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Playing with goldfish: Engaging people through games in the age of the falling attention span

NausicaCastanas11 November 2016

Research in the age of the falling attention span

There is undeniably a great amount of social science research produced around the world. In the field of development, much of it aims to inform the public, perhaps even with the expressive aim of changing behaviours. Yet how can one produce engaging content when it is well documented that the general public cannot focus for more than seconds at a time? There has been substantial research on people’s decreasing attention span. In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman advanced his thesis that television and the emphasis placed on entertainment has altered the way people consume information, and decreased their ability to concentrate on issues they do not find pleasurable[i]. Nicholas Carr focused his study on the advent of the Internet, arguing that our use of the Internet not only makes absorption harder, it actually impacts our ability to be engrossed in written material both online and offline[ii][iii]. Statistics seem to concur with this thesis. A 2008 study found that Internet users spent 10 seconds or less on any given page over 50% of the time, while the average time for a stay on a page was placed between 2-3 seconds[iv]. A 2015 study by Microsoft found that overstimulation through the Internet and smartphones has decreased our attention span from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015, jokingly compared to the attention span of a goldfish[v].

 

The evidence is all around us: news videos online last on average under 3 minutes. In development, the trend is very much the same. Most organisations – including DFID, WaterAid and ODI to name a few – now produce a mix of short videos and infographics to present their material. Information is distilled in bite size pieces which audiences can easily digest.

 

Conversely, when people are engaged, they can focus for longer. And this is where things get interesting. Coming up with engaging ways to communicate information can make all the difference. And what better way to engage someone’s attention than turning the subject into a game? Playing games de facto retains the player’s attention, and, for that reason, they have long been used in education. Whether it was through educational board games or through the use of computer games in school for math or physics modules, most of us were exposed to learning in game format.

 

Games can therefore be a great communicative tool, especially for complex information. Openspace, the organisation I am currently working with in Bangkok, has teamed with Dr Wijitbusaba Ann Marome from the Faculty of Architecture and Planning at Thammasat University, to translate the results of a 5-year international research project of the Coastal Cities at Risk (CCaR) on urban resilience into a game.

The Urban Resilience Board Game

The Urban Resilience Board Game

 

Urban Resilience and the CCaR research

Coastal Cities at Risk (CCaR): Building Adaptive Capacity for Managing Climate Change in Coastal Megacities is a research project financed by Canada, looking at climate change and urban resilience, with respect to flooding in Vancouver, Lagos, Manila and Bangkok. CCaR uses modelling through the VENSIM program, using data derived from City System Dynamic model, to input known variables and produce future scenarios for these cities. Interestingly, the causes of flooding are different in each city, which allows for a broad field of study.

 

Urban Resilience refers to the capacity of a city to bounce back after a shock. The most widespread definition, coined by the Community and Regional Research Initiative on Resilient Communities (CARRI), defines resilience as the “capability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from significant multi-hazard threats with minimum damage to public safety and health, the economy, and national security”[vi]. As evidenced by this definition, urban resilience has adaptability and complexity at heart. It views cities as adaptive systems, where the interactions of a wide set of factors need to be taken into consideration. Moreover, preparedness is key to achieving urban resilience, as anticipating potential future threats to urban settings allows for greater adaptability. This becomes ever more significant given the looming threat of climate change, which already brings an increase in the occurrence and severity of extreme weather phenomena around the world. While urban resilience involves more than natural disasters, these are considered a central aspect of the threats that need to be countered.

 

In Bangkok, it is very intuitive to focus on flooding. Bangkok floods severely every couple of years, and, with climate change, the intensity is worsening. 2011 witnessed the worst flooding in decades; the year remains engraved in people’s minds and imagination, and routinely comes up in conversation as the benchmark for all subsequent flooding. The numbers are staggering: 884 people died, while a further 13.6 million were affected. 65 provinces were classified as disaster zones, and the World Bank estimated the total economic losses at $45.7 billion, making it one of the five most costly natural disasters in history[vii][viii].

 

To a lesser extent, Bangkok floods semi-regularly. For example, it only takes a heavy night’s worth of rain during the rainy season to flood Lat Prao, the area where I live. The CCaR research concludes that flooding in the Bangkok Metropolitan Region (BMR) will intensify as both the intensity and frequency of heavy rain will increase.

 

Perhaps surprisingly, the prevalence of flooding has not been linked to climate change or urban resilience, be it at policy level or in people’s minds. It is also telling that there is no government agency responsible for dealing with it. “It ranks low on the scale of political priorities, far behind questions of economic and social development” remarks Dr Marome, the leader of the CCaR team for Bangkok.

 

Dr Marome stresses the importance of preparing society. “While investing in infrastructure can be very useful, it can only ever represent 70% of dealing with climate change. The remaining 30% needs to be done by people themselves, through preparedness. Japan is a great example of that. The state provides different measures to mitigate earthquakes, from law and regulations to earthquake resistant structures, but society has also adapted. Children are being taught from a very young age how to prepare for earthquakes”.

 

Dr Wijitbusaba Ann Marome, Faculty of Architecture & Planning, Thammasat University

Dr Wijitbusaba Ann Marome, Faculty of Architecture & Planning, Thammasat University

 

In Bangkok, there is clearly a gap between the people who have the relevant information on the one side, and the wider public and government agencies on the other. The Urban Resilience Board Game tries to bridge this gap, by making information easily accessible to a wider public, beyond the scope of academics and people in the field.

 

The Urban Resilience Board Game

The game is played by 4 or 6 players, each the mayor of a Bangkok Metropolitan Region (BMR) – Bangkok Metropolis, Nakhon Pathom, Pathum Thani, Nonthaburi, Samut Prakan, and Samut Sakhon – and a facilitator. Each region has distinct characteristics and conditions, all based on the CCaR research findings: some are more developed, some have issues with waste management, some have issues with social cohesion, or environmental protection. Overall, there are six different urban futures, each affected by four different drivers: socio-economic factors, housing and land use, environment and health, and flood management.

 

All players are allocated an initial budget, to be used for future investments. The players roll the dice to advance on the board and get handed an event that they need to deal with. Events range from anything between a drug problem among the area’s youth to the construction of a fast train linking this area to its neighbours. The player needs to identify the risk, the opportunity, and, where necessary, invest to deal with the event. Points are allocated for correctly identifying each, and all need to be relevant to the specific area’s profile. This urges players to link different issues and eventually identify necessary investments in the short or long term.

 

In action: Playing the Urban Resilience Board Game, June 2016

In action: Playing the Urban Resilience Board Game, June 2016

Rolling a six or completing two rounds triggers a flood round. Flood intensity varies each time, and affects each region differently. An area’s resilience ultimately depends on preparedness stemming from investments in the previous rounds. For example, should an area have a serious garbage problem, investment in clean up prior to the flood round would increase resilience, as refuse not only obstructs drainage, thus worsening the flood, but also spreads diseases. During the flood round, all investment proposals need to be voted on by the mayors of the other regions: players need to argue their case to seek approval. The game ends when any participant reaches the end of the board; the player with the most points wins.

