Disaster response arenas in fragile urban settings

Keywords: disaster risk management (DRM); urban governance; fragility

Responding to the reality that rapid urbanisation is taking place at a planetary scale, this panel examines the practices and policies of disaster responders in complex urban settings. Fragility is seen here to manifest spatially, in terms of the expansion of peripheral slums and shanty towns, often over degraded landscapes and with challenging access to services and employment, but also politically, where in many cases state and non-state actors compete violently for power and control. Considerable ‘governance gaps’ may occur, that respond to strategic exclusion of certain sectors of the city, a lack of effective capacity, or indeed both. The notion of urban transience, in which new arrivals to the city constantly negotiate unfamiliar settings as they seek to construct viable livelihoods, adds further complexity to hazard and disaster situations. These combined challenges would call for sound planning and organised decision making, but this is clearly far from reality in many cases.

The panel thus probes the arenas in which diverse disaster responders attempt to provide emergency relief as well as longer-term risk reduction in fragile urban settings. How do local governments engage with at-risk communities and international agencies to deliver on-the-ground assistance? How do the policies of international agencies cater to local vulnerabilities and capacities in fragile urban environments? We seek papers that examine the complexity of factors that contribute to disaster alongside the multi-dimensional nature of urban disaster risk management and recovery. We welcome practical and empirical analyses by disaster responders and/or city planners across all continents, but also consideration of more conceptual issues associated with the nature of urban disaster governance in the 21st century.


IFRC World Disasters Report 2010: Focus on Urban Risk.
Birkmann, J. et al (2008). Extreme events and disasters: a window of opportunity for change? Analysis of organizational, institutional and political changes, formal and informal responses after mega-disasters. Natural Hazards 55: 637-655
Chatterjee, M. (2010). Slum dwellers response to flooding events in the megacities of India. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change. 15; 337-353
Coates, R. and Garmany, J. (2017) The Ecology of Citizenship: understanding vulnerability in urban Brazil, International Development Planning Review, 39, 1
Duijsens, R. and M. Faling (2014) Humanitarian challenges of urbanisation in Manila: the position of the Philippine Red Cross in a changing disaster and aid landscape, in: Resilience: International Policies, Practices and Discourses, 2, 3
Muggah, R. (2014) Deconstructing the fragile city: exploring insecurity, violence and resilience, Environment and urbanization, 26(2): 345-358
Pelling, M. & Blackburn, S. eds. (2011) Megacities and the coast: risk, resilience, and transformation, London, Routledge
Pelling, M. and Wisner, B. (2012) Disaster Risk Reduction: Cases from urban Africa, Earthscan.

Robert Coates

Robert is a lecturer at the Sociology of Development and Change (SDC) group at Wageningen University, the Netherlands. His research focusses on the political ecology of urban landslide and flood risk in Brazil, especially as relates to informal settlement, deforestation, and citizenship politics. Contact: robert.coates@wur.nl

Gemma van der Haar

Gemma is assistant professor at SDC in Wageningen University. She has worked on different issues connected to fragility, in both conflict and disaster-affected settings. She is interested in multiple insecurities in urban settings and the governance dynamics around these.