Chapter 14: Local disaster risk reduction strategies and plans in urban areas

14.1 Significance of urban areas and local-level action in the 2030 Agenda

Developing urban resilience has been the subject of a global effort enshrined in some international frameworks, including the Sendai Framework, the 2030 Agenda and NUA, all of which recognize the importance of urban action by local and subnational governments to create inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable human settlements. During the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015 in Sendai, local and subnational governments also committed to adopting local DRR strategies and plans, targets, indicators and time frames, as outlined in the Sendai Declaration of Local and Subnational Governments. This agenda recognizes the role of local governments as the primary, responsible authority during disasters, emphasizing the need for greater international collaboration with local and subnational governments.

The 2030 Agenda also recognized the importance of local-level action, particularly through SDG 11: To make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. The objectives of SDG 11 include the enhancement of an inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning; to reduce losses caused by disasters, in particular water-related disasters, with a focus on protecting the most vulnerable populations; and to substantially increase the number of cities and human settlements by adopting and implementing integrated policies and plans towards inclusion, resource efficiency, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, resilience to disasters and holistic DRM at all levels in line with the Sendai Framework by 2030.

Figure 14.1. Number of urban areas with populations over 750,000 affected by disasters (1985 - 2015)

14.2 Opportunities and benefits of local disaster risk reduction strategies and plans

For a local DRR strategy to be fully aligned with the Sendai Framework, it should be coherent with all the above-mentioned global frameworks under the larger umbrella of the 2030 Agenda, including integration into the territorial and urban development agenda. The importance of taking local-level actions to reduce current risk, prevent risk creation and increase cities' resilience capacities, is affirmed by the Member States that have signed the post-2015 global agendas. However, the reality is that such integrated implementation is not coherent across countries or within States and regions. This is also mirrored in the lack of national urban policies that take a systems thinking approach to urban risk reduction.

Mainstreaming DRR strategies in urban development plans comes with distinct challenges, but also generates opportunities for coherent sustainable development as well as economic benefits. Impacts of disasters are most immediately and intensely felt at the local level. Hazards often occur locally, and many of the most effective tools to reduce risk of exposure, such as land-use regulations and enforcement of building codes, are executed at the local level, as well as basic environmental management and regulatory compliance functions that are essential for effective DRR. Governments and communities can best engage with each other and work together at the local level on DRR, but also in implementing sustainable development and environmental management.

Some research suggests local governments are more likely to develop DRR strategies or undertake DRR and resilience building actions when these are absent or limited at national or regional government level. In an examination of climate-compatible development by subnational actors across Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, it was found that at times "national governments may play a more passive role in creating enabling conditions through legal and policy frameworks that implicitly support climate-compatible development or, at least, do not undermine it." It is still critical that national and subnational governments put in place and keep upgrading essential regulations such as building and flood risk standards, including enforcement and incentive strategies.

There can be a productive interplay among different levels of government. For example, a review of DRM and climate resilience building in the United States of America over the last two decades found that the existence of multiple layers of government has "been an effective safety guard against any individual player's potential unwillingness to undertake protective risk management or climate resilience building." Where political will was lacking at state and regional levels, federal-level support combined with private sector initiatives and charitable foundations to make valuable progress, although "climate resilience building actions in the USA have been proven most effective at the city administrative level."

14.3 Design, development and implementation challenges of local disaster risk reduction strategies and plans

As the above analysis shows, the percentage of cities with DRR plans that are fully integrated with the Sendai Framework and the 10 essentials of the MCR Campaign is still low. One of the reasons is that the provision of clear mandates regarding DRR is still a challenge for many local governments. Decentralization of powers and vertical integration of risk governance among national and local authorities is still limited. Another reason is a lack of tools for systems analysis (simulation, optimization and multi-objective analysis) to help improve the quality of disaster-related decision-making. Officials charged with managing urban areas need a full understanding of how the disaster-affected regions work as physical systems or the dynamics that govern the interactions among the social (people and economy), natural (water, land and air) and constructed systems (buildings, roads, bridges, etc.).

In a study that investigated the level of authorities, capacities and responsibilities that local governments have for activities related to the 10 essentials, it was found that only 46.7% of surveyed governments have full authority and capacity to undertake the 13 DRR actions that were investigated at local level, 39.7% have partial powers (limited or distributed among other institutions) and 13.5% have no powers to undertake these actions.


One in 10 of the assessed local governments also had no responsibility for the development of a city vision or strategic plan in their respective cities. In many instances, local governments have partial or no responsibility to develop a city vision or strategic plan, and the responsibility is divided among multiple institutions.