 

In action: Playing the Urban Resilience Board Game, June 2016

In action: Playing the Urban Resilience Board Game, June 2016

The Urban Resilience Board Game thus has a double role: first, it raises awareness about flooding and resilience, allowing people to think about urban resilience and find linkages between different issues. Second, it brings people from different backgrounds together and opens a dialogue that would not otherwise be happening, and certainly not under these conditions. In June 2016, Thammasat University and Openspace organised a workshop with academics, policy makers and representatives from the local government, specifically from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA). Many participants had no experience with these issues but all played the board game for two hours. The feedback was extremely positive, as they found the game both informative and entertaining. Interestingly, the game seemed to transcend political red tape, allowing people to consider flooding and urban resilience without the backdrop of the sometimes charged political considerations that happen in Thailand.

In action: The Urban Resilience workshop, June 2016

In action: The Urban Resilience workshop, June 2016

The appeal for planners is evident. The game opens a platform for people to discuss complex issues in an informal way. Instead of being confined by the structure and convention of a meeting or conference, participants can let their guard down and engage with the material in a new way. More importantly, the subject matter becomes accessible to people with no prior experience. In the guise of explaining the rules and aim of the game, facilitators are actually presenting the basic information for people to understand the core ideas of urban resilience. Yet all of this remains unthreatening; at the end of the day, it is only a game. The players are then pushed to really think about the issues, and see the connection between investments in infrastructure and cooperation with other regions, and achieving urban resilience. Their output is then fed back to the CCaR team and Openspace, who collect the documented actions that players took during the flood round. This is crucial, as it allows for a feedback loop into the research in a very direct way.

 

In the next months, more workshops will be organised. Moreover, Dr Marome and Thammasat University plan to train members of the public to be facilitators, allowing for greater exposure, perhaps even spilling to other Thai cities in the North. They are also working on having a workshop with urban policy planners from across Asia to play the game. The possibilities are endless, because who would not like to come play with us?

 

[i] Postman, N. 2005 [1985]. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. London: 2005 Penguin Books

[ii] Carr, N. 2008. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains”. The Atlantic. July-August 2008

[iii] Carr, N. 2010. The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. London: W. W. Norton & Company

[iv] Weinreich, H., Obendorf, H., Herder, E. and Mayer, M. 2008. “Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use”. ACM Transactions on the Web, Vol. 2, No. 1

[v] Mcspadden, K. 2015. “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish”. The Times, May 2015. Retrieved in September 2016 from http://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/

[vi] Wilbanks, T. 2007. The Research Component of the Community and Regional Resilience Initiative (CARRI). Presentation at the Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado- Boulder; as quoted in C. E. Colten, R. W. Kates, and S. B. Laska. 2008. Community Resilience: Lessons from New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. Retrieved in September 2015 from http://www.resilientus.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/FINAL_COLTEN_9-25-08_1223482263.pdf

[vii] Emergency Operation Center for Flood, Storm and Landslide. 2012. Flood, Storm and Landslide Situation Report. Retrieved in October 2016 from http://disaster.go.th/dpm/flood/flood54/news/news_thai/EOCReport17JAN.pdf [in Thai]

[viii] Impact Forecasting LLC. 2012. 2011 Thailand Floods: Event Recap Report. Retrieved in September 2016 from http://thoughtleadership.aonbenfield.com/Documents/20120314_impact_forecasting_thailand_flood_event_recap.pdf

 


Nausica is a DPU MSc Environment and Sustainable Development alumna. She is currently completing the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme in Bangkok, Thailand. All images taken by Nausica Castanas

Universal design in a divided world: The young architects building urban resilience through social inclusivity

CindyHuang4 October 2016

It’s hardly arguable that one of the most prevalent human activities is picking sides.  From ethnic conflicts down to people’s taste in music, the world finds itself divided – by nationalism, classism, other-isms or simply a difference of opinion.  And amid the Brexit aftershocks and cries over racial violence in the States, amid the broken trust and broken spirits flooding our news channels, where does the term “universal” stand?  How can we, in these circumstances, imagine a unified vision to take care of each other?

Although the built environment has a way of reinforcing social divisions, whether through gender-specific bathrooms or communities ghettoised by gentrification, it can also host spaces that inspire solidary over status, and spaces that actively embrace the most excluded people of our societies.  Today, pockets of planners and architects work to promote a less socially divided world, and some of them are doing it through universal design.

Universal design, defined

Often presumed as design for people with disabilities, universal design actually embraces a much broader definition.  It is “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.”[1]  In other words, it tries to befriend as many as possible – selfish in a selfless way.  It assumes all people have disabilities to some extent;[2] just as we gain abilities with age, we also lose abilities – whatever “normal” is on this spectrum will always be trend-related and misguided.

The term was coined by Ronald L. Mace, an American architect who at age nine contracted polio, became a wheelchair user, and in his twenties had to be carried up and down the stairs at university.[3]  It was perhaps forecasted, then, that he would help institute the first accessibility building codes in the United States in 1973, which went on to influence national policies including the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.[4]  During this period he also founded what is now the Centre for Universal Design at New Carolina University.

His legacy not only etched a space of dialogue for disability discrimination but also raised the question of what constitutes social norms to a new height.  “Unfortunately,” Mace said in a speech, “designers in our society also mistakenly assume that everyone fits this definition of ‘normal.’ This just is not the case.”[5]

 

Young Ronald L. Mace (source); Mace later in life as an architect (source)

Young Ronald L. Mace (source); Mace later in life as an architect (source)

 

Mace’s work evolved from recognising people’s differences to harmonising them – from disability design (focused on the inclusion of one group) to universal design (embracing all individuals’ differences).  The strength in universal design is that it simply acknowledges human diversity.  With no technical guidelines, it serves as a new reference point for practitioners, informed by anthropological understanding – sort of like a social justice challenge.

 

No rules attached

Tar-Saeng Studio, an offshoot of the collective Openspace with whom I’m working in Bangkok as part of the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme, is helping to grow universal design into Thai society.  Using participatory approaches channelled through the comforts of informality, they create spaces attentive to the often overlooked needs of elderly people and people with disabilities, who live on low-incomes or in poverty.  The studio is run by a small group of community architects who are in their mid-twenties to early thirties.  They represent a new generation of practitioners building urban resilience through inclusive design—both in product and process.

When I chatted with Tar-Saeng Studio founder Ploy Kasama Yamtree about universal design, I found it interesting that their work is largely dependent on the country’s institutional gaps.  “In Thailand, universal design is still linked to regulations, like the correct ratio for a ramp or handrail,” Ploy said, “But when you go into people’s bamboo houses, you see it’s not possible to have the 1:12 ratio because people just don’t have that type of space.”

