X Close

The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


How and in what ways can local-level risk information about health and disasters influence city government practices and policies?

Cassidy AJohnson28 February 2019

This blog is the fourth of the health in urban development blog series. View also:

Treat, contain, repeat: key links between water supply, sanitation and urban health
By Pascale Hofmann

Health in secondary urban centres: Insights from Karonga, Malawi
By Don Brown

Gaza: Cage Politics, Violence and Health
By Haim Yacobi


If you are interested in DPU’s new MSc in Health in Urban Development, more information can be found on our website.


Over the last few years there have been several initiatives to develop practical and policy-relevant ways to measure environmental risks faced by low-income groups. This has been in response to a severe lack of information about disaster and health risks available for policy makers to draw on in most low- and middle-income nations. There is a need for both detailed settlement-level data, particularly for informal settlements, as well as for aggregated data needed to inform city-level or national interventions[i]. In this blog, I discuss innovative methodologies that are being developed in cities of the Global South to generate much needed data for action.

Innovative methodologies for understanding health and disaster risks at the urban scale

Innovative methods developed for understanding and measuring these risks range from profiling and mapping informal settlements with community-led or co-production approaches, to detailed analysis of hospital, police and newspaper records. Other methods seek to build consensus based on perceptions and experiences of risk with communities and local governments. DesInventar is a collection of national, regional and city-level databases, which use newspaper reports, as well as police, hospital and accident records to create a detailed portrait of both large or intensive disasters and small-scale extensive disaster events. Other methodologies such as Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) settlement profiling and Action at the Frontline use community-generated information about resident’s experiences of health and disaster risks in order to enter into dialogue with municipal governments about their needs. ReMapRisk uses community-generated risk information and offers a spatial analysis with maps to interrogate and visualise the information, there are maps for Lima (Peru), Karonga (Malawi) and Freetown (Sierra Leone).  Other approaches, such CityRAP, The City Resilience Index and 10 Essentials for Making Cities Resilient focus on the municipal government’s perspectives of risks and capacities for addressing risk at the city-level, and often in dialogue with communities.


Health and disaster risks faced by the urban poor

These studies have found that women, men and children living in informal settlements are disproportionally exposed to small and large-scale disaster risks such as flooding, landslides and fires, as well as everyday risks, such as water borne illnesses and poor air quality. For example, the AXA-funded research I have been involved in in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, used Action at the Frontline methodology, with household surveys, focus groups and action planning Mtambani settlement in Ilala municipality and Bonde la Mpunga settlement in Kinondoni municipality[ii]. The communities identified crime, poor solid management, lack of storm-water drainage infrastructure, lack of wastewater and toilet infrastructure, lack of basic health services and hospitals, flooding, high living costs and drug abuse as the main issues in their settlements. Many of these are directly related to health problems, such as malaria, diarrheal disease and personal safety. While big disasters, such a major floods, earthquakes, tsunami and windstorms do affect the health and welfare of millions across the globe every year, it is actually the smaller events and everyday risks that impact the greatest number of people’s health and well-being.


These different methods of understanding risks have been employed in close partnerships between researchers, community organisations, municipal authorities and other research users in many cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America. While there are many innovative initiatives for understanding and measuring risks, the data still remains extremely patchy and limited in scope. Furthermore, and its uptake into municipal government operations and planning is not guaranteed.


Principles for the uptake of risk information in urban planning and policy making

Through the Urban Africa Risk Knowledge programme[iii], researchers have identified some principles related to the uptake of local-level risk information into planning and policy making: 1) It is important not just to provide the type of information that are assumed to be useful, but to work closely with partners in identifying data that will be useful for policy and practice[iv]. 2) The community-driven process can be more conducive to driving change in practice and policy in local government than expert-driven data. The use of local knowledge that comes through communities collaborating with local level decision-makers can capture the qualitative experiences of risks and measure the burdens arising from these risks, while enabling communities to engage with local governments/state about their needs[v]. 3) Small steps at collecting local data that are ‘good-enough’ can be valuable in the beginning.[vi] 4) Project-based risk measurement initiatives are rarely enough to make a difference in government practices and policies. What is required is long-term and sustained engagement with information that is regularly updated. 5) Improving official data collection, such as census, vital registration systems and healthcare records will be necessary to systematically address disaster and health risks in informal settlements[vii].


