The Social Side of Urban Earthquake Risk

Creating a better measure of non-physical urban factors in post-earthquake damage.

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Reuters

A big earthquake plus rickety buildings equals devastation in cities. But unstable buildings aren't the only factor we should be worrying about, according to researchers at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Spain. Social conditions should also play into considerations about how much risk a city faces.

Current seismic risk analysis on cities considers the physical factors – how old buildings are, what the building codes and standards were when those buildings were built, and how many people could be expected to be in those buildings if an earthquake were to occur. Helpful, yes. But the researchers argue that other conditions should also be considered, including the number of hospital beds nearby, the training level of hospital staff, the preponderance of marginalized neighborhoods, and rates of crime.

A city with old buildings that has a strong network of neighbors and an efficient emergency services system will be at less risk of overall damage from an earthquake compared to a city with the same old buildings but none of the social networks or emergency services. Based on a sample use of this approach, Barcelona was found to have a medium-low risk, while Bogota was found to have a medium-high risk.

By accounting for factors like the strengths and weaknesses and the city's governance and the social cohesion of neighborhoods, the risk levels of different cities can be put in better context. And by understanding which places are facing more risk, better preparations can be made to reduce post-earthquake problems arising from the non-physical factors that may end up being more damaging than the earthquake itself.

Photo credit: Reuters

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.