Conveniently, building codes go unenforced in most remote or slum areas of Thailand, giving Ploy’s team creative freedom to shape genuinely usable spaces for those who need them.  “We go and figure out what we can do without following the rules,” she explained, “We are more interested in adaptive design.”

There’s a very human approach to all this.  Building codes unquestionably play a role in keeping our societies safe, but like with anything institutionalised they can be restrictive to the ever-changing contexts.  Tar-Saeng Studio chooses to carry out their work—safely and strategically—whether it adheres to the legal systems or not, for they do it to solve problems, not to abide by the confines that sustain problems.

And in the process they are making a point – “When we design and don’t follow building codes because it’s impossible to, it’s a statement we’re putting out there that these building codes need to change,” Ploy said.

Tar-Saeng Studio works with vulnerable populations to provide living environments suited to their needs. (Photo: Openspace)

Tar-Saeng Studio works with vulnerable populations to provide living environments suited to their needs. (Photo: Openspace)

 

Designing for Thai society

Before Tar-Saeng Studio was established, Openspace worked in some of Thailand’s poorest communities and noticed this widespread but untrodden issue.  In 2013, about 7.3 million people in Thailand lived below the poverty line, and another 6.7 million were at risk of falling below it.[6]  For these people, access to safe shelter is already a struggle.  Thailand is also the world’s third most rapidly aging country with more than 10 percent of people over 64 years old,[7] and it’s projected that by 2040 this number will jump to 25 percent—that’s one in every four people.[8]  And of the near 2 million people with disabilities,[9] almost 40 percent are above the age of 64.[10]   Adapting for an aging society in Thailand with increasing cases of disabilities is just smart planning, yet no one was doing it.

The first time Openspace actively applied universal design was in 2011, or as people here call it “flood year” – referring to the floods that caused 884 deaths and an estimated loss of 45.7 billion USD.[11]  In a riverside community in Pathum Thani province, elderly people felt uncatered for in the local amenities.  The goal was to create a space in which they can socialise, exercise, and spend time in.  More importantly, a space where they can connect with each other and lead healthier lives, and where the inherent vulnerabilities from unwanted isolation can dissipate over time.

Openspace worked side by side with the local people, like a true partnership.  Using low-cost materials like discarded bamboo and motorcycle tyres from nearby shops, they made an area consisting of benches at varying heights, a hanging garden, and an exercise station—it was modest, useful, beautiful.  The benches aimed to connect the elderly with the children; the hanging garden had attached platforms for stretching legs; the exercise station held removable weights made of stones stored in bamboo.  Everything served a purpose in bettering older people’s lives.  Equally as valuable were the skills gained and relationships reinforced within the community, and perhaps a proud sense of ownership to something they collectively brought to life.

A few months later came the floods during which the structures were destroyed.  Ploy heard that after the water subsided, the community rebuilt the space.  “It was really nice to hear,” she said.

Community members weaving a bench seat with recycled tyres for a socialising/exercising space for elderly people; the space being exhibited; the hanging garden on site of the community (Photos: Tar-Saeng Studio)

Community members weaving a bench seat with recycled tyres for a socialising/exercising space for elderly people; the space being exhibited; the hanging garden on site of the community (Photos: Tar-Saeng Studio)

 

Eager to pursue universal design with greater commitment, Openspace partnered with the Institute of Health Promotion for People with Disability, a government entity, on a four-month project involving seventeen people with disabilities living in underprivileged conditions.  Most of them were in rural housing unfit for accessibility building codes, and couldn’t afford the “standard” equipment for their needs.  This is the reality; affordability should be integral to accessibility but disability-focused design can be expensive, leaving out those who are poor.

Openspace visited the seventeen people across two provinces.  Case by case, they studied the clients’ health and living conditions then came up with low-cost design solutions, published in an illustrative book titled Differently-Abled Architecture.  It includes people with cerebral palsy, paraplegia, hemiplegia, deafness, blindness, and mobility difficulties from diabetes.

In one case, they created an “at-home playground” for an eight-year-old boy with cerebral palsy that allowed him to stretch different parts of his body and aid the development of his muscles and joints.  It was constructed from bamboo, rubber tyres and concrete.  Another project was a “DIY horizontal toilet” built into wooden floors, and beneath it sat a plastic bucket connected to pipes, a hose, and a water tap.  It was for a client who couldn’t sit up but was perfectly capable of moving around in his own ways; he just needed an environment suited to his methods of self-reliance.

These projects underscored the basis of universal design – understanding the concept of “normal” as shifting with the users, all of whom differ.

Ploy measuring the hand of an eight-year-old client with cerebral palsy; drawings of the “at-home playground” shown in Differently-Abled Architecture. (Photos: Openspace)

Ploy measuring the hand of an eight-year-old client with cerebral palsy; drawings of the “at-home playground” shown in Differently-Abled Architecture. (Photos: Openspace)

 

What Ploy grasped at the end of the four months was the dismally isolated nature of these cases.  These were just seventeen of 2 million people with disabilities in Thailand, who happened to be among the poorest populations, divorced from public assistance.  There was no space in which they can support each other, no platform on which they can be heard, and no signs of progress towards their inclusivity.

“I decided that in our next projects we wouldn’t do it the same way,” Ploy said, “Instead we will combine many cases.  A process of building together, and taking care of each other, would be better.”

 

“Lit Eyes”

At this point, in 2013, Ploy set up Tar-Saeng Studio, a private entity detached from government organisations—detached from politics, a precarious area of discussion in Thailand—aimed to mainstream universal design into Thai society.  The word tar saeng means “lit eyes” in Thai and “community” or “villages” in Laos, chosen to give familiarity to local people (whereas Openspace, a mishmash of English design jargon, means little to many).  Through Tar-Saeng Studio, Ploy would advocate for the inclusion of vulnerable populations to built environment practices.

But she also acknowledges it won’t be easy.  The concept of universal design is still alien to most, and when it does ring a bell to some it’s often perceived as an extra luxury, covered by extra costs, sacrificed from the “real” necessities.  Trying to convince poorer communities to embrace universal design principles has been tough.  Many say they simply don’t see the point; meanwhile Ploy would watch them struggle to move around their homes.

She realised it will take a lot more awareness raising before implementation can go full force, and decided to keep the message simple, which was, “Look, there are no rules.  It’s about knowing your own resources and adapting to your environment.”

Since then, Tar-Saeng Studio has undertaken a series of projects ranging from low-cost furniture making to hospital design.  Their outputs are always based on inclusive design principles, and their processes on participatory empowerment. They’ve also published and distributed books to institutions and the wider public, and held training workshops in small communities.  It is Ploy’s hope for Tar-Saeng to become a social enterprise one day, with income from private sector clients subsidising projects for poor communities.  “It’s very important to connect with people doing similar things from different sectors,” she mentioned, “You can’t really do this alone.”

