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Enhancing urban resilience through citizen science

Large scale disaster events have increased during the last two decades, and this upsurge can be put down to climate change. As 70 per cent of the world population lives in cities, improving urban resilience against disasters is paramount, and to do this effectively you need to involve the communities most affected say Professor Jon Coaffee, Politics and International Studies and Academic lead for the Global Research Priority in Sustainable Cities, University of Warwick, and Dr Vangelis Pitidis, Politics and International Studies.

In their 2020 report Human Costs of Disasters, reflecting on the upsurge in disaster events in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) noted 7,348 disasters that claimed approximately 1.25 million lives and affected a total of over 4 billion people, often on more than one occasion. Combined such events were calculated to have cost US$ 2.97 trillion.

Many of these disaster events were climate-related, reflecting long-held assumptions about the destructive power of climate change. Indeed, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report of August 2021 on the science behind tier longitudinal assessments once again confirmed the pressing need for action on climate resilience, and in particular the role of cities in such endeavours. They noted that cities intensify human-induced warming locally and that will increase the severity of heatwaves and the intensity of rainfalls and resulting runoff, with coastal cities becoming especially exposed to more frequent extreme weather events.

The need to take effective and coordinated international actions against the perils of climate change should come as no surprise to anyone. In 2015 a series of UN-backed development agenda were signed off by the vast majority of World’s nations that collectively sort to intensify action against disasters and especially those linked to climate. First, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction which was adopted by UN Member States in March 2015 at World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction held in Sendai, Japan. Second, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), released in September 2015, where SDG 11 - the Urban SDG – was focused upon “Making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Third, the Conference of Parties (COP) signed up to the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris in December 2015 (COP21), with the aim of achieving a legally binding and universal agreement on climate change adaptation. To date, and entering COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, many of these commitments remain unfulfilled.

A key assumption underpinning these international agreements was the prominent role conferred to local data collection and community resilience and the urgent need for city governments to adopt integrated policies and plans towards resilience to disasters. There is a need to foster collaboration and partnership across mechanisms and institutions and enhance the implementation of resilience policies and practices. The recent COVID-19 global pandemic has reminded us that the uncertainty of contemporary urban life dictates the adoption of flexible and adaptive governance structures to create the post-pandemic city of the future, based upon the foundations of sustainability and resilience.

Sustainable Cities as a global research priority

Warwick's Sustainable Cities Global Research Priority (GRP) is addressing the huge challenges for governments and policy makers particularly when it comes to ensuring that urban inhabitants have a good quality of life and access to effective services and are safe and secure - resilient - from disruption and disaster. Formed in 2012 amidst the realisation that more people lived in urban than in rural areas, with projections that by 2050 some 70 per cent of the world’s then nine billion-strong population will live cities.

Combining with the work of the Warwick Institute for the Science of Cities, and the Institute for Global Sustainable Development, Warwick researchers have been active in a range of projects funded by UK and European research agencies - in both the Global North and Global South - focused on enhancing the resilience of everyday lives for disaster-prone areas. Work includes engaging with communities about their perception of localised risk and the utilisation of innovative approaches to enable local citizens to co-produce appropriate community-based response to a range of risks, notably emphasising the importance of digital technologies. In essence, these projects, undertaken by interdisciplinary teams at Warwick, have sought to:

  • better understand the links between how data is produced and by whom;
  • contextualise the process of building and enhancing urban resilience through data generation, circulation and usage and
  • better join-up the approaches of official municipal agencies tasked with risk management and the worldviews of local people.

Collectively this work has brought into discussion how to rethink how data is produced (and by whom) and how this data might enable transformation in existing risk management practices, and build sustainable, resilient communities. It has also showcased how novel methods of data generation from local communities can significantly boost local resiliency efforts. For example, our work in Brazil on flooding in marginalized urban communities has showcased the untapped potential of using local tacit knowledge to improve disaster resilience. This became particularly strong when local communities adopted citizen science methods and used the power of collaborative volunteer research to collect locally relevant flood-related data and produce flood-risk datasets and maps, complementary to the existing authoritative ones in the city of Rio Branco, during catastrophic flooding events in February and March 2021.

This occurred, through the coordinated collecting and monitoring of flood related data that informed flood prediction, and through online, collaborative geo-spatial mapping of local areas that enabled better forecasting and planning to take place.

Overcoming barriers to action

Transformations towards sustainability or resilience are often hindered by outdated or maladaptive governance processes that are not able to respond effectively to the risks, crises and uncertainty that increasingly envelop urban life. This often results in a misalignment between views and actions of those charged with managing risk and disasters and those communities most effected by them. As they are currently arranged, many resilience policies at the municipal level, but also global frameworks such as the SDGs and their accompanying targets, usually adopt framings of risk which are not sensitive to the local reality of urban neighbourhoods and thus are not able to capture highly localised aspects of such neighbourhoods that are crucial for effective reduction of the economic and human costs of natural hazards.

By encouraging citizens and communities to engage with risk management in their own locality and collect and monitor useful data, it is possible to overcome the differences between professional and community-based approaches to managing risk and further enhance the understanding of risks, vulnerabilities and local capabilities in vulnerable urban areas. Practically this requires the integration of citizen-generated data practices with other conventional data sources in ways that enable pathways for transition to sustainable development whilst also supporting more inclusive policy-making on how best to manage a range of environmental risks.



27 October 2021


Prof Jon CoaffeeJon Coaffee is Professor in Urban Geography based in PAIS. His interdisciplinary research focuses upon the interplay of physical and socio-political aspects of urban resilience and national security and he has also published widely, especially on the impact of terrorism, climate change and other security concerns on the functioning of cities.

Vangelis PitidisDr Vangelis Pitidis is a Research Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Relations and Warwick's Institute for Global Sustainable Development. His research is focused on urban resilience and its potential to transform the traditional pathways of urban governance delivery as well as in developing participatory methods for engaging local communities in disaster risk management, based on dialogical co-production.

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