(Sample Article) 63. A Safe City Approach to Urban Sustainability: Developing a Framework for Community Resilience

(Sample Article) 63. A Safe City Approach to Urban Sustainability: Developing a Framework for Community Resilience



THE HISTORY of mankind traces the intrinsic relationship of human endurance and natural phenomenon. Favourable natural conditions facilitated growth of great civilisations while extreme natural events or disasters often resulted in their destruction. The fall of Indus Valley and Minoan civilisations are attributed to natural disasters. Even today, disasters cause extensive devastation all over the world, causing death, injuries, destruction of assets and devastation of economies and livelihoods. Even today, disasters cause huge devastation; on an average the global cost of disasters exceeded about US$ 100 million per year over the last decade (United Nations System Task Team, 2012). The Nepal Earthquake of 25 April 2015 which killed an estimated 8000 people has caused losses that .will take decades for the nation to recover from Just as disasters form an intrinsic part of human society, urbanisation has been its hallmark over the ages. Urban settlements evolved out of people’s needs for protection and security; or as centres of trade, storage of surplus produce, defence, religion or entertainment on the basis of a diversified economic base. The term “city” therefore implies a “concentration of people in a given geographic area who support themselves on a fairly permanent basis from the economic activities of the area” (Gallion & Eisner, 1986). Through history, cities of the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Aegean and mainland Greece emerged as centres of power, culture, aesthetics, trade, communication, and learning. Rapid urbanisation has been the hallmark of demographic growth in the 20 Century. The world urban population has increased rapidly from 228 million to 2.8 billion during the 20 th Century and is expected to go up to five billion by 2030 (United Nations Population Fund, 2007). In 2008, the urban population equaled the rural and is expected to grow rapidly in future, led primarily by Africa and Asia.

Urbanisation and Urban Risks are Inexorably Linked

  • The inevitable trend of urbanisation has both positive and negative connotations. As centres of economic activities, governance and trade, cities push economic growth of the region. Along with the development, cities also concentrate on issues of poverty, inequality, environmental damage and social disruption. However, the solutions to these issues also emerge from cities themselves, the advantages thus utweighing the disadvantages (United Nations Population Fund, 2007). The effort should be aimed towards promoting urban sustainability from its very outset. The urban landscape is highly vulnerable to disasters of various nature and intensities. Cities located in hazard-prone areas become more vulnerable due to overlapping of physical and socio-economic factors like unsafe housing, uncontrolled use of land, high population densities, lack of access of resources and unsafe livelihoods. Most major cities of the world are located in coastal regions or near river deltas, thus increasing their risk of hydro-meteorological disasters. Rapidly expanding cities are continuously creating new risks and challenges for disaster risk reduction. Increasing urbanisation, especially in Asia and Africa translate into habitation in unsafe areas like river flood plains, unstable slopes and coastlines, thus ensuring greater exposure to hazards. Most often, it is the poor and first-generation migrants who reside in these unstable sites, their risk compounded by their poverty, informal livelihoods, lack of access to services and financial backup.
  • The vulnerability of urban settlements arises from their inherent complexities and variations in built-form, socio-economic conditions and empowerment of citizens. About one billion people live in poor quality housing and slums in urban areas across the world, which is expected to grow to 1.4 billion by 2020 if stringent measures are not taken to reverse the trend (IFRC, 2010). A huge segment of urban dwellers remains vulnerable to risks. In addition to housing, massive deficits in provision of water and sanitation facilities are characteristics of many urban areas in middle and low income nations. Populations already exposed to these risks and recurrent small-level hazards like drainage congestion and waterlogging, pest infestation andvector-borne diseases become more vulnerable to catastrophic events and may lose the capacity to recover for decades (Dickson et al, 2012). Eight out of the 10 most populous cities in the world are exposed to seismic risks and most of the 30 Asian mega-cities are coastal, vulnerable to floods, cyclones, tsunamis. The concentration of population, housing, infrastructure, economic and socio-cultural activities, trade, commerce and governance in cities aggravate disaster risks so that even a moderate hazard event can cause a huge impact that can have global implications. The Tohuku Earthquake of 2011, with an estimated loss of 210-300 billion USD was the “costliest catastrophe ever” (Sundermann et al., Swiss Re 2013).