Tar-Saeng Studio holding a community workshop in Ching Rai on universal design for public space. (Photo: Tar-Saeng Studio)

Tar-Saeng Studio holding a community workshop in Ching Rai on universal design for public space. (Photo: Tar-Saeng Studio)

 

What this means for urban resilience

The floods of 2011 brought great devastation across Thailand.  People lost their homes, they felt desperate, they wanted answers.  This triggered a well-needed public dialogue on urban resilience and climate change adaptation; like a newcomer experiencing culture shock, Thailand had struggled to cope with these new waves of events and adapt to a new language through which to understand them.  So this was a good step.

A city’s urban resilience is characterised by its social and physical capacity to take on different types of pressures, endure through them, and recover from them.[12]  Whether hit by an earthquake or economic recession, things like governance, ecosystem balance, physical infrastructure, social services, and community support networks, all determine how a city bounces back.  Conversations around urban resilience in Thailand, however, remain primarily on physical infrastructure, while social capacity—people’s knowledge, mental and physical health, and resourcefulness during a time of crisis—have remained more or less a faded backdrop.

Ploy’s decision to focus on universal design, she told me, has everything to do with building urban resilience in Thailand.  People are aging, losing abilities, living in poverty, and some need particular types of assistance.  The fluctuating climate is also adding to these stresses.  She said, “What we’re doing is planning for the future, for the environment that’s always changing.”  Tar-Saeng Studio is proving that building adaptive environments through participatory approaches can increase social capacity by minimising vulnerabilities and strengthening communities.  Their next goal is to demonstrate that these grassroots activities can be scaled-up to the regional and national levels.

It’s as if Mace predicted the volatile state of the world today and decided to send a note to the future.  In a 1998 speech he said, “I’m not sure it’s possible to create anything that’s universally usable…We use that term because it’s the most descriptive of what the goal is, [which is] something people can live with and afford.”[13]  What seemed like a vague statement then has become significant in today’s social practice.  I’ve noticed that Ploy rarely speaks about disability, elderly, or po-poor focused designs as independent from each other, but instead she talks about making environments inclusive to everyone.  Now I understand how she’s running with Mace’s words.  But it’s not that these things—disability, elderly, pro-poor focused designs—always go together either.  I guess universal design is like a head-to-toe winter outfit that you modify according to the weather that day.  You just need to check the forecast to make the best decision.

As Mace wrapped up his last speech, at a New York conference in 1998, he said, “We are all learning from each other in a wonderful way and need to continue what we have started here—communication and the exchange of ideas and experience.”  And eighteen years later, reading his words were a small group of young architects in a traditional Thai house, lying on the floor, scribbling away, planning for the future.

 

References:

[1] Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, 2012. What is Universal Design. [online] Available at: <http://universaldesign.ie/What-is-Universal-Design>
[2] Mace, R. 1998, ‘A Perspective on Universal Design’, speech, New York, 19 June. Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmacespeech.htm>
[3] Saxon, W., 1998. Ronald L. Mace, 58, Designer Of Buildings Accessible to All. [online] 12 July. Available at: <http://www.nytimes.com/1998/07/13/us/ronald-l-mace-58-designer-of-buildings-accessible-to-all.html?_r=0>
[4] Center for Universal Design (2008) About the Center: Ronald L. Mace. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmace.htm>
[5] Mace, R. 1998, ‘A Perspective on Universal Design’, speech, New York, 19 June. Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmacespeech.htm>
[6]
The World Bank, 2016. Thailand: Overview. [online] Washington: The World Bank Group. Available at: <http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/thailand/overview>
[7]
HelpAge International, 2014. Aging population in Thailand. [online] Available at: <http://ageingasia.org/ageing-population-thailand1/>
[8] The World Bank, 2016. Aging in Thailand – Addressing unmet health needs of the elderly. [online] 8 April. Available at: <http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2016/04/08/aging-in-thailand—addressing-unmet-health-needs-of-the-elderly-poor>
[9] International Labour Organization, 2009. Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Thailand [pdf fact sheet] International Labour Organization.
[10] Thongkuay, S., 2016. People with Disabilities – Thailand Country Profile [draft report 2016].
[11]
Impact Forecasting LLC, 2012. 2011 Thailand Floods Event Recap Report Impact Forecasting. Chicago: Aon Corporation, p.3.
[12] 100 Resilient Cities, 2016. What is Urban Resilience? [online] Available at: <http://100resilientcities.org/resilience>
[13] Mace, R. 1998, ‘A Perspective on Universal Design’, speech, New York, 19 June. Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmacespeech.htm>


 Cindy Huang is an alumna of MSc UDP and a participant of the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme, currently working on community-driven development projects with Openspace and the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights network in Thailand.

Mapping Everyday and Episodic Risks

RitaLambert1 December 2015

The cLIMA sin Riesgo research project in Lima, Peru, adopts participatory mapping as a means to gather quantitative and qualitative information to capture varying degrees of natural and man-made conditions of vulnerability that affect women and men living in the center and in the periphery of the city. The process is designed to open up dialogue between various stakeholders, with the aim of informing the design of interventions that prevent and reduce risks.

To better understand the everyday risks that inhabitants of the two case study sites are exposed to, we spatialise our inquiry capturing how these risks are distributed and where they accumulate in space (Figure 1). This is a necessary step in identifying how, and where, risk traps need to be disrupted. Preliminary findings suggest that actions taken in one place to mitigate risk may, in effect, externalise the risk to other locations. Hence mapping to make visible the interdependencies that constitute and shape a given territory becomes a vital step in our enquiry, particularly as we seek to devise solutions for an integrated, and co-produced planning.

Figure 1. Drone image of Barrios Altos used to identify residential plots, cultural heritage buildings and other uses such as storage, which is defacing the historic centre. Photo: Rita Lambert

Figure 1. Drone image of Barrios Altos used to identify residential plots, cultural heritage buildings and other uses such as storage, which is defacing the historic centre. Photo: Rita Lambert

This notion of interdependencies materialise at different scales in both Barrios Altos (BA) and José Carlos Mariátegui (JCM). Therefore the analysis is undertaken at various scales. In BA, some of the quintas (multi familiar residential plots) that have private ownership, also present a weakened social organisation.  The quinta, which used to function as an identifiable unit, with common areas and the shared goal amongst residents to improve these areas collectively, now works as a group of individual structures.  The impact of such changes is noted as some households undertake improvement works and in doing so, move away from the traditional one storey structure made of adobe, replacing it with multi-storey brick and concrete buildings. As the structural integrity of the buildings are weakened due to the disparate materials used, the residents are differentially exposed to risk. Besides the increased physical risks that such practices bring, the weakened collective action and organisation also increases the vulnerability of residents to land trafficking activities.

