Learning the language of cities in crisis

Next year, the World Humanitarian Summit and Habitat III will offer a key opportunity to build a partnership between urban experts and humanitarians.

Haitians walk through the earthquake-ravaged streets of downtown Port-au-Prince, 29 January 2010. Some say humanitarian response needs to focus more on urban systems rather than just on individuals and families. (Marco Dormino/UN Photo)

With the world increasingly urban, towns and cities tend to dominate today’s discourse on politics, economics and culture in most countries.

City, business and thought leaders recognize the value of these urban dynamics, working to bring in investments and attract talented professionals, entrepreneurs and creative individuals to maintain the positive synergies that dense, heterogeneous urban environments can produce. Meanwhile, many national governments are devolving more powers and freedoms to their cities to encourage them to make the most of their competitive advantage on the world stage.

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But city populations are also exposed to a tremendous range of hazards: violence, conflict, epidemics, and technological and natural disasters. The size of the world’s cities and the rapid pace at which they are growing will serve only to multiply the catastrophic impacts of these events.

This means we are looking at a future in which there will be ever-increasing need for humanitarian response in urban areas.

There are multiple examples of what can happen to a damaged city when reconstruction and urban growth aren’t planned or don’t take the needs of all urban residents into account. For instance, in 1972, Managua, Nicaragua, suffered a devastating earthquake. The centre of the city still shows the scars of that event, when 90 percent of commercial capacity was destroyed. The downtown area was particularly affected, and it has never been fully rebuilt.

The city has a way of responding to this type of event, but it can be perverse. Businesses and residential buildings begin to crop up in unlikely locations. In Managua, there are squatter settlements in the ruins of the old city and new luxury residential areas on its outskirts. Researchers have described these patterns as giving the city “the appearance of a deformed octopus. The tentacles of the octopus reach out along major transport arteries away from the old centre, but the octopus’s body is riddled with gaping holes.”

“Alongside the needs of urban dwellers after an emergency, what of assistance for the city? The damaged urban ecosystem will also need to be revived, so that it can return to normal functioning and provide the essential services that city populations rely on.”

These high-end neighbourhoods are no longer part of the urban fabric. They are isolated behind security walls, connected only by what Dennis Rodgers, a professor of urban studies at Glasgow University, has described as a “fortified network” of high-speed roads and roundabouts. Poor people are literally swept aside, as the elites reserve certain parts of the city just for themselves.

Most wealthy cities in the Global North have a relatively good understanding of the risks they face. Over past decades, their authorities have invested in measures to protect populations and infrastructure, both physically and through insurance mechanisms. They have trained their emergency services and have special response units to deal with the various threats faced by 21st-century cities.

These endeavours are underpinned by an understanding of the city as a type of ecosystem, where the systems that power and maintain urban life are closely intertwined. There are backup plans and redundancies, ensuring that if one part of the system fails, it does not cause catastrophic failure elsewhere.

But what of cities in the developing world that are equally, if not more, exposed to hazards? Here, endemic poverty, lack of urban planning, limited basic services and poor governance mean the effects of natural and other disasters are often felt much more strongly than in the Global North. In cases where a national or local government is overwhelmed, international humanitarian assistance is often requested. This support, in the aftermath of an emergency, is life-saving.

Assistance for the city

When humanitarian actors consider needs in an emergency, they tend to focus first on the individual or the household, and they generally consider context as an afterthought. This is how this system has worked for decades.

Furthermore, these methods and ways of working were established on the ground in remote places — responding to rural famines, for instance, or refugee crises on international borders. But this means there is much work to be done to adapt these approaches to fit better within the complexity of urban life, moving beyond helping people who happen to live in a city to helping people by tapping into the resources and structures of the urban ecosystem.

But alongside the needs of urban dwellers after an emergency, what of assistance for the city? The damaged urban ecosystem will also need to be revived, so that it can return to normal functioning and provide the jobs, food, water, transport, energy and other essential services that city populations rely on.

This isn’t a job for which humanitarian groups are well prepared, nor one they should be doing alone. But unless development actors rapidly get involved, the need for emergency assistance to urban populations will drag on — well beyond the life-saving phase.

More recently, after the Haitian earthquake of 2010, the capital Port-au-Prince suffered similar levels of devastation to Managua. The international community rushed to help, but assistance was focused on individuals and households, providing temporary solutions to lack of shelter, jobs, food and water.

Yet these interventions were out of sync with what the city needed. Focused on maintaining stricken populations in makeshift camps, the international response did little to nurture and repair the damaged city and its urban systems. Already in dire straits before the earthquake, the massive generosity of individuals and governments could have been used in Port-au-Prince to “build back better”, as so many high-profile figures claimed it would. Instead, thousands of people lived under canvas for years on end.

Today, more than five years on, the centre of Port-au-Prince is a ghost of its former self. Businesses have relocated to the smart, residential district of Pétionville, creating gridlock on its cramped streets. The once-bustling downtown area, where poorer residents could make a living, no longer provides as many opportunities.

After the earthquake, many recovery actors focused on flagship projects, meeting the needs of the few lucky enough to live in the right neighbourhood. Humanitarian actors tried to meet the needs of as many households as possible, spending an estimated USD 500 million on transitional or temporary shelters.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of residents whose homes had been destroyed began to reconstruct as best, and wherever, they could. Urbanists observing life in Port-au-Prince knew this would happen — that the city’s boundaries would spread and that people would build their own homes without adherence to plans or building codes. They also knew that doing so would put these residents at risk all over again.

This is the way the city responds. The dynamism and entrepreneurialism of the informal sector will lead the way, not waiting for humanitarian agencies or the formal sector.

However, reviews of shelter and settlements programming after the Haiti earthquake have offered concerning findings. Rather than aiding and supporting this inevitable large-scale process and thinking about what the city as a whole needed to ensure jobs, mobility and essential services for the future, the focus of many humanitarian actors remained on small-scale, manageable projects, poorly connected to longer-term development planning.

Decoding urban areas

Saskia Sassen, a sociology professor at Columbia University, has spoken about the “language of cities” and our need to understand what they are communicating. For instance, she gives the example of snarled traffic in downtown areas as the way the city says “no” to the overuse of private transport.

Humanitarians need help to understand this language in crisis-affected cities, to make sure their emergency assistance does no harm to sustainable urban growth in the long term. But conversations between urban experts and humanitarians are not yet happening often enough or substantively enough. The networks of urban professionals, mayors and academics that can help decode the city’s language are not natural interlocutors for the humanitarian community.

Over the next year, however, there will be a number of opportunities to begin to break down these barriers. Two of the most significant will be major international events: the World Humanitarian Summit in May and the Habitat III cities conference in October 2016.

The Urban Expert Group for the World Humanitarian Summit has begun to engage with mayors and planners, and the idea of a partnership or alliance to bring diverse urban stakeholders is emerging. We need both to listen to each other — and to listen to the language of cities in crisis.

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Lucy Earle

Lucy Earle is an urban adviser for the International Rescue Committee’s Urban Crises Learning and Advocacy Project and a co-lead of the Urban Expert Group for the World Humanitarian Summit.