Dimensions of Urban Risk in India

  • The Indian urban scenario is characterised by high growth rate and primacy of cities. India’s urban population has increased from 25.85 million in 1901 to 377.2 million in 2011, an increase in share from 10.84 per cent to 31.2 per cent during the same period. This exponential urban growth has been marked by huge concentration of population in metropolitancentres leading to a top-heavy urbanisation process. Out of a total of 7935 urban centres, 468 Class I cities (each with a population exceeding 100,000) accommodates 70.24 per cent of urban population, leaving only 29.76 per cent spread over 7467 smaller towns. 42.62 per cent of urban dwellers reside in 53 million plus cities that occupy 0.2 per cent of the land area (IIHS, 2011). Rapidly increasing urban population and top-heavy urban morphology have led to a complex system of risks and vulnerability. Concentration of population, assets and economic activities characterise large Indian cities, making them the densest and vulnerable cities of the world. The implication of this growth manifests in sub-urbanisation, unplanned development, inadequate urban infrastructure and services. Unsafe buildings and locations, informal livelihoods and environmental deterioration further exacerbate urban risks and vulnerability.
  • Physical, social, economic and environmental dimensions combine to form complex risk scenarios in cities. The physical dimension of urban risks relate to the vulnerability of built form. About 39.9 per cent of total census houses in India have mud, stone or unburnt brick walls, which are vulnerable to very high damage from earthquakes, high winds and cyclones and floods. Burnt brick walls constitute 44.9 per cent of all houses, with high to medium vulnerability to disasters. Relatively stronger concrete and wood walls make up only 3.9 per cent of all houses thereby pointing to the severe vulnerability of built structures. In terms of roofs, light weight sloping roofs (34.8%) are less vulnerable than heavy weight sloping roofs (31.4%). In predominantly urban Delhi, 4.3 per cent houses with weak walls of unburnt brick, mud or stone show high vulnerability to earthquakes, strong wind of velocity 47m/s and floods. 91.7 per cent of houses have moderately vulnerable burnt brick walls, with medium vulnerability while only two percent have concrete or wood walls and another 1.9 per cent has walls of other materials, both showing medium to low vulnerability (Building Materials & Technology Promotion Council, 2006).
  • Socio-economic implications of risk are complex factors of migration, unsafe livelihoods, poverty, lack of access to public amenities and services. In addition to housing, massive deficits in provision of water and sanitation facilities are characteristics of many urban areas in middle and low income nations. 23.5 per cent of urban population lives in slums, revealing not only critical “shelter poverty” but also lack of basic urban services like water, sanitation and solid waste management. It is estimated that 23 million children under 14 years across Indian cities and towns are at risk from poor sanitation and eight million are at risk from poor water supply (High Powered Expert Committee, 2011).
  • Urban environmental risks arise from the complex interactions between the physical and social systems over space. Most major cities of the worldare located in coastal regions or near river deltas, thus increasing their risk of hydro-meteorological disasters. Rapid urbanisation has exposed more people to natural hazards by way of habitation on river flood plains, unstable slopes and coastlines. Urban form influences the urban ecosystem in terms of heat island effect, emission patterns and energy demand. Rapid urban transformation of the world combined with a changing climate is fast changing the risk profile of cities. Though long-term changes in trends of losses from disasters are not directly attributed to natural and anthropogenic climate change, it nevertheless adds additional dimensions of risk in an already complex urban system (Jha et al, 2013). Climate change implications of temperature and precipitation increase, sea level rise, intense cyclones have serious bearing on the risk of cities (Dodman, 2009,Dickson et al, 2012). While sea level rise and storm surges threaten coastal habitats and infrastructure, excess and intense precipitation causes higher frequency of flooding, urban landslides, road sinking, vector-borne diseases and epidemics, extreme heat and cold wave leads to higher morbidity and mortality, heat island effect, increased energy demand, water and air pollution, thereby adding to the complexity of risk scenario. The low and middle income nations are estimated to be most affected by climate change impacts (IFRC, 2010). An adaptive, inclusive, responsive and redundant approach to build urban resilience is imperative for risk-sensitive urban development (Jha et al 2013).