Figure 2. Surveying team in action in BA. Photo Rita Lambert

Figure 2. Surveying team in action in BA. Photo Rita Lambert

Moving out of the quinta and analysing the scale of the manzana (block), it is possible to capture the increasing threats which are claiming the Historic Centre. Land speculation is leading to the slow eviction of  many vulnerable tenants. Moreover, the cancerous growth of storage facilities, also increases the likelihood of fires with the storage of highly flammable materials. If a quinta is adjacent to any of these conditions, it is also more vulnerable, as different land use types interact to increase risk.

In JCM, the interdependencies materialise on the slope. Risk is unevenly distributed with those higher up the slope having to pay more to mitigate risk and make the area habitable. However the occupation in the higher parts, as well as the opening up of roads by large scale land traffickers to capitalise in this area, also increases risk for the lower parts e.g rock falls etc. The latter also have to invest to cope with this risk. Hence mapping at the scale of settlements can make visible where risk mitigation strategies are taken and where risk is externalised to.

Figure 3. Undercutting of slope to create a habitable plot led, in this case, to the partial collapse of the foundation of an existing structure. Photo: Rita Lambert

Figure 3. Undercutting of slope to create a habitable plot led, in this case, to the partial collapse of the foundation of an existing structure. Photo: Rita Lambert

Having analysed how risk is mapped by various institutions in Lima, the project acknowledges the need to work at a finer scale. Many of the official maps homogenise risk painting large areas in red, whilst a more grainier and differentiated understanding of everyday risk is sought in this project. For this purpose, the base maps used also need to be at a level which show subdivisions in built structures. As the Cadastral Institute of Lima only provides the information at manzana or plot level, the SEDAPAL maps are hereby used as a base because  they show water connection in every household and thus capture subdivisions. Furthermore, in the process of data collection, high resolution drone images for each area are used in a process of manual mapping (Figure 1) undertaken in parallel to digital mapping using EpiCollect+, a free application on smartphones which enables the digitalisation of surveys as these are collected.

Figure 4. Inhabitants of JCM indentifying their plots and the limits of their settlements. Photo: Rita Lambert

Figure 4. Inhabitants of JCM indentifying their plots and the limits of their settlements. Photo: Rita Lambert

Departing from the need to map everyday risks at various scales, the project will undertake geo-referenced surveys in both areas at: 1) the household level, to assess the individual investments made to mitigate risk; and 2) at the quinta level in BA and the settlement level in JCM, to assess the collective investments.  The data collection takes a significant representative number: in BA, 30% of quintas in a manzana (40 manzanas in total are chosen, representing half of BA area) and in JCM, 30% of occupied plots for each of the 11 settlements under study. The participatory nature of the process involves capacity building in mapping, the integration of residents in data collection, and the co-design of the survey to include information that inhabitants deem important to them. This means that the method is also used to strengthen existing processes of change, particularly supporting social mobilisation and integrated planning. In BA, community leaders, accompany the fieldwork, sharing information and communicating with others in their neighborhood. This is a necessary step to promote collective action and resist unwanted changes. In JCM, on the other hand, identifying the various investments made over time in each settlement, and making visible the increased investments that need to be made to continue this form of urbanisation raises consciousness of the ripple effect created by atomised actions upon the territory.  This paves the way for an integrated planning between settlements but also more coordinated actions between inhabitants and state agencies.

For more information of the research project cLIMA sin Riesgo please visit the site: http://www.climasinriesgo.net/

You can also access some of the outputs released so far in the following links:

Newsletter No 1, June 2015 “Reframing Urban Risks”

Policy Brief: No 1, June 2015 “Urban Risk: In search of new perspectives”

Video Interview with Principal Investigator of cLima sin Riesgo, Adriana Allen, about the importance of amplifying knowledge of everyday and episodic risks and the objectives of the project

 


Rita Lambert is a teaching fellow at the Development Planning Unit, UCL, where she is primarily engaged in the planning and delivery of the practice module of the MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development.

Originally from Ethiopia, she undertook her university studies in Edinburgh and London. She graduated from the Architectural Association in London, where she later taught for 4 years in the final years of the Diploma in Architecture.  In 2009, she studied in the MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development, at the Development Planning Unit , UCL.

Her particular interest lies in mapping, as a tool which can be adopted by ordinary citizens to navigate institutional barriers and expand the room for manoeuvre towards environmentally just urbanisation.

i-Rec Conference 2015 – Day 3 Review

Matthew AWood-Hill10 July 2015

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The i-Rec conference 2015 started its final day on Wednesday 8 July with a plenary session, as has been the format for the previous mornings.

Maggie Stephenson asked what is the relationship between shelter and survivor? – especially in light of post-disaster needs assessments (PDNAs); who decides what people need? Taking the time to discuss what is useful to survivors is therefore essential.

Rohit Jigyasu looked at attempts to salvage cultural heritage in the wake of the recent Nepalese earthquake. In some cases traditional materials and components, especially windows, held up better than more contemporary counterparts. He is part of an initiative with the Smithsonian Institute that is seeking to ensure that this physical heritage is not lost in the wake of the disaster.

Having been in Nepal when the second earthquake struck, Sneha Krishnan commented on the role that social networks paid in people’s preparedness when it came. She suggested that some of the early responses imposed by NGOs – such as dividing toilets between men and women, when given the extreme context they were willing to share facilities – were inappropriate. She also witnessed an indecisive response from the state who at some stages were eager to defer to outside help, and at others were very directive in their approach.

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Roundtable 4B: Linking disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA) with disaster risk recovery and reconstruction

Ilan Kelman started the session by placing DRR and CCA within a broader framework for sustainable development. He suggested that any reconstruction is done so for the future, which necessarily has to include potential impacts of climate change. As we understand that hazards themselves do not cause disasters, but vulnerability does, the emphasis on sustainability as a key contributor to DRR is brought into sharper focus.

Drawing on the recurring effects of cyclones in Odisha, India as a case study, Sneha Krishnan argued for the value of learning from previous disasters to build resilience. For her, preparedness is key and the recovery phase is a missing link that has not yet been fully understood.

Candida Maria Vassallo presented the importance of reconstructing public buildings as a mean of reconstructing normal life. She exemplified this process with the case of the reconstruction of new Swat Archaeological Museum in Saidu Sharif (Pakistan) damaged by 2005 earthquake and 2008 Taliban attack, but the relevance is that this process can be implemented in other contexts thanks to its flexibility and adaptability, which was appreciative of local needs and histories. The discussion that followed revolved around how we might tackle the complexity that inevitably emerges in these situations. A second key discussion point was how to rebuild communities in a way that is not merely ‘back to normal’ but a marked improvement on how thing were.

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Roundtable 2D: Planning approaches and strategies for recovery

The session raised the necessity of longer-term thinking. This was discussed importantly with regards to listening – often to the lessons of history that past disasters have taught us – when planning for the future, and fostering an environment where collaboration and sharing of knowledge is embedded. Different tools and methods to facilitate this, within and outside of project structures, were debated.

