggested, “we should not over-emphasize contribution or devotion to a great goal […] I think in that way individuals will be swallowed by those great goals.” Instead, she suggests attention to self-care and individual mental health, “then the empathy fatigue will not be that serious,” said Cao.
Besides fatigue, it is also important to critically reflect on other challenges facing mutual aid and self-help. Cecilia Chu argued, “all these self-help practices [by migrant workers] when we presented them seemed very positive and enlightening, but in Hong Kong, it’s been really not seen as part of the civic engagement in the eyes of most of the local residents.” Furthermore, she suggested that the community self-help was in fact a reflection of their marginalized position “that so far has not been really breached.”
Lastly, Shu-Mei Huang suggested that even with all the focus on the marginalized groups through civil society responses, some groups might still be left out. For instance, while we have better understood the struggles of the domestic workers, we still know rather little about factory workers and fishers, “migrant fishermen […] really can’t make it to public space over the weekend because they don’t have a weekend.”
Implications and Lessons for Planning and Design Practices
“[…] what we have thought of as the right solution, the right public space, may not really be the right one for the users,” said Mateo-Babiano.
A key question on both days of the discussion concerns the implications and lessons of civic resilience for planning and design professionals, the main audience of the webinars. Iderlina Mateo-Babiano responded with a reflection on her training as a planner, “when I hear the stories […] I think that’s one of the learnings that as a planner we should take on.” “Sometimes we think that we know what are the lived experiences of those for whom we provide public spaces, but actually what we have thought of as the right solution, the right public space, may not really be the right one for the users,” said Mateo-Babiano.
For Tan Beng Kiang, a key lesson from the civil society responses was simply to act. She thinks that as designers or as educators, “we can encourage our students to act, even if they are locked down at home or with limited access to visit [a site], etc., what is it that they can do to help? What is it they can do within their community?” Indeed, the cases presented by the webinar speakers would not have been possible without the actions and initial responses. Whether there have been pre-existing networks or not, the most critical aspect of community self-help has been the will and ability to act.
While the focus of the urgent and immediate relief was critical, in the grand scheme of things, it’s also important to identify how civic resilience can be supported and cultivated on an everyday basis before and beyond the moment of crisis. As suggested by the role of pre-existing networks and organizations, it is important to engage these networks and organizations in the planning and design of neighborhoods, districts, cities, and regions, and ensure such engagement can help build capacity and strengthen relationships among the groups. Opportunities also need to be provided for those without formal affiliations.
As evident in the outcomes of the pandemic, social disparities have been an acute form of vulnerability that threatens not only the underserved and underprivileged but also the society at large. As these social and economic disparities are often reinforced by the built environment, planning and design professions, by and large, have been accomplices to a structure that produces and reproduces these inequalities. Addressing these disparities and closing the gaps requires the built environment professions to play a more self-critical role and reflect on longstanding assumptions and practices.
As we rebuild cities and communities to avoid future outbreaks of infectious diseases, we must ensure that the voices of the less privileged are not left out. As evident from the cases highlighted in the webinars, a seemingly insignificant change in the everyday environment and everyday life can have a significant impact on the vulnerable populations. Additionally, a well-intended policy or measure can have unintended consequences especially if the concerns of those who are not at the table are not accounted for. We must avoid the pitfalls that have plagued the rescue, relief, recovery, and rebuilding efforts in the past that have deprived rather strengthened the communities in need.
Finally, as Kian Goh noted during the webinar, “mutual aid community self-help is not a cure-all.” There are structural issues that will require much more substantial effort and perseverance. But as the experiences highlighted through the webinar have indicated, seemingly robust structures can fail and when they do, civic resilience can play an important role in saving lives and supporting communities in need. Furthermore, changing and rebuilding the structures will also require the efforts of civil society in holding the state and institutions accountable. A deeper and more critical understanding of civic resilience is the first step toward the long-term safeguarding of cities and communities beyond the pandemic.
Contributors (in alphabetical order): Yang Bao, Shuyun Cao, Marta Catalán Eraso, Cecilia Chu, Masato Dohi, Kian Goh, Tessa Maria Guazon, Shu-Mei Huang, Nao Kasai, Bernard Lee, Elizabeth Maly, Iderlina Mateo-Babiano, Tan Beng Kiang, Michelle Siu Woon Wong, and Magokoro Yoshihira.
The Bottom-Up Resilience Webinar is the outcome of a partnership between Pacific Rim Community Design Network and the APRU Sustainable Cities and Landscapes Hub. The author is joined by Shu-Mei Huang and Elizabeth Maly in organizing and running the sessions. The event was hosted by APRU Plus, an online hub of information that provides member universities with access to webinars, knowledge exchange, and communications updates about the ongoing health crisis across the Asia Pacific. We are grateful to the support from Senior Director Christina Schoenleber and Senior Program Manager Tina Lin. Yekang Ko from the University of Oregon, the program director of the APRU Sustainable Cities and Landscapes Hub helped with forming the partnership. Ah Chong Leung and Abraham Lai helped us connect with organizations in Hong Kong. Elizabeth Maly performed extensive editing of the articles. The webinars also would not be possible without the participation of all the presenters and discussants.