Disasters can take many forms including natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or viral epidemics, but they all cause widespread damage and disrupt people’s livelihoods to the extent that there is a need for outside help (Wisner et al. 2011). Because of this massive scale of devastation, the first responders that we usually rely on may not be able to assist those in need for days or weeks, leaving neighbors to provide potentially lifesaving assistance to each other (Aldrich and Meyer 2015). There has been an increase in research that examines the relationship between social capital and disaster preparedness, and its effectiveness in facilitating community recovery post-disaster (Aldrich and Meyer 2015, Reininger et al. 2013). In 2011, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released a Whole Community plan for community resilience to disasters, with the suggestion for communities to come together and make a plan for resilience (FEMA 2011).
Social capital is defined as the “ability of actors to secure benefits by virtue of membership in social networks or other social structures” (Portes 1998, 6). Important components of social capital include trust and reciprocity, which can be fostered through increased interactions with people (Glanville et al. 2013). However, in a time when social interaction in informal settings has been rapidly decreasing, where will neighbors be able to socialize and build the trusting relationships that will be so vital for establishing disaster resilience? Oldenburg (1999) introduces the idea of a third place: a place that is not home or work that can host regular, voluntary and informal gatherings of individuals, such as bars, cafes, barber shops, and community centers.
Although third places are typically brick and mortar establishments in which people can meet and mingle, several authors have written about the possibility of a “virtual third place” through computer mediated communication (Soukup 2006, Steinkuehler et al. 2006). As of 2017, almost 50% of the world population has access to the internet (Internet World Stats 2017). Although there has been criticism of technology for actually promoting individualism and displacing crucial civic and social institutions (Putnam 2000), increasingly studies are indicating that social media can actually promote community engagement (Matthews 2016). Social networking sites can actually be a node in which people connect, and as a result, build social capital (Bouchillon 2014).
With that in mind, I will be exploring the question: To what extent can third places enhance the resilience of community networks before a crisis occurs?