Understanding roles and responsibilities in relation to resources – both financial and human – was also elaborated upon. For example: who does monitoring and documentation,and how? Who decides what is insured and what aspects of the built environment are covered? The session ended with a reflection on the role of the researcher in disaster recovery scenarios, and the contribution of academic work.

Roundtable 4C: Aspects of resilience and recovery

One of the key themes of the roundtable was urban resilience and how it may be affected during the process of recovery by the role of the governments and NGOs. An interesting point of discussion asked what methods are used to classify populations in order to address their recovery needs, and can such a method generate tools to help recovery? This pointed to a knowledge gap concerning different types of analytical variables and the importance of developing analytical categories for the underlying social variables.

The papers generated comparative discussion about the role of the government in the process of recovery and how their initial initiatives and efforts may impact long-term resilience with examples from Yalova in Turkey, Bam in Iran and Assam, India which offered three different interpretations.

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Roundtable 2A: Housing and beyond: reconstructing lives, reconstructing cities

David Alexander presented findings from research into the transitional phase of post-disaster recovery in the cases of Tacloban in The Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan and the Sanriku coast in Japan, after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. He concluded that a successful transitional phase requires a pact between the survivors and the government. This could be achieved through information sharing; a clear, simple and robust plan of action; a well-defined timeline for the transitional phase,;and serviceable transitional housing and facilities.

Charles Parrack talked about urban displacement, comparing community participation in cities and in camps. The objective of the study was to identify gaps for outside of camp strategies developed by the Camp Coordination and Camp Management Cluster (CCCM). A common theme centres on empowerment and developing social capital, which will be a focus for further research.

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Based on her work in Chile and Peru, Elizabeth Wagemann explained how people have adapted post-disaster shelters to convert them into homes. While a temporary shelter is understood to be time limited and the transitional shelter could be understood as an incremental support, both have been modified and adapted by the families, even though they are not designed for this purpose. The study compared the modifications during a five year period.

Faten Kikano compared different types of shelters used by Syrian refugees in Lebanon over a number of years. She looked back to the shelters adopted by Palestinian refugees sixty years ago for further comparison and questioned whether camps are an effective solution to refugees’ needs. The common focus on the transitional phase in disaster recovery was carried over into the discussion. The panel acknowledged unanimously that we are beyond ‘one size fits all’ solutions.


Matthew Wood-Hill is the Media & Communications Officer at the DPU. This post was gratefully put together with the aid of a number of rapporteurs who attended the sessions. Thanks go to Bernadette Devilat, Julia Wesely, Rachel Valbrun and Jacopo Spatafora for their inputs.

Read more about the 7th International i-Rec Conference on Recovery and Reconstruction in Urban Contexts via the conference website where you can also view abstracts of all of the papers resented in the sessions mentioned above.

View all i-Rec related blogs, including the summaries of Days 1 & 2 via on this page.

i-Rec Conference 2015 – Day 2 Review

Matthew AWood-Hill8 July 2015

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The 2015 i-Rec conference continued on Tuesday 7 July with another packed day.

The morning keynote panel saw Frederick Kimgold focus on regulatory initiatives to build urban resilience – these include four key components: Regulatory action at the national level, based on a strong legal foundation; improving and enforcing building codes; an emphasis on local implementation; and knowledge sharing at the international level.

Stephen Platt drew his insights from 10 cases studies. His findings, from disasters in countries as varied as Japan, Turkey and Chile, showed different patterns for human and economic losses. He commented on the successes of the speed of recovery in different places, noting that rapidity, highlighting the case of Turkey, is not always the best way to achieve effective planning outcomes.

Gerald Paragas analysed the upshot of the Typhoon Haiyan recovery efforts in the Philippines. He emphasised the roles of different actors in these processes and called for continued coordination in order to better harmonise relief and reconstruction with urban processes; recovery should always be city-driven and not donor-driven.

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Roundtable 3C: Histories, perceptions, and ethnographies for understanding urban recovery

The presentations showed cases from in Italy, Guine-Bissau and Chile. The discussions questioned how architects should work in reconstruction – does an absence of specific architectural training in relation to humanitarian aid mean architects should be seen less as designers and more as facilitators embedded within a more holistic process of design and reconstruction?

Certainly it was acknowledged that better dialogue between communities, architects and humanitarians is essential. Finally the speakers considered the tensions that exist around traditional construction and vernacular architecture. How can these be better understood alongside our own practice?

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Roundtable 4A: Integrated Approaches for recovery and resilience

This session discussed examples from Haiti, Japan, Malawi and the Philippines, where attempts at integration has taken place with differing degrees of success. Time was identified as a key tension, particularly when engaging with communities. Inclusive decision making processes can be long and demand resources. Community vs production-based approaches is a big dilemma that was witnessed Philippines.

In the case of Malawi dispersed populations added to the time needed for effective local inputs, the knock-on effect being that international organisations are not always able to make the most of local capacity. The conversation therefore turned to post-disaster adaptive resilience and at what point does the transition from recovery to resilience-building take place, and how does this work?

Roundtable 2C: Challenges, character, and tools for recovery

These four presentations tackled different solutions around how to make recovery faster and more effective. They looked at logistical challenges faced during the response and early recovery stages following the Canterbury earthquakes; the role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) as enablers of multiple interactions actors and people involved in recovery and reconstruction; new methods for clearing debris; and how the type of disaster itself can impact the type of reconstruction that takes place.

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Roundtable 2B: Community-driven practices

Four different case studies from Africa, Philippines, Indonesia and Brazil were presented. It was suggested that vulnerability (especially of the urban poor) has always been tackled and studied using a top-down approach. Informal settlements remain almost invisible – therefore researchers and organizations should engage in a peer-to-peer knowledge exchange with the population.

By doing so, it is possible not only to identify the root causes of local vulnerabilities but also the social resources and capabilities that can contribute to resilience at a local scale. Interventions developed by researchers and NGOs should be community-controlled and should involve all the relevant stakeholders. Moreover statistical measures are recognized as being insufficient to measure community recovery, and this could be revised in order to incorporate local needs and perspectives.

A series of walking tours, looking at areas of London that have undergone reconstruction and transformation, took place yesterday afternoon

A series of walking tours, looking at areas of London that have undergone reconstruction and transformation, took place yesterday afternoon

Roundtable 5A: Relocation from hazardous areas

Using comparative cases and single in-depth studies, this session took a critical lens on the relationship between hazards, vulnerabilities and risks, and – more broadly – between hazards and development. It was emphasised that relocation efforts have to consider the reasons why people live in hazardous areas in the first place, and why some people refuse to evacuate, move away or eventually return to these unsafe sites.

A general point that recurred throughout was that relocation is not only about housing, but also livelihoods, infrastructure and basic services, economic opportunities, social networks etc. Post-disaster relocation happens in a situation where people are traumatised and rapid decisions are taken. The challenge is therefore to think beyond just improving post-disaster relocation, but also to consider pre-disaster management of the diverse risks that residents are confronted with.

