Vancouver: social disaster and recovery

I’m a physical scientist, and any education I have in social sciences comes from breadth requirements and conversations with eager graduate students about their projects. Therefore, commenting on the recent post-hockey riot in Vancouver falls strictly outside my usual areas of writing. However, despite the human-driven nature of the disaster, the post-event recovery has been absolutely fascinating, even reassuring for how this city may respond in a major natural catastrophe. The riots made international news (probably because it’s so contrary to the pop culture image of Canadians as excessively polite), but the aftermath stayed a local story.

During the Riot

In the midst of the riot, individuals stood up for order and politeness (check YouTube for numerous videos; Shiggy TV captures swearing but no violence in mid-riot interviews). The iconic image isn’t the acts of violence and destruction, but a kiss of comfort. Disasters bring out wild mobs bent on chaos, but they also bring out individuals standing up for their values.

I spent last Wednesday afternoon on a sunny downtown patio watching the game with a group of friends. After our loss, I walked down to the beach watched the sunset with a few hundred dejected fans. A few were skinny dipping, someone was pounding a drum, and I suspect most were thinking some variation of, “The Bruins gets the cup, but we get to live here!” Then I turned around, and saw black smoke rising from the city core. On the walk home, I saw very few emergency response personal, and a phone call to 911 indicated the vast majority of responders were otherwise occupied. In a natural catastrophe, I expect similar: at first the vast majority preoccupied with their own situation while a few are in total chaos, and the responders mostly in the downtown core leaving the bulk of the city with only a token police presence

Transit was seriously crippled (buses and bridges were shut down, with only a few underground SkyTrains in operation to carry people out of the downtown core), leading pedestrians walking the bridges to get home. This highlights the difficult geography of Vancouver, with a high vulnerability to transit disruption with a limited number of north-south corridors (even seismic retrofitting may not be sufficient for bridges to survive a poorly-placed high-magnitude earthquake). In earthquakes, Vancouver faces additional transportation vulnerability with airports and docks located on materials prone to liquefaction.

Post-Riot Response

While the riot was ongoing, a UBC student started a Facebook event and Twitter tag inviting volunteers to head into the city core to clean up the next morning. More than an order of magnitude more individuals pledged to come than were involved in the original riot; from my experience by 1pm the following day it was difficult to find anything left to clean up. A photographer captured portraits of a few of the volunteers. When I returned downtown on Friday, even sidewalks far from the events were cleaner than I’d ever seen before and I caught sight of a few people casually picking up bits of litter on their way to unknown destinations. This sort of resident-driven self-organizing cleanup effort is essential in the aftermath of major disasters, when government organizations are usually extremely preoccupied.

Even more fascinating is that residents gravitated to communal story-telling, gravitating to adding gratitude-graffiti to a cop car and every plywood-boarded broken storefront window, and by tweeting stories for #thisismyvancouver. Better yet, the province supported these community efforts to see optimism in the aftermath, encouraging stories of everyday heroes. This is a classic example of shared trauma leading to closer bonds; in cities it is easy to feel isolated in a mass of anonymous faces yet these projects are building a sense of shared community. A strong sense of community increases disaster resilience, especially as neighbours are almost inevitably the very, very first responders.

But, as in all events, it isn’t all sunshine and roses. Social media is being used to condemning the few individuals who can be clearly identified from photos, ignoring the justice system to enact public shaming without bothering with a trial. Studies in cultural evolution suggest this is a natural occurrence: in small-scale societies reputational punishment for anti-social behaviour (rioting and looting) can be a method of maintaining cooperation. This is more challenging in cities where populations are large enough to provide anonymity, but with social media that anonymity is lost. This isn’t fair (so few individuals are the target of so much shame simply because they can be identified; they are not being treated as innocent until proven guilty, and with internet archiving their reputation is pretty much permanently damaged which may be disproportionate to their activities), but it is not unexpected. I am certain similar public shaming would occur should wide-scale looting take place in the wake of a major natural catastrophe; I am uncertain if the current shaming will dissuade future potential-looters.

Implications for Future Disasters

Vancouver has the risks of some nasty disasters (we have an earthquake hazard similar to Christchurch), and those disasters may or may not happen in our lifetimes. If they do, we can expect a few people to be selfish, but more to actively respond to support the community. We can expect to have too few resources stretched too thin, although hopefully a little better prepared than for the last disaster. We can expect our transportation systems to break down, but people to find a way around anyway. We can expect people to reach out to feel a stronger sense of community online, taking both positive and negative action. And through it all, we can expect Vancouver as a concept, as a city, and as a community, to survive.

Related Reading

Book Review: Vancouver: City on the Edge
Workshop: Mapping Unstable Ground

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