The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Building the evidence-base for Humanitarian Response in Cities

20 April 2015

Urban Crisis and Humanitarian Responses: A Literature Review

We have just released a major piece of work commissioned by DFID Humanitarian Policy and Partnerships Group, CHASE. The review, looks at the current evidence-base on humanitarian response and development in urban areas, drawn from published academic literature and humanitarian agency reports.

A series of workshops involving INGOs, practitioners, academics and global partners informed the review, forming a critical part of the process.

Urban Crisis and Humanitarian Responses: A Literature Review

The focus is on the response phase of disaster recovery; the early part of post-disaster response, which comes during and immediately after the disaster, and generally before the reconstruction happens.

The review takes a unique looks at humanitarian response in urban areas from the perspective of urban development, rather than from the more traditional perspective of ‘urban response’. In bringing together these two fields of practice it identifies important knowledge gaps.

This intends to provide guidance for DFID and others operating in the area to inform their future work by illustrating where more evidence is needed.

Connected to the review, DFID has also set up a learning portal, run by ALNAP, and a grant-making component to build understanding, capability and confidence to work in urban crises contexts, which is run by IIED.

The rationale behind the review

Co-authored by Donald Brown, Camillo Boano, Cassidy Johnson, Janani Vivekananda and Julian Walker, the review is structured around four main themes:

  1. Complex and diverse communities;
  2. Infrastructure systems;
  3. Markets;
  4. Local governance structures and capacities.

The rationale is as follows:

Crises, such as disasters, forced migration, conflict and violence are occurring in urban areas with increasing frequency and intensity. The impacts of climate change may increase crises in future. However, humanitarian actors are finding that responding to crises in urban areas presents a new set of challenges.

This includes a need for different ways of working than those previously established for humanitarian response in rural areas. This literature review looks at the current evidence-base on humanitarian response and development in urban areas, drawn from published academic literature and humanitarian agency reports.

An increasingly relevant global context

On-going crises in Syria and its impacts on the cities and residents of Jordon and Lebanon have seen the topic gain more attention recently. Natural disasters continue to affect urban areas with increasing intensity: Typhoon Yolanda in Tacloban, Phillippines, and the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Instances such as these have awoken the need to generate better knowledge for responses in urban areas.

DPU research on urban risk

The DPU is extremely active in the field of risk reduction in cities. Currently we are engaged in projects such as Urban Africa Risk Knowledge, and Disrupting urban 'risk traps': Bridging finance and knowledge for climate resilient infrastructural planning in Lima.

Previous projects include Urbanism in humanitarian settings: finding anthropological answers to the unacknowledged conflicts between urbanists and humanitarians, which was conducted by Kate Crawford, Alison Killing and Camillo Boano with support from UCL Grand Challenges. This itself related to an earlier project, (re)constructing the city, funded by a grant from the Royal Institute of British Architects Research Trust.

This summer we will host the 7th International i-Rec conference themed around Reconstruction and Recovery in Urban Contexts, bringing practitioners and academics together to focus explicitly on the urban dimensions of disaster risk.

An emerging centre of research

Understanding humanitarian responses to crises in urban areas is a field of growing significance. This literature review acts as a catalyst for our own further work. Bringing our expertise on urban development to the table, we see the DPU developing into a prominent research centre on this topic.

This is already beginning to take shape through current research and PhD work in the department, alongside teaching and learning through two postgraduate modules explicitly focused on Disaster Risk Reduction in Cities and Post Disaster Recovery: Policies, Practices and Alternatives.