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Urban risk in African cities

video watch Adriana Allen DPU UCL urban risk Africa cycle exposure hazard vulnerability capacity act Freetown Sierra Leone SLURC everyday impact
The introduction of sustainable development goals dedicated to making cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable, reflects the importance of urbanisation in the post-2015 development agenda. The challenges facing this agenda will be increasingly concentrated in Africa and Asia, where the majority of the world’s future urban growth is set to occur, but where the capacity to plan for equitable urban development, provide risk-reducing infrastructure, and adapt to weather-related hazards, is most lacking. At the same time, little is known about how urban risks are distributed, due to a lack of detail and spatial data on the impacts at the urban scale.
But even less is known about the how social and political factors are combining with fast-changing environmental conditions to ingrain risk accumulation cycles into urban development processes. This session will introduce; what urban risk means, and why it matters; the wide spectrum of hazards that affect African cities and citizens; who is most affected; and why and how a better understanding of the urban risk development nexus can help transform in the present and future of African cities. During the last two decades, the development of African cities has been characterised by fast growth and dramatic changes to the urban fabric that often compromise human well-being and environmental sustainability.
Increased inequalities force low-income groups to settle on marginal lands, reinforcing their exposure to a wide spectrum of risks, and imposing severe impacts on the everyday life, livelihoods, and assets of the urban poor, as well as environmental and socioeconomic futures of cities. This means that urban development is a driver as much as a solution for risk, and vulnerability a threat to poverty eradication. Understanding the linkages between urban development processes and risk accumulation is therefore vital if development is to be a force to reducing, rather than producing and reproducing, risk.
For instance, urban centres in low-elevation coastal areas are likely to be more affected by hazards, such as recurrent floods, and at risk from sea level rise, stronger storms, and other hazards induced by climate change. Negative impacts are typically higher for those living in informal settlements with poor tenure security and inadequate protective infrastructures. And within these settlements, even higher for tenant households headed by women, and with a high number of dependent children. The previous point reminds us that who you are, and where you live and work, has significant consequences on how vulnerable you might be to be exposed and negatively affected by one, or multiple, hazards.
In turn, vulnerability influences people’s ability to act prior, during, and after a disaster event occurs. Furthermore, people’s capacity to act depends on the individual and collective access to and control over different types of assets, such as; savings and credit; adequate shelter and basic services and infrastructure; social networks; as well as recognition and entitlements, among others. In short, vulnerability and capacity to act can be understood as two sides of the same coin, both regulated not just by individual conditions but by collective capacities, as well as external forces that may either strengthen or undermine the right to live without risk. A further consideration refers to what type of risks affect the right to the city of the most vulnerable urban dwellers.
Typically, disaster risk management policies and interventions tend to focus on responding to large-scale, or so-called intensive events, such as earthquakes, high-impact landslides, and floods. However, across African cities, poor women and men face a wide spectrum of risks. Table 1 offers a comparative overview of their frequency, scale, and impact. These range from intensive disasters that can cause massive death and damages to infrastructure and property, to smaller-scale events, such as fires and localised floods and also everyday health hazards, such as respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases.
According to international sources, over the last 20 years there has been a significant increase in the number of local reports recalling high levels of losses caused by smaller-scale disasters and everyday hazards, such as those shown in figure 2.
We therefore witness a growing trend in the mortality, morbidity, and losses, attributed to preventable disasters closely linked to the development challenges faced in most African cities. Yet the extent and impact of everyday hazards and small-scale disasters, why they occur, and how they accumulate over time, are still poorly understood and tackled. Their consideration allows us to acknowledge and address the daily struggles and experiences of those women, men, girls, and boys most exposed to urbanisation under risk conditions. Grassroots-led data collection, and mapping tools such as ReMapRisk, can inform and strengthen community local government partnerships for risk reduction and bring to the fore the full spectrum of risks experienced by the urban poor.
The tool allows local communities to document and monitor how risk accumulation cycles materialise over time, where, and why, as well as what actions are taken, feeding spatial and temporal details into an interactive, online database. In sum, focusing on how multiple risks, both intensive and extensive, accumulate over time is imperative, as risk accumulation cycles not only have disproportionate impacts on the urban poor but also affect the present and future development of African cities. It is not just the incidence of individual disaster events, but that of risk accumulation, that weakens the efforts and investments paid by ordinary people, as well as public entities, to build and manage cities.
Therefore, understanding urban risk dynamics in relation to wider and historical process of urban development, marginalisation, and exclusion, opens new pathways to generate inclusive and integrated approaches to risk management as part of urban development planning.
In this video, Professor Adriana Allen will introduce the idea of risk and why it matters, the concept of everyday risk and people’s capacity to act, as well as looking to the future and a better understanding of the development – risk nexus.
You can also read this document (PDF format) which presents a more extensive version of Adriana’s video, including additional examples and images.
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Development and Planning in African Cities: Exploring theories, policies and practices from Sierra Leone

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