Urban Populations' Capacity To Perceive And Respond To Risks

Urban Risk and its Drivers
Urban Risk and its Drivers

In the current era of profound global environmental and demographic change urban populations may be more vulnerable to a suite of risks that climate change might aggravate such as mortality from extreme temperatures and property damages from floods. At the same time urban populations and decision makers may also be positioned to most effectively respond to such risks. Research is needed however, exploring both the multilevel factors and processes that determine urban risk and the complex pathways from hazards to impacts, and from perceptions and coping responses to adaptation.

We address the gap by analyzing whether and under what circumstances urban populations experience risk in selected neighborhoods of Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Mexico and Santiago; and assessing their adaptation capacity, i.e., ability to perceive and respond to hazards.

Urban risk —or probability of occurrence of consequences upon things we value– is the outcome of exposure to hazards and the capacity to perceive and respond to these hazards (adaptation capacity). Hazards are probable or possible physical and social perturbations and stresses urban populations experience (i.e., exposed to, Figure 1). Adaptation capacity, is a population's ability to perceive risk and to avoid or lessen the negative consequences of the multiple hazards they are exposed to, based on individual characteristics that can make household members sensitive (e.g., age), and household and neighborhood level access to resources, assets, and options such as education, income, house quality, infrastructure and services, and social capital (e.g., individual levels of social trust, participation in networks and family support).

We found that both low- and middle income neighborhoods are exposed to a range of hazards (air pollution, floods, droughts, etc.). Yet, socioeconomic differences between neighborhoods differentiate urban risks within study cities in nuanced ways. For instance, while some of these hazards, such as air pollution, can affect middle and low income neighborhoods alike, the effects of many, like floods and fires, are determined by informality. Low-income neighborhoods of Malvinas, Mexico City and Alvear and Alsina, Buenos Aires illustrate how, by influencing the possibilities of connecting to the electricity network, the informal status of the neighborhoods increases the risk of property damage from fires. However, by growing into risk-prone areas middle-income families in Rinconada del Sur, Mexico City and La Florida, Santiago are not spared from exposure to hazards

Informality has a profound influence on risk and adaptation capacities across scales. While urban development in hazard-prone areas is allowed for both low- and middle income households, wealthy forms of growth, such those in La Florida, Santiago, not only enjoy state sanction, but also receive infrastructural protections that often work to the detriment of informal neighborhoods, where residents face multiple disadvantages based on their "illegal" status. These include low and precarious incomes and the lack of the benefits associated with formal employment that buffer the impacts of hazards and stresses. Informal tenure of land and housing prevents households from accessing credit lines and insurance, and becomes an incentive for involvement in paternalistic relationships, such as patronage systems to gain access to infrastructures or neighborhood improvements.

Furthermore, informality is a key determinant of actual adaptation actions as households with legally acknowledged ownership tend to invest more in home improvements that increase their adaptation capacity. Poorer neighborhoods feel they are excluded by dominant political interests; however, people are aware that in the current context of urban risk even the wealthier neighborhoods might be unable to escape from some risks (e.g., floods resulting from storm-surges, dislocation of the built environment resulting from water overexploitation).



Please direct questions/comments about this page to:

Olga Wilhelmi

Head of GIS Program