Many cities in low- and middle- income countries, and especially in sub-Saharan Africa, do not have functioning local governments, they lack a metropolitan structure or their resources are too meagre to take on new initiatives. While some progress has been made in developing methodologies that help us to better understand the everyday and small-scale disaster risks that underpin women’s, men’s and children’s health in informal settlement, there is still much more to do to scale up these initiatives and to enable local governments to take actions to address risks.



[i] Satterthwaite, D and Sverdlik, A (2018). Assessing health risks in informal settlements in sub-Saharan African cities. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No. 10. June 2018. Available from: https://www.urbanark.org/assessing-health-risks-informal-settlements-sub-saharan-african-cities

[ii] Osuteye, E. at al. (2018). Communicating risk from the frontline: projecting community voices into disaster risk management policies across scales. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No. 19. October 2018. Available from:

[iii] See www.urbanark.org

[iv] Dodman, D., Leck, H. and F. Taylor (2017). Applying multiple methods to understand and address urban risk. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No. 7. July 2017. Available from: https://www.urbanark.org/applying-multiple-methods-understand-and-address-urban-risk

[v] Osuteye, E. at al. (2018). Communicating risk from the frontline: projecting community voices into disaster risk management policies across scales. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No. 19. October 2018. Available from: https://www.urbanark.org/communicating-risk-frontline-projecting-community-voices-disaster-risk-management-policies-across

[vi] Spaliviero, M. at al. (2019). Urban Resilience building in fast-growing African Cities. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No. 20, January 2019. Available from: https://www.urbanark.org/urban-resilience-building-fast-growing-african-cities

[vii][vii] Adelekan, I.O. and D. Satterthwaite (2019). Filling the data gaps on everyday and disaster risks in cities: The case of Ibadan. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No 22. January 2019. Available from: https://www.urbanark.org/filling-data-gaps-every-day-and-disaster-risks-cities-case-ibadan

Cultura Negada: Reflecting on Racialised Urban Violence and Practices of Resistance in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil

FedericaRisi9 July 2018

Prominent academic debates around violence in the city most often seem to be concerned with how structural economic and political drivers codify violence into the urban space. To appropriate Harvey’s terminology, with how urbanisation by dispossession – in other words marginalisation – of urban groups contributes to increasing crime rates and gangs-related violence. It is only in recent decades that ‘institutional’ abuse  – perpetrated by police forces under the blind eye of the Hobbesian state – as well as more structural forms of selective and – most often –  race-based violence are confronted[1]. And yet as a category of analysis of the urban, violence emerges as a causally less linear and more nuanced construct.

Measurability of course is an issue and deserves being questioned. What indicators are taken into account when defining urban violence? What types of data are considered? Who collects them? How are they read and  disseminated? The action research conducted in Salvador, as part of the MSc Social Development Practice overseas field trip, has evidenced how municipal – and national – indexes reflecting increasing rates of homicides as related to organised-crime, robbery and drug trafficking overlook important aspects of the realities of violence lived everyday by vulnerable urban communities. Vulnerability on its end also warrant a discussion on methodology. Drawing from the Participatory Action Research (PAR) tradition in urban planning, vulnerability is here understood as socially (re)produced and as related to asset ownership (Moser, 1996; drawing on Sen, 1981) and the capacity to cope with shocks; whether environmental, economic, political or all of these combined.

In this blog series, I undress some reflections on how Salvador, the blackest city of Brazil, epitomises such a nuanced appreciation of how violence is urbanised, that is, how it becomes spatially codified in the city;  and in turn is itself an agent of urbanisation. Graffiti[2] is offered as an entry point for the analysis.


