Singing to the same tune: spatial planning and disaster risk reduction

Senior Consultant for Disaster Risk Reduction Daniel Walden discusses the potential for greater linkages between spatial planning and DRR.

Monday 03 August 2015, Daniel Walden

In March this year, Sendai city in Japan hosted the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. The conference adopted a new international framework for DRR and kicked off two years of global jamboreeing on, basically, where the world goes from here.

Subsequent meetings on Financing for Development last month in Addis Ababa, Sustainable Development Goals (September 2015, New York), Climate Change (December 2015, Paris), Humanitarian Action (May 2016, Istanbul) and Planning for Urbanisation (November 2016, Quito) will discuss multifarious issues related to enhancing the resilience of people, places and systems with a view to a healthy, happy future for everyone.

IMC naturally takes an interest in the outcomes of these meetings, as we all should if we are remotely interested in our future well-being, as the issues they all deal with are inherently intertwined.

Particularly relevant to IMC are linkages between Sendai and Quito – DRR and Urban Planning.

Urban or spatial planning can be an effective tool for DRR, but many planning ministries and disaster risk management bodies do not systematically speak to one another.

Also, the public perception of each policy area is volatile. Both DRR and spatial planning are traditionally understood to be “prevention” activities, reducing the potential impact of an imminent hazard and also preventing the negative effects (usually social or environmental) of development activities.

Disaster prevention investment, environmental protection and development control. These aren’t always well received.

Does planning hamper development? Is DRR an investment in preventing something that might not have happened anyway? Acutely aware of the limitations related to these perceptions, both are deep into processes of ‘re-branding’.

Productive not just protective

DRR and spatial planning practitioners are keen to emphasise the positive, productive sides of their areas of expertise.

Disaster risk reduction is a development activity, rather than a ‘disaster response’ concern. It thinks about achieving physical, social and economic development in a way that actively reduces and doesn’t increase people’s risk of disaster.

It also promotes ‘adaptive’ activities as we learn to live with a changing climate and burgeoning global population [1].

Spatial planning is a forward-thinking, strategic activity which creates opportunities for places and people, for example related to city development, business areas, housing and communities. It is not just a system by which plans of corporations and construction companies can be legitimately rejected.

Both remain protective at their core, but the point is that they seek to promote doing development differently rather than sustaining business-as-usual, or simply doing no kind of development at all.

DRR and Planning: Before and After Disaster

The two are not just conceptually similar; they are also mutually supportive. Spatial planning can be a crucial tool for reducing disaster risks, whether in urban development, or in the aftermath of crisis.

In the Caribbean island of Monserrat, IMC worked with the Government to produce a land use development and infrastructure investment plan. Our core purpose was to furnish plans for economic growth with relevant measures for sustainability and reduced disaster risks.

Volcanic activity having buried the island’s capital Plymouth in 1995, volcanic risks and the exclusion zone in the south of the island formed a large part of the Physical Development Plan, but also, plans were concerned with more cyclical hazards such as those related to hurricane season.

Provision was made for underground communications wires, increased sizes of culverts and strengthening of the road network itself. As well as serving to promote the island’s development, this kind of planning is also responsive to risks of floods and storm surges.

Incorporating measures such as these into the Physical Development Plan, in advance of extreme events, helped to institutionalise both the measures themselves, and their dual purpose of development and risk reduction.

On the other side of the world, Nepal’s well-established DRR systems were overwhelmed in April 2015 by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake. One of IMC’s flagship initiatives, the Rural Access Programme, was among infrastructure development initiatives affected by this, and operations were paused whilst we took stock of our staff, all thankfully accounted for, and the implications of the earthquake on RAP.

In disaster response such as this, the planning community is familiar with involvement in reconstruction. IMC worked in Banda Aceh after the 2004 Tsunami; and professional advice often emphasises that the role of ‘built environment professionals’ is in recovery from disasters, “working on structures and infrastructure which … reduces the risk to the population” [2].

Dr Kishan Datta Bhatta of Nepal Engineering College, quoted in RTPI magazine The Planner, describes that planners’ role is in rehabilitation, reconstruction and supporting good governance [3].

Increasingly however, planning ideas are important in immediate response. Temporary systems of emergency response can become de facto delivery systems long after immediate relief phases are past and recovery is underway, so poor or risk-blind planning in immediate relief (e.g. restoring access roads) can also be problematic in the long term as make-shift quality infrastructure becomes the norm.

Spatial planning, whether concerning community development or community reconstruction has a crucial role to play in reducing disaster risks. Infrastructure, whether strategically planned to expand a city, or quickly constructed to reconnect people and deliver life-saving aid, must be responsive to risks – faced by people, businesses, and the space they occupy and travel through.

Unplanned Space – Unsustainable Place

As populations and urban areas grow, vulnerability and risk is increasing in the urban setting. Reflecting on this, Eugénie Birch, Chair of the World Urban Campaign, argues that just how effectively challenges are addressed, from climate change to inequality in the development of cities, “will come down to how planning oversight is brought into the mix” [4].

Linkages like this one will only be properly realized if they are reflected in targets and promises made at the international gatherings of 2015 and 2016. If the take-away soundbite from Addis is that “developing countries’ biggest financing need is for infrastructure” [5] then let’s see that taken forward as an idea of infrastructure which is responsive to risks, and spatially planned to meet the economic, environmental and social needs of our growing cities.

IMC is ready to work towards goals that manifest the productive nature of DRR and spatial planning. Standing on Sendai, we look forward to Quito, and hope that for all the music and dance of the jamborees, everyone comes out at the end with the same song sheet.          

Daniel Walden is Senior Consultant for Disaster Risk Reduction at IMC Worldwide

[1] See RTPI (2014) ‘Planning Horizons 2: Future Proofing Society’ London: RTPI
[2] RTPI (2015) ‘Immediate Help Advice Note: Nepal Earthquake’
[3] Datta, K (2015) ‘Building Up Resistance’ The Planner, July 2015 London: RTPI
[4] Read, M (2015) ‘Habitat’s natural: An interview with Eugénie Birch’ The Planner, June 2015énie-birch    
[5] The Economist ‘Beyond Aid’ July 11th 2015,

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