Shared responsibilities for the development of a city vision or strategic plan are increasingly common. For example: in Sendai city (Japan), the national government and the prefectural governments share responsibilities for the city vision and plan; in Makati city (Metro Manila, Philippines), the local authority, metropolitan bodies and national government agencies share responsibilities for planning and development; and in Honduras and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the central government is the primary responsible body for the development of a city vision or strategic plan. From the city government perspective, this may be experienced as a lack of adequate powers at local level, as emphasized in the Urban Climate Change Research Network Second Assessment Report on Climate Change and Cities, which pointed to important gaps between national policies and city government needs, particularly in small countries, where authority to intervene mostly lies at the national level.

14.3.1 Disaster-risk-informed city vision and sustainable growth strategy

The impetus for a city-wide approach to DRR often comes following the experience of a major disaster impact, as it did for New York City with Hurricane Sandy.

New York City's vision provides coherence among the various development agendas of sustainability, climate adaptation and resilience, and provides a road map for implementation of specific strategies and initiatives.

14.3.2 Challenges and opportunities in developing disaster risk reduction strategies in different regions

To speak of the urban implies cities, and there is a wide range of characteristics that fall under this subject. These include administrative limits, size of population, density, contiguous urban areas and their socioeconomic interconnections, governance mechanisms and resources. For the post-2015 DRR agenda, there is no particular approach in the Sendai Framework, NUA, Paris Agreement or SDGs that contemplates the different conditions that exist in the broad spectrum of cities and city contexts. For NUA, the risk management regime considers cities with respect to income (low and high) and does not consider the cities' typology and implications of the size of the city and its population. These are critical conditions for those developing countries that experience a steady increase in the size of small- and medium-sized cities.

According to The World's Cities in 2018 report, an overwhelming majority of the world's cities have fewer than 5 million inhabitants. Among these, 598 cities have populations between 500,000 and 1 million; 467 cities have populations between 1 million and 5 million; 48 cities have populations between 5 million and 10 million; and 33 cities have more than 10 million inhabitants (megacities). The projected numbers for 2030 show an exponential increase: 710 cities are expected to have between 500,000 and 1 million inhabitants; 597 cities with 1 million to 5 million inhabitants; and 66 cities will have between 5 million and 10 million inhabitants, of which 13 will be located in Asia and 10 in Africa. The number of cities with more than 10 million inhabitants will increase to 43.

To understand the challenges and opportunities in developing DRR strategies, it is also important to recognize that the character of urban environments varies enormously around the globe. For example, in the Arab and North Africa region, there is a growing number of large agglomerations with populations of more than 1 million people, which is expected to increase to 18 agglomerations by 2030, accounting for 24% of the total population of 128 million people in the region. There are also unique aspects of demographics, sociopolitical and economic development that affect the urban context, and thus vulnerability and risk in the region. Such aspects include the increased flows of refugees and migrants, with the region having the largest global number of IDPs, at 17.3 million. Urban slums are not a significant feature in the Arab and North Africa region as a whole, but certain countries in North Africa have very high levels of informal settlement. For example, in Sudan, the share of the population living in poor informal settlements is 91.6%, in Mauritania, it is 79.7%, and in Somalia, it is 78.6%.

14.3.3 Collaborative, integrated and holistic resilience building

Resilience building is not something that can be undertaken effectively by local government authorities acting alone. The process undertaken in Maputo, Mozambique, illustrates the benefits to all of broad stakeholder and cross-sectoral engagement.

Maputo's approach to building city resilience is ongoing, but the highly engaged process so far has provided a strong base for a new policy, and has been successful in attracting resources and other necessary support to the local government. The resulting disaster resilience policy will be more easily integrated into existing urban development strategies and more readily implemented, because of the multi-stakeholder and cross-sectoral process.

14.4 Enabling factors for developing and Implementing local disaster risk reduction strategies and plans

As the previous section indicated, one of the most important underlying factors to design, develop and implement urban DRR strategies and plans is sound risk governance. Commitment of a local government lead with a clear mandate and available authorities is the first step to local-level DRR action. However, urban risk governance is a more complex process than having necessary legislation and institutions in place, and requires broad participation for effective implementation.

Risk governance at the urban scale brings forth DRR stakeholder participation at all levels, from decision-making to design and implementation, and incorporates formal and informal urban contexts. It is conducive to the success of local-level DRR action and the development and implementation of local DRR strategies and plans in urban areas. Such urban risk governance will also be coherent with the 2030 Agenda as it facilitates inclusive and sustainable urban development.

A facilitating factor for the development, design and implementation of DRR strategies is access to adequate information, resources and technical capacity to process risk-related information to mainstream into risk assessments and risk-informed development planning. While capacities are often very limited at local government levels, they can be enhanced by tapping into resources of the private sector, academic and research organizations, and civil society, provided their data is evidence based and streamlined in a format for easy use by local governments. Risk information needs to be generated through a "participatory and inclusive approach in generating, improving and managing information" including risk-related geospatial information, which should be used by all the different entities involved in DRM efforts.