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Approaches to Urban Resilience

  • The approach to resilience in the context of disaster risk reduction implies a proactive system that reduces vulnerability on one hand and transforms and adapts to changing situations on the other. Derived from the Latin root “resiliere” meaning “to jump back” (Mayunga, 2007) resilience refers to the capacity to cope with and “bounce back” from the impact of disasters (Manyena et al, 2011). Urban risks arise out of concentration of population, economic activities and infrastructure, all functioning within a complex set of networks, exposed to natural forces and hazards. Yet, over millennia, cities have shown incredible resilience to natural disasters, military aggression and political disturbances (Vale & Campanella, 2005). Each city system, from Aleppo to Tokyo, London, San Francisco have faced plague, fire and earthquake to emerge as a vibrant economic centre.
  • Conversely, the inherent resilience is being seriously undermined in recent years by rapid development in unsafe locations, habitations and structures. The increasing potential of disaster loss in cities underlines the need for resilience within the systems and communities. Resilience refers to the ability of systems to cope with the shocks and stresses and adapt to the changed circumstances after the calamity (Manyena, 2009). Just as disasters are all encompassing, resilience needs to be integrated within governance systems, building systems, social dynamics and economic networks. Resilience, therefore should be seen as a public good used to build capacities of communities and systems to deal with disruptions (Jha et al, 2013).
  • The Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) drew the world’s attention to resilience in the context of hazards and disasters. The HFA defined resilience as “the capacity of a system, community or society potentially exposed to hazards to adapt by resisting or changing in order to reach and maintain an acceptable level of functioning and structure.” The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015-2030 has continued with its emphasis on enhancing resilience of people and countries, with an increased focus on inclusive and sustainable development. The Sendai Framework has shown a resolute approach to resilience through its advocacy of “inclusive, accessible and non-discriminatory participation” of vulnerable communities in disaster risk reduction.
  • Within the framework of disaster management, resilience is best considered as part of a system that includes organisations, communities and individuals. The system interacts with the external environment to transform itself and discharge the functions envisaged (Mukherjee, 2009). Cannon (2008) identifies three major resilience functions of risk reduction, emergency management and mitigation and recovery functions. Any society can be called resilient if they can simultaneously perform these functions.
  • Enhancing resilience is a process, in the context of individuals, households and communities. Building the capacity of communities for enhancing urban resilience refers to the continuous effort to reduce the existing risks to an acceptable level and urge transformation to adapt to future or emerging risks (Satterthwaite et al., 2013). The resilience approach, therefore needs to include robustness, redundancy, flexibility and integration of policies and investments with development. The need is to build resilience through inclusive cities not only pertaining to natural systems, but also social and economic systems. Aldrich (2012) identifies five dimensions of resilience as: (a) personal and familial socio-psychological well-being, (b) organisational and institutional recovery capacity (c) economic and commercial esumption of services and productivity (d) capacity of early restoration of infrastructural systems and (e) operational regularity of public safety and governance.