Roundtable 5B: Relocation and resettlement strategies

These four presentations focused on empirical cases that gave insights into some of the challenges of relocation and resettlement. These included attachment to place, and a loss of urban identity through to knock on effects in terms of planning such as urban sprawl and the need to better manage self-build housing within a coherent planning framework.

It was suggested that in the case of Fukushima, Japan, preparedness has focused chiefly on natural disasters, rather than human induced disaster, which was a reason behind the large number of casualties. In Montserrat, part of the West Indies, a large scale relocation on the small island-state placed a heavy strain on the few health facilities that were well placed to serve the affected population.


Matthew Wood-Hill is the Media & Communications Officer at the DPU. This post was gratefully put together with the aid of a number of rapporteurs who attended the sessions. Thanks go to Jacopo Spatafora, Elizabeth Wagemann, Sneha Krishnan, Serena Tagliacozzo and Julia Wesely for their inputs.

Read more about the 7th International i-Rec Conference on Recovery and Reconstruction in Urban Contexts via the conference website where you can also view abstracts of all of the papers resented in the sessions mentioned above.

i-Rec Conference 2015 – Day 1 Review

Matthew AWood-Hill7 July 2015

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The 7th i-Rec conference got underway yesterday. As Cassidy Johnson explained in the introductory session, the network began in 2002 with just 20 people. This year an impressive 120 people are here in London, as the network continues to grow.

The first keynote session set out some of the key questions to be discussed over the forthcoming days. Allan Lavell asked “does transformation within reconstruction take into consideration the context appropriately?” He elaborated on two modes of reconstruction: expensive retrofitting against disasters on the one hand, and an understanding of reconstruction and recovery in terms of everyday risk on the other.

Jennifer Duyne focused on the opportunities for reconstruction, suggesting there is a need for more local involvement in devising appropriate solutions to disaster risk reduction (DRR) and reconstruction, particularly in informal settlements. Stronger collaborations between humanitarian and reconstruction agencies could go a long way towards making this a reality.

Situating the conversation within the urban context, the focus of this year’s event, Graham Saunders asked what does it mean to operationalise a specifically urban DRR and reconstruction? He went on to expand on the opportunities that exist within cities for collaborations across different types of groups and institutions.

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Across the three days of the i-Rec 2015 conference there are 14 sessions. the plenary sessions apart,  these are grouped into six thematic roundtables and associated sessions.

Roundtable 1: Disasters in Urban Contexts

These conversations focused on the spatial dimensions of ‘the city’ as a space where disasters, and recovery/reconstruction occur. Specifically, what do planning decisions made in one part of the city mean for others? And how can interventions be scaled up? An interesting discussion emerged out of the differences in resilience and the capacity to respond of ‘stress cities’ – which may face a more diverse set of hazards – versus ‘shock cities’, set up to cope with larger, more clearly observed hazards.

Roundtable 3A: Linking a past, present, and future: histories, urban imaginaries, urban design, and its influences on urban recovery

Two presentations were made, by Camilla Wirsching Fuentes on open space in San Pedro de la Paz, Chile and by Rachel Valbrun on DRR in post-blitz London and post-earthquake Port-au-Prince. The speakers drew upon their personal connections to recent disasters in these places. In their critiques they drew attention to the trade-offs that seem to exist between urban planning and DRR and recovery, such as the pressing needs for shelter and the benefits of keeping more open space so planning can take place with a longer-term perspective.

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Roundtable 6: The role of local governments in recovery

The four presentations in this session offered some interesting case study examples – from Chile, Iran, New Zealand and the Philippines – with rich empirical evidence on how states performed post-disaster from varying perspectives – researchers, practitioners and varying outcomes. A key topic of conversation centred on who leads the reconstruction in different geographies. Where the local government coordinates this they can be left exposed to blame and criticism if the process in efficient or ineffective, whereas the private sector has different levels of involvement in each of the cases. The fundamental question that the panel were ultimately unable to agree upon was ‘How can reconstruction support local government?’

Roundtable 3B: Culture, place, and identities in urban disaster recovery

This Roundtable discussed the connections between people, place, culture and risks. The question of who decides what risk is and what is the perception of risk relates to the question of what is it that forms people’s attachment to place. Culture was discussed as something beyond the built environment and more about the people, not just the monuments – expanding the definition of cultural heritage to include the day-to-day lives and activities of people. In the process of recovery, what role does culture play and what impact does recovery have on culture, especially in the case of displacement?

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Book Launch and Discussion: Shelter after Disaster by Ian Davis

The first day concluded with a discussion on the publication of a new second edition Ian Davis’ book; the first edition was published in 1978. Ian expressed some of his observations about what has and has not changed in the last 20 years of DRR. Accountability still remains an important topic when considering the range of actors involved in relief and reconstruction efforts. A paternalist idea of what constitutes good practice also remains – the consequences of this include half empty temporary settlements and inappropriate transitional shelters, showing tangible areas that can be improved upon.

In terms of what has changed though, he sees better cash and rental support, and an appreciation that disasters occur not only in rural areas of developing countries, but in impact developed countries and – importantly in the context of the conversations taking place in this conference – in urban areas. Nevertheless the growing urban populations that have brought more attention to urban risks constitute a formidable challenge that has seen escalating casualties at the hands of natural disasters over the past two decades.

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The respondents were also keen to flag up some of the challenges we still face, and have not resolved in this period. These include a need to evolve beyond needs assessments, a reluctance to fully learn and incorporate the lessons of the past, and an observation that so-called transitional settlements invariably remain so, very often becoming permanent.

In addition new issues, such as rental housing and urban planning, and coordinated technical assistance are now more fully on the agenda. Maggie Stevenson commented that the value of the book is being ‘not about the people, but about us’, asking the critical question: are we doing what we are supposed to do?

Day 2 is already well underway. You can follow the live updates and conversations via #irec2015 on Twitter, and look out for the day 2 blog tomorrow.


Matthew Wood-Hill is the Media & Communications Officer at the DPU. This post was gratefully put together with the aid of a number of rapporteurs who attended the sessions. Thanks go to Jacopo Spatafora, Garima Jain, Lisa Bornstein, Sneha Krishnan, Rachel Valbrun and Elizabeth Wagemann for their inputs.

Read more about the 7th International i-Rec Conference on Recovery and Reconstruction in Urban Contexts via the conference website where you can also view abstracts of all of the papers resented in the sessions mentioned above.

The 7th i-Rec conference is here!

SnehaKrishnan6 July 2015

iRec

For the past few weeks I have had the i-Rec conference on my mind, while ensuring CGI gets delivered to remotest regions in Nepal. Now I am in London UCL, to welcome 120 registered participants to the 7th international conference brought together by i-Rec, The Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU), University College London (UCL) and official sponsors International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) International Council for Research and Innovation in Building and Construction (CIB).

