The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Urban Africa Risk Knowledge: Urbanisation, poverty and disaster risk in sub-Saharan Africa

10 March 2015

Urban ARK launch announcement

DPU is a key part of a research consortium that has been awarded £3.3 million from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Department for International Development (DFID) Poverty Alleviation programme.

Urban Africa Risk Knowledge (Urban ARK) is a 3-year programme that seeks to better understand the nature and scale of disaster risks in urban centres. By studying the interaction of environmental hazards - such as earthquakes and temperature extremes - in areas with poor housing and marginalised communities, the research aims to break the cycles by which vulnerability and the incapacity to cope with hazards accrue in society.

Cassidy Johnson, one of the Co-Investigators and lead on the DPU work package on action planning research explains, “We are taking a very wide view on risk. So it’s not just natural hazard risks, but the host of environmental risks that people face in cities, such as water pollution and violence. There’s also a very strong health focus in the project.”

One of the real challenges in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa is a lack of available data and knowledge on risk. The Urban ARK project will build on established risk information methods such as Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment and Des-Inventar, and on the existing work of the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC) – one of the key consortium partners – in order to refine a methodology for generating and sharing information.

Urban ARK will work in Dakar (Senegal), Ibadan (Nigeria), Karonga (Malawi), Mombasa and Nairobi (Kenya) and Niamey (Niger).

Placing emphasis on small and medium sized cities

Specifically, Cassidy says, “We want to look at what’s happening in small, medium and large urban centres. Because we think that the relationships are different.”

“In small urban centres you have very little capacity to do much about risks. There may not be a local government; there may only be a regional government, and you have major growth happening.”

“What’s projected over the next years is that small and medium sized African cities will be the ones that will have major growth.”

Focus on urban development, planning and governance

So what is DPU’s role? We will be leading the work package dedicated to better understanding how urban development and planning, infrastructure investment, and their governance systems are shaping risk accumulation and reduction in two of the cities.

“We’re interested in the local planning and governance capacities.” Cassidy elaborates on some key questions: “Are there local development plans? Are these put into action? What is their capacity to deliver on the plans? What are other organisations – especially community-based organisations – contributing to development in the city?”

“What we’re trying to understand is how the contemporary urban development situation and investments in cities and planning are contributing either to the production of risk or the reduction of risk.”

Mobilising urban resource centres

In an effort to foster strategic action planning and learning processes our work will introduce local resource hubs.

Cassidy explains, “The DPU team will be setting up a series of urban resource centres – one in each of the cities we’re working in. These will become information hubs for gathering data and sharing knowledge and advice on coping with and mapping urban risks.”

“Our major role in this project is on the societal impact and legacy of the project – so what we’ll do with these urban resource centres is to use them as a vehicle to bring together communities, policymakers, local government etc to discuss the issues and to bring the research from Urban ARK to the table for policymakers.”

In addition to Cassidy, the DPU team is made up of Adriana Allen, Caren Levy, Barbara Lipietz, Rita Lambert and Donald Brown. The DPU-led work package employs £450,000 of the overall budget and will be undertaken with inputs from ARUP International Development.

A large multidisciplinary team

Urban ARK is led by King’s College London, and is by its nature a highly collaborative project, bringing together researchers from Africa (African Population and Health Research Centre, University of Ibadan, Mzuzu University, Université Abdou Moumouni and University of Cape Town) with practitioners (ARUP, International Alert, Save the Children and UN-HABITAT) and international research partners (The DPU at UCL, King’s College London, and the International Institute for Environment and Development).