Urbanization and Disaster Risk

By January 21, 2013Article
credit nytimes.com

credit nytimes.com

More than half of the world’s population and the majority of its capital assets are found in urban settlements. Maintaining these centres relies upon chains of consumption that pull in water, food and energy, and export waste. Urban influence is felt far beyond administrative boundaries through migration and the impact of urban demands on rural markets and livelihoods – opening opportunities but also challenging established cultures and values including those that shape people’s relationships with nature and the environment. In consequence, there are few places and economic systems that are not touched by urbanisation, so that the world today can be thought of as a web of interactions drawing the rural and urban, small and large cities closer together. In this short paper I build on Hogan and Marandola Jr.’s assessment of the ways in which population interacts with urban disaster risk through demographic trends and urban settlement hierarchies. First, a note on the relatively recent realisation that cities are at risk.

The urban transition from security to risk

In 1981, Amartya Sen described cities as places of refuge from famine where food stores, economic opportunity and political accountability provided a buffer from environmental change. Even today this is the dominant perception of cities reflected in a lack of research and funding for urban resilience (Vale and Campanella, 2005). Today though, cities are better described as hotspots of disaster risk. Risk comes from increasing poverty and inequality and failures in governance, high population density, crowded living conditions and the siting of residential areas close to hazardous industry or in places exposed to natural hazard (including the modification of environments which generates new hazard, e.g. through the loss of protective mangroves to urban development, or subsidence following ground water extraction). The dominant solutions – regularised urban planning and grand engineering projects – provide security for some but exclude many more. This need not be the case. Cities continue to be able to draw on the human, intellectual, financial and material resources that can bring security. But the priorities that shape urban decision-making and governance have not delivered equitable and sustainable risk reduction either as part of development or in response and reconstruction from disaster events. The rapid population growth of cities has exacerbated this trend and increased the stakes (many more people now have their lives and livelihoods threatened), but population growth is not the principal underlying causal factor. Rather, the increasing pace of urbanisation has finally forced us to recognise that established practices and dominant values for planning and development in cities have lead to an accumulation of inequality, marginalisation and disaster risk over time.

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Urbanization and Disaster Risk

Panel contribution to the Population-Environment Research Network Cyberseminar on Population and Natural Hazards (November 2007) http://www.populationenvironmentresearch.org/seminars.jsp

by Mark Pelling, Reader in Human Geography. Hazards, Vulnerability and Risk Unit, Department of Geography, King’s College London, UK, mark.pelling@ kcl.ac.uk

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