The innovative conference format includes 14 round table sessions, 7 plenary sessions, London reconstruction walking tour, key note presentations and also introducing the book launch of the Second Edition of the Reconstruction Text-Book “Shelter After Disaster, by Ian Davis”, which was originally published in 1978 by Oxford Polytechnic Press.

This 7th biennial conference looks at the following sub-themes: 1) Disasters in urban context, 2) Housing and beyond: reconstructing lives, reconstructing cities, 3)Linking a past, present and future: histories, urban imaginaries, urban design and its influence on urban recovery, 4) Supporting urban risk reduction through reconstruction, 5) Relocation from hazardous areas and 6) Local governments, urban governance and institutions.

There are participants from both academic and practitioner backgrounds presenting research across both urban and rural contexts, and debating the major issues revolving in themes and trends in disaster recovery and reconstruction. What entails in the organising of such a conference of massive scale and what lessons can be drawn from such a collaboration of high levels of expertise and experience?

The conference had initially received 85 abstracts which were blind, peer-reviewed by 13 members of the scientific committee requesting for further details, improvements and encouraging practice-based approach, threading a balance between empirically-rich practice accounts with academic rigour and methodological preciseness.

For the next three days delegates from across 22 countries have gathered to hear from and discuss new areas of research and collaboration on disaster recovery and reconstruction in urban areas. More details are available on the conference programme and abstracts online.


Sneha Krishnan is doctoral candidate at University College of London. She is based between the school of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering Department and The Bartlett Development  Planning Unit. She is also  a member of various academic and professional bodies such as EWB-UK, SanCop, IRDR, and RedR India. This posted originally appeared on her personal blog. You can also follow her on Twitter, for real-time conference commentary @snek87.

Keep it simple: helping local governments reduce the risk from the next disaster

Cassidy AJohnson26 March 2015

The World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction aims to make communities safer in the face of new disasters but could complex guidance be confusing issues?

Flooding in cities like Dar es Salaam disrupts urban life on a seasonal basis. How can international frameworks, like the HFA II address these everyday risks?

Flooding in cities like Dar es Salaam disrupts urban life on a seasonal basis. How can international frameworks, like the HFA II address these everyday risks?

Four years after a powerful earthquake triggered tsunami waves that destroyed much of Japan’s northeastern coast, I joined a group visiting a peninsula connected to the mainland by a bridge that was obliterated by the tsnunami’s towering wave. I was in Japan for the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, which was looking at how to respond to future disasters.

Tragically, during the earthquake, a semi-truck toppled over and blocked the bridge so that when the tsunami hit, people could not evacuate the area.

The visit was a sobering reminder of the importance of properly managing the risks associated with natural hazards. What is needed to enable cities like Sendai to address disaster risks in the future?

Hyogo Framework for Action II

At the conference, governments adopted a new framework to guide government, civil society and donor actions on managing the risks associated with natural hazards for the next 15 years. The framework was signed ten years after the adoption of the Hyogo Framework for Action on Disaster Risk Reduction.

While the new framework includes many different ways to approach the reduction of disaster risks, the lack of specific targets was disappointing. Earlier drafts of the agreement had set out percentage-based targets that governments would need to report on. However in the final negotiated framework, these were removed, which is a great shame.

Ben Wisner argues that the seven new targets do not prioritise building local community and local government capacity to make their citizens safer.

Years of advocacy have led to an understanding that, with preparedness and good risk governance, it is possible to greatly reduce the impacts of disasters. Most governments acknowledge this, and have been working to support disaster risk reduction, along with donors and civil society.

How can we operationalise risk reduction?

We need to focus now on how this should be done. What are the processes and actions needed to reduce disaster impacts? How can limited resources be best used to tackle the risks of disasters? So it was important that the overarching discussions at the conference related to operationalising disaster risk reduction.

There are many ways to approach this, and perhaps action is needed on all fronts. We know that poverty and other forms of inequality make some people more susceptible to disasters when a hazard does strike.

We also know that small-scale disasters which happen regularly (but often do not make the international news), cause more losses overall than do the large events. Tackling those vulnerabilities and focusing on both big and small-scale disasters is important.

The role of local government      

The new framework does specifically acknowledge the role of local governments in risk reduction, and the importance of tackling disaster risks in urban areas to reduce the impact of both large and small-scale disasters that are increasing in intensity as urban areas grow and urban populations expand.

The UNISDR Making Cities Resilient Campaign, an advocacy campaign which aims to get local governments to address risks as front-line responders, has already had over 2500 local governments sign up to it.

However, it’s clear that local governments need more guidance on what to do. They especially need more guidance on how to address the most acute risks now and into the future through low-cost, implementable actions.

So, what does this look like from the perspective of local government? It means learning from other cities that face similar kinds of hazards through exchanges that build the capacity of local government and people to take action in their city are important.

It could also involve assisting cities to address basic infrastructure deficits and working with local planners and civil society groups to help them think about disaster risks in their work.

Tools promoting urban resilience

One of the tools that the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) campaign uses is the 10-Essentials for Making Cities Resilient. It’s a ten-point, simple checklist that is a version of the main framework, but aimed at local governments.

I have recently been involved in a revision of the 10 Essentials, which were originally developed in line with the priorities of the Hyogo Framework for Action. Our aim was to update them to become more operational.

We have managed to flesh out the 10-essentials with more details but, in my view, we need to be careful that they do not become overly complicated. Their complexity risks alienating the very local governments they are aimed at. The aim needs to be a simple set of goals that helps local governments with limited budgets and capacities develop a plan of action .

Connecting cities

We had a lot of discussions at the conference about how to build the capacity of local governments to take action on risk reduction. UNISDR is establishing a new platform, called Resilient Cities Connect which aims to bring together knowledge about risk reduction across cities.

A session about the new platform featured presentations both from local governments in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, and from a wide range of expert groups, such as AECOM and C40.

Are global responses relevant to local challenges?

In my view, the expert group presentations seemed to be highly technical, and aimed at cities with big budgets to invest in expensive consultancies and equipment. At the end of the session, a woman from a local government municipality, Kisumu, Kenya, with a population of around 400,000 people put up her hand and said: “What do I take home from this session? What is it that I can implement in my city? We have four computers in my municipality.

As small and medium cities are expanding rapidly, this is where disaster risks are accumulating and will continue to grow. Municipalities like Kisumu are on the front line of disaster risk reduction. If we can help them work with their residents to address disaster risks, then we will all win.


Cassidy Johnson is a Senior Lecturer at the DPU on urban resilience and disaster risk reduction and recovery in cities. She is currently leading the DPU’s part of the Urban Africa Risk Knowledge project, which explores the relationships between urbanisation, poverty and environmental risk in small and medium sized cities in sub-Saharan Africa. The project aims to support local knowledge and preparedness to risk.

This blog was originally posted on the IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development) blog on Wednesday 25 March 2015.