Resilience as a Factor of Urban Sustainability

  • The status of risk and resilience is directly related to sustainability of urban areas. The concept of sustainability as espoused by the Brundtland Commission Report Our Common Future in 1987, emphasised the need for optimal utilisation of natural resources without compromising preservation of genetic diversity and ecosystem maintenance (Kula, 1998). The declaration that sustainable development is that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs”, suggests human actions that balance social, economic and ecological objectives or needs today would enable sustainability of the future. The concept of sustainable development incorporates the basic concepts of needs in the social, environmental and economic spheres of activity and the limitations in terms of existing technology and prevailing social systems. The approach, therefore presupposes the existence of social, economic and environmental systems. Any disruptions or disturbances in the system compromise on the future generations. Disasters affect development and are in turn affected by development. Loss of lives, livelihoods, assets and infrastructure wipe out years of development gains of nations and communities. Compounding the loss, the investment required for restoration, reconstruction and rehabilitation put a huge pressure on the national economy and divert resources from social sectors. In addition to the direct loss, disasters often give rise to or aggravate other stresses and shocks like political instability, environmental degradation, social conflict, epidemics, etc. (UNDP, 2004). While on one hand, disasters cause loss of development benefits, flawed development choices often result in disasters, on the other. UNDP (2004) underscores this relationship by terming disasters as “a cause and product of failed development.” Inappropriate development interventions like building on unstable slopes or floodplains incrementally increases disaster risks and create unresolved development issues.
  • The intrinsic relationship between disasters and development puts it firmly in the paradigm of sustainability. According to Agenda 21, sustainability comprises of four major dimensions, socio-economic that focussed on poverty alleviation, resource conservation and management, empowering and ensuring participation of communities and indigenous groups, implementation through knowledge and technology transfer (Sustainable Cities International, 2012). Fragile ecosystems create or aggravate vulnerability, leading to unsafe living conditions and lack of well-being. Inefficient resource management causes climate change that can lead to extreme weather events and disasters. Therefore, development that prevents creation or aggravation of risk is sustainable. Following a development process that is safe from risks and builds resilience of communities will be sustainable in all four dimensions. This approach has people at the centre of all development and the livelihood assets that they can access like natural resources, technologies, skills, knowledge, sources of credit, etc. seen in conjunction with the factors that influence their access to assets, viz. vulnerability, seasonality and socio-political environment.

Building Resilient Cities through Resilient Communities

  • Just as the community is at the core of all development efforts, resilience of urban systems can only be achieved through community-led initiatives. Disaster resilient communities have to be created through enhancing their adaptive capacities by focusing on holistic risk reduction (Gall, 2013). Enhancing community resilience would involve the collective effort by the community, government and other grassroots level organisations through risk reduction, collective decision-making, organisational linkages and information dissemination efforts.
  • A resilient urban system is expected to demonstrate three primary characteristics of robustness to absorb shocks and stresses, redundancy of alternate systems and rapidity of response in case of emergency. In disaster management terms, robustness can be linked to the coordination of departments and agencies, promoting vertical and horizontal synergy. Laws, regulation, policies and plans make up a robust disaster management system. Redundancy implies existence of alternate response systems in the event of failure of the functioning system. Alternate communication and information channels, economic activities and access to services make for redundancy in a disaster situation. Regular rehearsal of plans, mock-drills, information on evacuation sites and procedures affect rapidity of response. Enhancing resilience of communities presupposes active participation and empowerment of communities. Norris et al (2008) identifies four sets of adaptive capacities that can build community resilience, viz. social capital,economic development, community competence and information and communication flows. Moral capital was identified as a crucially important form of community well-being and resilience by Stokols et al (2013). Therefore, community resilience underscores the safety aspect in terms of economic stability, awareness and communication of safety precautions, organisational linkages, community cohesion, access to infrastructure and consensual welfare development. The major resilience components of economic development, social capital, community competence and information communication status are powered by the governance system in place.

A Systems Approach to Disaster Resilience

  • The Systems Approach to Management emerged out of the need to combine the task and structure oriented classical management with the worker-centred behavioural approach of management (Mukherjee, 2009). The Systems Approach considers an organisation as a system comprising of interdependent parts that contribute to the functioning of the organisation. From the disaster resilience perspective, adopting a Systems Approach would be appropriate as the stakeholders operate within various systems. In a system analysis, community resilience is seen as a combination of efficiency of system response, rapidity of recovery and success of risk reduction.
  • A Systems Approach is dynamic, adaptive, multivariable, open (in case of social systems), integrated and interdependent (Mukherjee, 2009). Similarly, reducing disaster risks need the involvement of various dimensions or systems, viz natural, social, economic, infrastructural and institutional (governance). All these sub-systems make up the composite environment where hazards come into play. Each component influences and is in turn influenced by changes in others. For example, infrastructure development (infrastructure system) may result in shrinking urban forests (natural system) that increase pollution and impact community health (social system) and livelihood (economic system). Thus resilience needs to beconsidered as a systems issue, where interdependent components make up the universe. A Systems Approach considers task, structures, people and technology.

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