Urban Risk Reduction

Risk in urban areas is a combination of two factors: first, location and exposure to hazards; and second, increased vulnerability due to poor local governance, environmental degradation, and the overstretching of resources. Disaster risks from extreme natural hazards are compounded by these everyday risks, resulting in a process of “risk accumulation” specific to urban areas, where risk is amplified by human activities. Urbanization, therefore, often increases the exposure of people and economic assets to hazards and creates new patterns of risk, making the management of disasters in urban areas particularly complex.

Nevertheless, urban areas can also provide opportunities for reducing risks. Cities are usually the economic drivers within their countries and the centers of intellectual, political, business and financial activities.  Urban risk reduction delivers many benefits. When successfully applied as part of sustainable urbanization, resilient cities can help reduce poverty, increase growth and employment opportunities, deliver greater social equity, fresh business opportunities, more balanced ecosystems as well as better health and improved education.

Local and National Government

Mayors and local governments hold key positions in building resilience to disasters. Mayors provide leadership for the well‐being of their constituencies. Local governments deliver essential services such as health, education, transportation and water. They issue construction permits, manage public works and plan their urban development, all of which provide opportunities to ensure reducing community’s vulnerabilities and risk to disasters.  
Furthermore, adequate governance is fundamental for the sustainability of urban risk management and risk reduction. Institutional and legislative systems at the municipal level must ‘own’ the disaster reduction process. Local authorities should allocate sufficient financial resources to ensure that risk reduction programmes are implemented, and ensure that there is adequate capacity to monitor compliance with comprehensive rules and regulations. Support in this area should include reviewing and amending municipal institutional and legislative frameworks; proposing institutional strengthening programmes to enhance local capacity; reviewing and amending existing zoning regulations, building codes and by-laws, and sensitizing building experts to these; and disseminating guidelines for appropriate institutional arrangements to the most vulnerable cities. 



Community Organization

Civil society ‐ including the national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies ‐ plays a complementary role in urban risk reduction. They provide the indispensable link between public authorities and citizens, and are present in vulnerable areas before, during and after emergencies and crises. The range of support they provide includes, services to vulnerable groups, capacity building, community outreach, social mobilization, advocacy, and awareness raising regarding risk reduction (e.g. health and hygiene promotion and safety and resilience).

More than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. In addition, almost a billion people live in slums or marginal and informal settlements without access to basic services and often on high‐risk areas.  The risk  of  disasters  is  increasing  globally  and  is  highly  concentrated  in  middle‐  and low‐income countries. Moreover, failed infrastructure, environmental degradation and challenges posed by climate change ‐ including sea level rise ‐ make many urban dwellers more vulnerable to natural hazards.

The largely unplanned expansion of cities to accommodate rapid population growth, combined with inappropriate land-use planning and the failure of urban authorities to regulate building standards, contribute to the vulnerability of urban populations. In addition, inadequate living conditions of poor populations – including poor health, inadequate nutrition, poverty, illiteracy, and deficient or non-existent sanitation – constitute a permanent threat to their physical and psychological security and create “everyday risks” which cause small-scale disasters on an ongoing basis. 

Increased efforts to better grasp the inherent complexities and diversity of cities and an enhanced understanding of the interdependencies between cities and their surrounding areas are needed to inform sustainable urban development planning and the effective implementation of disaster risk reduction programs in urban areas. 

If managed well, cities have huge potential for influencing improvements in risk management. These advances are achievable through economies of scale and the proximity of risk-reducing infrastructure and services, such as provision for sanitation, drainage, waste collection, health care and emergency services, and through the use of the high-level technical expertise and knowledge that cities often contain. Urban centers typically have people with comparatively higher levels of education in better informed communities and powerful economic and political interest groups controlling economic resources – all of which are potential amplifiers of DRR efforts. 

Risk Reduction Actions:
  • Risk mapping: evaluating then mapping risk based on data like recurrence of weather events, and the area’s physical and socioeconomic characteristics, infrastructure and exposure to the
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  • Micro-zoning: based on precise knowledge of how risk is distributed spatially, zones with similar risks are grouped and mapped, which then determines the type of construction and standards appropriate for the zone
  • Updating building codes: use good information to determine building height, type of foundations and materials used 
  • Land-use regulations: prohibit or limit urban development in hazard-prone areas
  • Retrofitting: modifications to existing buildings to add structural stability
  • Innovative insurance mechanisms for low-income groups: risk transfer mechanisms for those that cannot access individual insurance for their assets
  • Engagement: include low-income affected groups living in high-risk zones

[Sources: ELLA, Disaster Risk Redution in Urban Areas/ UNDP, Urban Risk Management]