The vulnerability of cities

by Mark Pelling

On 10 July 2000, a mountain of solid waste collapsed at Payatas, the main rubbish site in the city of Manila, in the Philippines. It killed 300 people. The story of Payatas tells us much about what makes cities dangerous places and how this danger can be abated. The hazard came from a combination of bad weather (heavy rainfall) and bad management. Vulnerability was present in the 300,000 people who found Patayas to be the only place they could live and work, relying on rubbish recycling for their family livelihoods. But resilience can also be found in this disaster. The Philippines has a strong tradition of civil society and legal system, the residents of Payatas organised, and with the help of human rights lawyers, set about suing for compensatory and moral damages.

Cities have long been seen as places of refuge at times of drought or fl ood in the countryside. But the rapid expansion of urban populations and worsening economic inequality has shifted the balance of disaster risk from rural to urban (sometime around 2000–2010 the global population became predominantly urban). Life in cities tends to be more dangerous than rural life. People have to survive in a money economy, may be more socially isolated than in rural communities and have to contend everyday with many economic and social as well as environmental hazards. However this need not be the case. Urban hazard and vulnerability are not givens but the product of inadequate access to basic urban services, of economic and political inequality and of poor governance.

Urbanisation has changed the personality of disaster risk. Cities have become ‘crucibles of risk’. There are complicated and concentrated interdependencies between infrastructure, transport networks and peoples’ lives which mean that small events can have large knock-on effects in the city. All the more so if city infrastructure has neither spare capacity nor overlapping functions in its design. In such situations a local landslide or fl ood that closes a small section of road or railway can lead to massive downstream disruption in the urban economy. One measure of a city’s resilience is its fl exibility to cope with closures in elements of its infrastructure networks be this health care, education or transport.

For individuals as well as the city as a whole, inadequate building construction and planning are the most important contributing factors to urban disaster deaths. The 30,000 deaths in December 1999 caused by landsides in Venezuela or the 43,000 deaths in Bam, Iran could all have been signifi cantly reduced. In Venezuela poverty forced people to live on steep slopes and in Iran housing had not been retrofitted despite the high earthquake risk. These examples point to the more fundamental challenge to urban disaster risk reduction – urban governance. Planning guidelines and hazard maps are of little use if they are circumvented or ignored. The deaths in Venezuela and Iran were a wake-up call. We need new ways of making disaster preparedness and hazard prevention a core concern of urban planning. This is quite a challenge, for some cities more than 50% of the population lives and works outside of formal planning control. How can we hope to reduce urban risk when city authorities often do not have the resources to fully map let alone respond to the needs of more than half their residents?

the scope of urban governance. Inclusive governance can bring together the energies, knowledge and resources of civil society as well as the public and private sectors. There are dangers in partnerships. It is important that vested interests do not have undue infl uence, and that the vulnerable and economically poor do not have additional burdens for risk reduction dumped upon them. But there are examples where partnerships have led to increased security. In the neighbourhood of Los Manguuitos in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, six community organisations and a local nongovernmental organisation called IDDI have worked together to build a local garbage collection service. The process of building this community strengthened business ties between the various groups involved. During Hurricane Georges in 1998 around 200 households were damaged in Los Manguitos, however community members organised the evacuation of vulnerable households and helped meet basic needs for a week after the event when outside agencies arrived.

Local or municipal government is perhaps the most critical actor in urban governance. Only local government can act as a facilitator between local communities and the state, between civil society and the private sector. Most importantly it is only local government that is elected and can represent the diverse communities of the city. In recent years it has not been fashionable for donors or national government to support local government but the tide here is turning and real opportunities exist for building imaginative urban development policy centred around inclusive governance. The experiences of Los Manguitos and Payatas show how important good governance is to urban risk reduction.

Mark Pelling is the Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geography of King’s College, University of London and the author of The Vulnerability of Cities: natural disasters and social resilience, Earthscan, London, 2003.

< Previous  |   Next >