Another critical factor for the successful development and implementation of local DRR strategies and plans in urban areas is the strength of planning institutions and norms in that locality. The role of planning is indispensable for mainstreaming DRR into urban development plans. The aforementioned study of the USAID Neighborhood Approach project across informal settlements in Latin America found that it was the local governments that had the more comprehensive urban development capabilities that were most able to foster cross-sectoral integration and to mainstream DRR practices in urban development.

Various types and scales of urban plans, from territorial to land-use zoning, can help to protect environmentally sensitive areas, and hence increase resilience. They can: reduce disaster risk through better planned infrastructure and the creation of open spaces; reduce vulnerability through appropriate location of housing and other critical services; mitigate climate change by ensuring optimum use of energy and reducing GHG emissions; and improve resilience by ensuring upgrading and retrofitting of poorly planned and constructed settlements, ideally through a participatory process that will ensure implementation and sustainability. Furthermore, the consideration of innovative planning and design ideas such as urban green growth strategies, transit-oriented design, creative open and public space development, and the use of green and blue infrastructure can help to reduce risk in urban areas while increasing living conditions and attaining cities towards sustainable and resilient development.

An example comes from China's Sponge City Programme, which has established methods for flood risk reduction, water conservation, improved water quality and reduction of heat island effects by using ecological infrastructure. Run-off water volumes are reduced by preservation and restoration of green spaces over hard impervious surfaces, which reduces day- and night-time temperatures. There are cultural, ecological and health benefits too, which all help to build community resilience.

The existence of urban plans, building codes and alike do not indicate the success of their implementation. Implementation of risk-sensitive planning can help reduce the risk in informal and slum settlements, which will require provision of suitable land for all income groups. Participatory slum-upgrading practices are a prerequisite for DRR and resilience building in many rapidly urbanizing cities, which cannot offer suitable land, infrastructure, and services to increased population shift from impoverished rural economies, industrial relocation, conflict and crises.

An enabling factor for local DRR strategies in urban areas is therefore an understanding of the emerging risks, increasingly through using the emerging complex systems risk models, and as a result, the development of context-specific approaches in local DRR strategies and planning from neighbourhood to city and territorial level. This then needs to be backed by enforcement and updating of national codes and standards as part of national urban policies.

14.5 Conclusions

Given the complex nature of urban risk, and especially given current projections for rapid urban growth in developing economies, a focus on urban areas and local-level action is central and urgent to achieve inclusive, resilient and sustainable communities as understood in the Sendai Framework, the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement and NUA. These global frameworks crystallize the importance of urban risk reduction actions, in particular strategy and policy development. They reflect Member States' clear understanding that, without risk-informed planning, human lives will be in danger and most development gains will be lost, and that this risk is especially acute in urban areas. More than half the world's population currently lives in urban environments, and future urban development that is not planned and which is risk sensitive could potentially make many more people vulnerable and exposed to existing risk, as well as create new risk.

There are sound economic reasons for national governments to create national urban policies that include support for implementation of national and local risk reduction strategies and plans in urban areas, to create context-specific benefits and address risk where it has most impact. It is in the interests of local authorities to develop and implement local and urban DRR strategies that also create a legacy of leadership based on trust and legitimacy of the local political structures and authority, so that civil society, the private sector, scientific and technological institutions and development partners continue to engage. Local and urban DRR strategies safeguard social and human gains, and can promote social equality (including along gender lines), substantially reducing losses and sustaining economic growth while assuring investors that the environment is safe and reliable.

Local strategies also present opportunities for decentralized competencies and optimization of often scarce resources. As seen earlier, cities with limited resources and capacity often ignore risk, unless faced with disaster impacts. It has often been observed that disaster recovery may also present opportunities to integrate risk reduction in future development processes, as governments may use these situations as "triggers to increase the understanding of the risks and to mainstream the DRM approach in different sectors of development."

Collaboration in global initiatives creates a knowledge base with a growing access to an expanding network of cities and partners committed to DRR and resilience building with the possibility of exchange of practices, tools and expertise. However, despite increased awareness and obvious benefits of developing local DRR strategies and plans, many cities are still not progressing significantly regarding design, development and implementation of DRR actions.

As discussed above, local governments experience a multitude of challenges that hinder the advancement of DRR and resilience building. A common issue raised is insufficient authority for city governments, while budget allocation is also a prominent concern, along with technical capacity. Mobilizing private funding without the backing of national governments is still proving to be a major challenge for medium to small subnational entities.

In terms of risk information gaps, the lack of coordination among horizontal and vertical agencies and stakeholder partnerships, as well as sector silos, seems to be the greatest impediment to knowledge-based capacity for DRR in local governments, even for the sharing of data to start designing DRR strategies and action plans.

One of the biggest challenges for local DRR is to make the investment case for it, to convince national and local government authorities and communities faced with limited resources and competing needs that it pays to invest in risk reduction because recovery and reconstruction costs more. Sometimes, the short-term nature of political processes adds to this dilemma.

You are viewing an excerpt of this chapter. To access the entire chapter or the full GAR report. Download the entire introduction.