I’ve gotten to know North Adams a bit over the past 15 years, mostly through an ill-fated effort to create an environmentally responsible development on state land in the shadow of Mount Greylock. I’ve followed the economic challenges the Western Massachusetts city (the smallest city in the state) has faced since the mid-1980s, when the city’s largest employer, Sprague Electric, which employed more than 4,000 at its peak, closed its doors.
Creating Mass MOCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), which I’ve visited a couple times, has helped the local economy, but not enough.
In the past week, the city has suffered two major blows, plus a minor one. A week ago, on Tuesday, March 25, 2014, Northern Berkshire Healthcare, announced that the North Adams Regional Hospital would close three days later, on Friday, March 28th. The hospital had 530 full- and part-time employees, who were given three days’ notice of their termination. There are lots of reasons for the closure of the long-struggling hospital, but suddenly the closest emergency medical care is 20 miles away.
As residents still grieved—and protested—the hospital closing the day before, a wind storm Saturday night brought down two 150-foot communications towers that carried broadcast signal for two radio stations, most emergency communications, and virtually all of the cellular communications for the City and surrounding area. The towers were close together, and as one toppled, it brought down the other.
Finally, to add insult to injury, North Adams this weekend suffered from flooding, with several inches of rainfall and melting snow. In other circumstances, the flooding might have been significant news, but it was pretty minor, considering everything else going on.
Resilience lessons from North Adams
Can North Adams and its sad circumstances teach us anything about resilience? I think so.
The loss of the two communications towers points to the importance of redundancy. One of our Resilient Design Principles is as follows:
Diverse and redundant systems are inherently more resilient. More diverse communities, ecosystems, economies, and social systems are better able to respond to interruptions or change, making them inherently more resilient. While sometimes in conflict with efficiency and green building priorities, redundant systems for such needs as electricity, water, and transportation, improve resilience.
Perhaps planning for the communications towers could have addressed functionality in the event of the loss of one, with the other being able to take over, or at least provide some services that residents could access (a different radio station or a different cell phone carrier that a neighbor might have). But in this case, even if there had been some redundancy between the two towers, they were placed so closely together that when one blew down, it crashed into the other, knocking out both.
Thinking about North Adams I’m reminded of what I had hoped would be an early project of the Resilient Design Institute (but for which I haven’t been able to secure funding): to develop a methodology for carrying out municipal resilience assessments. When most of us think about resilience assessments we think about flood risk or earthquake threats, or wildfires, but North Adams reminds us that such assessments should be broader, delving into such issues as economic health, access to emergency services, and redundancy of communications.
A thorough resilience assessment of North Adams’ vulnerabilities might have pointed to how isolated the city would become if the North Adams Regional Hospital closed. Had residents known about this, they might have been more active in supporting initiatives to improve the economic health of the hospital. Such activities could have spurred stronger community interaction that could have multiplied into other benefits for the city.
Almost certainly such an assessment would have addressed communications and how dependent the city is on co-located towers. And it would remind readers that two-and-a-half years ago North Adams was cut off from the east via Route 2 for several months following flooding from Tropical Storm Irene.
There is a lot to be said for knowledge. Knowing the vulnerabilities faced by a community can help residents prepare for what might come. Even if those vulnerabilities can’t be eliminated, by understanding them better, municipal officials and residents can plan for how to get buy should problems occur.
Our hearts go out to the residents of North Adams, along with a fervent wish that all of us can do better at understanding the risks and vulnerabilities we face and then build stronger, more sustainable communities by enhancing our resilience.