Dan Lewis on building resilience to empower local goverments for disaster prevention

By March 10, 2015 Blog, Events, Featured


Last Thursday at the second session of our Development by Design: Dialogues in Architecture, Equity and Design we welcomed post-disaster expert Dan Lewis to talk about Resilience in Development, or how cities can develop the necessary tools and strategies to withstand and recover quickly from any plausible hazard.

Why is Resilience important? Since 1980, about one-third of development spending has been lost to recurrent crises, amounting to 3.8 trillion dollars worldwide. That is a lot of money, money that can be invested in preparing cities to withstand recurrent crises linked to poverty, climate change and natural disasters.

“Urbanization itself is growing as a hazard to cities,” explained Dan Lewis, referring to the increasing number of informal settlements and slum dwellers across the globe. Lewis, in addition to being the Chief of UN-Habitat’s Urban Risk Reduction Unit, is also head of UN-Habitat’s City Resilience Profiling Program in Barcelona (with 9 other partner cities), which has partnered with the World Bank, the C40 Climate Leadership Group and the Rockefeller Foundation, as part of a global movement on the part of the development community to implement resilience resilience programs in both developed and developing cities around the world.

One of the chief aims of the CRPP is to bring more cohesion and understanding of urban resilience to local governments across the world, as well as developing tools for its implementation. “Right now it looks like a massive spreadsheet, which we will use to collect data from local governments and citizens about the physical, spatial, functional and organizational aspects of a place, in order to assess its strengths and vulnerabilities in relation to plausible hazards.”

UN-Habitat plans for these collaborations with local governments to allow resilience measures to be integrated into existing processes, and involve cities at all scales–from individual citizens to national governments. “Really this goes back to basics of participatory planning, but on a larger scale,” Lewis pointed out.

Lewis also brought up two cases of post-disaster scenarios to demonstrate the importance of designing appropriate emergency response systems, and moreover, of integrating longer-term resilience measures as part of these systems.

The first was Sendai, Japan after the tsunami in 2011. “Aside from Cuba, Japan has the most efficient disaster response system out there. Within 5 years, Sendai has recovered from a major disaster, which includes building protection walls, a drainage canal and road system along the coast.”
In contrast, the post-disaster response in Haiti was a disaster in itself, exemplified by the case of the Corail refugee camp. Due to the difficulty of working inside rubble-ridden Port-au-Prince and pressure from the international community to act on donations, the camp was situated on the outskirts of the city, resulting in a shanty town that has cost Haiti and the development community millions of dollars. What was once once home to sugarcane and sisal fields with future plans as an integrated economic zone with housing and schools is now home to 100,00 squatters in precarious shacks, the cost of which urbanizing will be far greater than any initial inner-city response in Port-au-Prince would ever have been. Corail’s unfortunate legacy is that of disaster profiteering and corruption by powerful Haitian developers.

Clearly, Japan and Haiti are on opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to wealth and the means to craft their own disaster-response programs. Investing in resilience programs in developing countries is a way of empowering local governments to avert situations like those in Haiti.
Lewis also pointed to new challenges in disaster relief brought on by climate change. “Now we’re looking at things like rising sea levels having reverse effects on coastal property values. This will require creating a relief corridor that addresses the migration of the rich from the coast and the impact of this migration on inland communities.”

“Everything is at stake. And everyone,” concluded Lewis, making the point that investing in the infrastructure of communities to become resilient to potential disasters is the most effective strategy in the long run, not only for saving money, but for saving lives.

Stay tuned for the announcement of our next Development by Design Dialogue with Susanna Oliver from World Vision.

More photos from the event:

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