Proof of concept: a new collaborative service model for NYC neighborhoods most impacted by climate change.



Using a co-design process, we created a model for a new community-based service focused on disaster preparedness. The project is designed to bridge the gap between isolated, medically fragile residents and advanced care/services. 

During climate related emergencies, many of NYC’s residents, such as seniors and those with illnesses and/or disabilities, become isolated in their homes, without a preexisting mechanism to identify or treat them. This problem was acute in Red Hook Brooklyn during Hurricane Sandy. Geographically isolated, Red Hook has a 45% poverty rate, high levels of asthma and diabetes, and Brooklyn’s largest public housing development. The storm’s damage left the neighborhood without access to medical care. If it wasn’t for a medical student’s efforts going door to door with intake forms, over 350 people would not have received greatly needed medical care. This project grew directly out of that grassroots effort.

400,000 NYC residents live in the floodplain. The frequency of climate-related events is projected to intensify, including hurricanes, and of primary concern, heat waves. Yet, there is no citywide mechanism or strategy in place to meet this particular need. Climate Change is a socio-spatial issue—not everyone is impacted equally. The problem of climate, equity, and access to care is complex, and each community has unique needs, so universal, one size fits all solutions do not work.


Service proposal and vision
Using Red Hook as a case study, we envision a neighborhood-wide support network, comprised of residents who check-in on medically fragile and elderly neighbors in advance of summer heat waves, fall hurricane season, and winter storms, helping them stay prepared, empowered, and connected to services. Our goals are to 1) bridge the gap between isolated residents and first response, and 2) embed disaster preparedness and climate change knowledge into everyday life and build social cohesion. Although what we are proposing is entirely new, we seek to integrate with and build off of existing social networks and local organizations.

The importance of social cohesion and social infrastructure at the neighborhood level
In the global resiliency conversation, there has been an over-emphasis on physical infrastructure solutions, such as flood walls, floodgates, and engineering solutions, but not enough emphasis on social infrastructure, social cohesion, and the capacity of communities to plan ahead. Eric Klinenberg defines social infrastructure as, “The people, places, and institutions that foster cohesion and support.” The strength of our social infrastructure—our social connections and communication networks—will undoubtedly save lives in future climate change events and we need to recognize its importance. Through this project, our goal has been to design a strategy and supporting methodology to strengthen social capacity given these collective challenges we face.

Built at the meso level
Our research in Red Hook and into the citywide preparedness and response system revealed a large gap in the ‘meso’ sphere. The meso sphere is a social space between government and community. For example, community-based nonprofits are situated in this sphere. There aren’t enough mechanisms for traditionally top-down government initiatives to communicate and work effectively with more bottom-up community or grassroots initiatives, and vice-versa.


Unique approach of service design in resiliency/disaster preparedness and our co-design process

To build this meso level platform, we first developed a design process embedded in the community we were designing for, built around community collaboration and feedback. We realized it was not enough to include different stakeholders in the design process but we needed to go beyond and establish a continuous presence in the neighborhood and gain residents’ trust. For this we:

•       Recruited an advisory team comprised of medical, design, law, and disaster preparedness experts

•       Conducted a series of design-led workshops at the local public library and senior center, with an open call to participate

•       Through stakeholder mapping we were able to understand Red Hook residents’ assets and resources in times of crisis and established ownership in the service early on

•       Attended a diversity of community events such as Old Timers’ Day, sporting events, as well as hosting public meetings

•       Participated in information sessions about health and preparedness to present the project and gather feedback

•       Invited several residents to work with us as part of the core team, receiving compensation

•       Maintained an online presence through a Facebook page and website

Below are some of the photos from our co-design workshops, which included methods like stakeholder mapping and improvisation. Materials were generously donated by IKEA in Red Hook, and we had support from local City Council Member Carlos Menchaca. Photography by Nathan DeHart.

Learn more:

DNA info article.

Short video

Our Facebook page

Our work was also featured in NYC Department of Emergency
Management's Disability, Access, and Functional Needs Symposium report.

Read the report

Aran Baker