The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Urban Africa Risk Knowledge (Urban ARK)

Urban Africa Risk Knowledge (Urban ARK) is a 3 year research programme funded by DFID and ESRC. DPU researchers lead the work in WP 4 on the ‘Governance, Planning and Urban Development


14 August 2017


Urban Africa Risk Knowledge (Urban ARK) is a 3 year research and capacity building programme funded by DFID and ESRC. The programme is led by King’s College London with Professor Mark Pelling as Principal Investigator. The work seeks to open up an applied research and policy agenda for risk management in urban sub-Saharan Africa.

A main objective is to reduce disaster risk in urban sub-Saharan Africa by breaking cycles of risk accumulation. This will be achieved by:

  • Building a community of practice including sub-Saharan, African and international researchers and practitioners that can provide a structured assessment of risk accumulation and reduction dynamics
  • Developing a detailed understanding of underlying factors driving risk accumulation
  • Fostering a deep understanding of risk to women, men and children in a diverse range of urban contexts in low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa
  • Understanding how the nature and scale of these risks are changing in the context of urban growth and change, poverty and climate change.

Research is focused in depth on a number of cities – each presenting different development and hazard contexts: Ibadan (Nigeria), Karonga (Malawi), Nairobi and Mombasa (Kenya), Niamey (Niger), Dakar, (Senegal) and Freetown (Sierra Leone). The cities offer broad regional coverage, a range of city population sizes and in-land and coastal locations.

The work highlights urbanisation processes that generate human vulnerability and exposure to a whole spectrum of hazards. Focus is on those at risk, especially in low-income and often informal or illegal settlements, but also on large scale planned urbanization projects and how these reshape the social and environmental geographies of cities and consequent risk profiles.

Work Packages:

Urban ARK is structured around four linked work packages (WP). Each WP is designed to broaden our current conceptual and empirical understandings of risk and its reduction from multiple perspectives, while filling key knowledge, evidence and data gaps surrounding this subject. Each WP also integrates an understanding of how institutions, infrastructure and the environment play an active role in shaping risk and influencing pathways for resilience.

WP 1: Vulnerability, Capacity and Loss

WP 2: Physical Hazards

WP 3: Historical Urban Trajectories

WP 4: Governance, Planning & Urban Development

DPU researchers lead the work in WP 4 on the ‘Governance, Planning and Urban Development’ with a significant focus on Karonga (Malawi) and Freetown (Sierra Leone) and a smaller research scope on the governance of risks in Niamey (Niger).

See more at: www.urbanark.org

Project Team

Cassidy Johnson

Adriana Allen

Caren Levy

Emmanuel Osuteye

Rita Lambert

Barbara Lipietz

Project Partners

Abdou Moumouni University (Niger)

African Population and Health Research Centre (Kenya)

Arup (UK)

International Alert (UK)

International Institute for Environment and Development (UK)

King’s College London (UK)

Mzuzu University (Malawi)

Save the Children (Niger and UK)

Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC)


University of Cape Town (SA)

University of Ibadan (Nigeria)

University College London (UK)

DPU focus on Urban ARK - WP4

DPU researchers lead the work in WP 4 on the ‘Governance, Planning and Urban Development’ with a significant focus on Karonga (Malawi) and Freetown (Sierra Leone) and a smaller research scope on the governance of risks in Niamey (Niger).


Urban planning in African cities could be considered as a fragmented set of actors and processes, done by a wide range of organisations and social agents ranging from public sector, private sector, civil society groups and individuals (i.e. land owners). These diverse range of participants involved in planning and driving urban development and change in African cities each have distinct motivations and varying levels of agency. In turn, these actors, their relations and actions influence the production or urban risks, and the potential reduction of risks.

The above implies that we need a better understanding of risk accumulation processes, looking at the underlying socio-economic (growing urban poverty and inequality), socio-spatial (fragmentation, segregation and marginalisation), political (limited democratisation/decentralisation), institutional (limited capacity) and fiscal dimensions (lack of investments in urban development in at-risk areas) that actively shape the production and reproduction of risk even in light of explicit state-led planning efforts to tackle this process

The research seeks to examine the governance and planning practices in urbanised African towns and cities, and how they promote or reduce urban risk. The broad aim is to understand how the contemporary interaction between the structures of urban planning, including organisational forms and bureaucratic mandate, dominant development practices, plan making procedures and individual stakeholder agency shape the (re)production of cycles of risk accumulation and reduction.

A further objective is to examine how ordinary citizens and institutions respond to urban risk, where, with what consequences and for whom. In this light, we aim to establish urban resource centres in the sites where we will be working. Using participatory mapping and participatory video methods, these urban resource centres will act as action-learning platforms to develop local capacities to apprehend and monitor episodic and everyday risks, who is affected and how this changes over time and why, and to assess what actions and investments devoted to mitigate, reduce or prevent risk work, why and how these could be enhanced.



Working Papers, Blog posts, events and other ways to get involved.

See more at www.urbanark.org