Aesthetics of inequality. View of Saramandaia, Salvador, Brazil.

In context..

The Bahian capital is a city of contrasts and embodies the clash between the gentrifying force of globalisation as it manifests in the built environment and locally grounded social action reclaiming identity as forgotten history. Identity as ethnicity. Identity as part of the rich African heritage of Brazil and its institutional neglecting. As Kwame Dixon (2016) aptly elucidates in his book Afro-Politics and Civil Society in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, the country abolished legal slavery in 1888, but provided no institutional mechanism to free former slaves from racial discrimination. Almost a hundred years later, when Brazil returned to democracy in the 1980s, burgeoning blocos afros[3], black social and political movements revendicating Afro-Diasporic consciousness emerged to seek racial justice and equality, to claim their ‘right to the city’ as a right to live and exist in the city.


Despite having one of the oldest and largest black populations of the Americas, Salvador has never elected a black mayor nor has the Bahian State chosen a black governor to date (Dixon, 2016). And, if urban violence seems to follow the racial and spatially confined pattern of poverty in the city, with residents of majority black, poverty-stricken neighbourhoods being more likely to be killed than their better-off, white neighbours (Chaves Viana et al, 2011; Huggings, 2004); institutional memory as well as public opinion as shaped by the media exert more intangible, narrative forms of violence on these vulnerable groups. These narrative forms of dispossessions become activating agents of citizenship and identity revindication from within the city.

“Minha Vida” – My Life. Graffiti in Barra District, Salvador, Brazil.

I wanted to talk about cultural syncretism, I ended up taking about violence…

It would be amiss to document and account for the richness and multitude of cultural manifestations in Salvador without engaging with how these are shaped by violence in the city, and how, in turn, they impinge on it.

A graffiti tour of Ladeira da Preguiça, literally “Slope of Laziness” helped vividly retrace the institutionalisation of racialised violence in Salvador. In the 17th century, the road, which historically connected the port area[1] (cidade baixa) to the upper city[2] (cidade alta), was used by African slaves to carry goods on their shoulders while being shouted at “to move faster” (Moreira, 2018). With the development of more easily accessible routes in modern[3] Salvador, the Ladeira and its people were abandoned by public power. The area, as a result of its narrow streets and vacant warehouses, slowly lent itself to organised crime and, most recently, to drug-trafficking.

In recent years, the stigma[1] of violence and insecurity –which is almost as damaging as violence itself– eventually provided the perfect justification for the municipality to push forward a privatisation project that was meant to regenerate –and gentrify– the area. Local moradores (“residents”), however, joined forces and, in 2013, collectively mobilised to rehabilitate the Ladeira, reconstructing collapsed mansions and painting decaying façades with colourful graffiti referencing the African Diaspora; exposing Brazil’s institutionalised culture of exclusion as a means to call for the city to remember and for reclaiming their housing rights. A vibrant cultural centre was founded by residents themselves, Centro Cultural “Que Ladeira é Essa?”, to breath a culture of resistance through art. By calling attention to Brazil’s rich African heritage, the centre offers classes of  capoeira, afro-samba dance and percussions as well as painting and graffiti workshops. Cultural offerings then become an element of aggregation, an instrument for articulating a powerful counter-narrative to deconstruct stereotypes.

To say that civic action is a reaction to violence would be simplistic and necessarily reductionist. Nevertheless, the tradition of survivalism through art and symbolism[2] has permeated the urbanisation of Salvador as emerging from the oppression and structural exclusion of black populations within the city (for a comprehensive analysis of the evolution of Brazilian popular culture read: Assunção, 2003).


Reflecting on causality

On the one hand, local practices of resistance rooted in the syncretism of Salvador’s condemned[3] neighbourhoods are an unapologetic expression of resistance to the stereotyping narrative of the city. A violent narrative of violence; one that lexically and imaginatively reduces majority black-afro-descendant communities to urban realities of degradation, crime, and carencias (“deprivations”) . A narrative that is reminiscent of colonial oppression and a revivified vehicle of neoliberal domination.

Capoeira dancer. Graffiti in Pelourinho.


On the other, it is precisely because of this concatenated cycle of oppression-marginalisation that non-white urban communities find themselves more exposed to violence stemming from their surrounding, built as well as non-built, environments.


In this direction, there is room for critical urban theory to expand its scope to explore how violence – and even more so the fear of it – shapes city making. In fact, if market forces and political discourses are key determining factors in the urbanisation of violence, in its physical as well as narrative manifestations, violence too influences how people (re-)claim the city, how they move inside the city, use collective spaces, build or adapt their houses.


Our co-investigation with local urban collectives and social movements in Salvador has revealed how urban violence and fear thereof shape the social production of urban habitats and community practices around culture, housing, use and production of collective space and mobility. Further considerations and findings from our field trip will be collated in a report produced with our partner, the research group Lugar Comum, and published in the coming autumn.



Assunção, M.R. (2003). “From Slave to Popular Culture: The Formation of Afro-Brazilian Art Forms in Nineteenth-Century Bahia and Rio de Janeiro”. Iberoamericana, Vol.3, No.12, pp.159-176.

Dixon, K. (2016). Afro-Politics and Civil Society in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. University Press of Florida.

Huggings, M.K. (2000). “Urban Violence and Police Privatization in Brazil: Blended Invisibility”, Social Justice, Vol.27, No.2, Issue 80, Criminal Justice and Globalization at the New Millennium (Summer 2000), pp. 113-134.

Manco, T., Lost Art, and Neelon, C. (2005). Graffiti Brasil .Thames & Hudson: London.

Moreira, W (2018). Graffiti Tour, Ladeira da Preguiça. 09/05/2018.

Moser, C.O.N. (1996). “The asset vulnerability framework: Reassessing urban poverty reduction strategies”. World Development, Vol.26, No.1, January 1998, pp.1-19.

Moser, C.O.N. (2004). “Urban Violence and Insecurity: an Introductory Roadmap”. Environment and Urbanization, Vol.16, No.2, October 2004.

Resident. (2018). Interview. Graffiti Tour, Ladeira da Preguiça. 09/05/2018.

Sen, A. (1981). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Clarendon Press, Oxford.


Federica Risi is the Graduate Teaching Assistant of the MSc Social Development Practice. Herself a DPU graduate from the MSc Environment and Sustainable Development, Federica has experience in participatory action research focused on urban risks. She is also a Research Associate at the Pastoral Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa (PENHA), where she is conducting an investigation on South-South Cooperation between Peru, Brazil and the Horn region.


[1] Residents reported that identifying as black and “saying you are from the Ladeira, it’s like admitting you are a criminal”, which “[…] stops you to get a job and continue education” (Resident, 09/05/2018).

[2] Capoeira  and Candomblé rituals for example, emerged as practice for African slaves to compensate for the loss of identity (Assunção, 2003, p.160).

[3] Carnival Blocks.

[4] In the sense of being publicly perceived as unsafe and rife with violence.

[5] Where Portuguese ships would arrive to deliver materials and goods, historically, the part of the city dedicated to commercial activities.

[6] Here, were established the main government offices and churches; also where the aristocracy resided.

[7] Referring to the end of Portuguese colonial domination and Brazil’s independence in 1822.

[8] In the October 2004 No.2 Issue Vol.16 of Environment and Urbanization, with the article ‘Urban Violence and Insecurity: an Introductory Roadmap’,  Caroline O.N. Moser draws on Galtung to extend the notion of violence as going “beyond situations of overt brutality to include more implicit forms such as exploitation, exclusion, inequality and injustice” (p.6). In this sense “…violence [can be] built into the structure [of society,] …show[ing] up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances” (Galtung, 1969 cited in Moser, 2004, p.6).

[9] Drawings and writings scribbled or painted through a variety of techniques on public walls; “a vehicle for [the excluded] of the city to assert their existence and self-worth, and to do it loudly” (Manco et al., 2005).


Skip to toolbar