Reuters

Bouncing back from disasters relies more on pre-planning than concrete and steel.

Disasters happen – from floods to fires to earthquakes, natural and unnatural catastrophes have always and will always strike cities. That these extreme events take place is less important than how well cities are able to withstand and bounce back from these inevitable and unfortunate events.

A disaster-free city is a fantasy. More realistic and more desirable is a city that's resilient in the face of disaster. This pragmatism is spreading to cities across the world as officials try to figure out what they can do to reduce the impact of disasters and to help their cities make it through to the other side. It's becoming increasingly important as cities grow and urbanization rates rise, as a new report [PDF] from the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction outlines.

But when it comes to building resiliency in a city, there isn't actually much concrete-and-steel building happening. Of the cities analyzed for this report, five common activities were observed:

1. Taking disaster risk reduction into account in new urban planning regulations, plans and development activities;
2. Establishing councils/committees/disaster management structures dedicated to disaster risk reduction;
3. Constructing hazard-resistant infrastructure or improving existing facilities;
4. Establishing education/awareness/training programmes;
5. Organizing multi-stakeholder dialogues.

Only one of those activities, number 3, involves actually building anything. So it's not so much levees and emergency shelters that are aiding recovery as it is the sort of pre-planning for disasters that can help reduce their impact. Being resilient in the face of a disaster relies on planning efforts that reduce the amount of people living in disaster-prone areas, training people to react to disasters safely, and basically growing a city in a way that puts fewer people at risk.

Physical infrastructure is surely important, but the report points out that preparing for these inevitable-even-if-rare events is most crucial for making sure a city is not completely debilitated by a disaster. This pie chart breaks it down visually:

Source: United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction

Most of that pie focuses on institutional guidelines and frameworks and planning efforts. The three pieces of the pie that partially include actual physical building – infrastructure, reconstruction, schools and hospitals – only make up about one-sixth of the picture.

The report notes that cities in developing countries still have insufficient infrastructure to deal with large-scale catastrophes, but the overwhelming message is that bouncing back from disasters has more to do with strategy before the event than the physical structures that may or may not survive through it.

Top image: Water from Hurricane Isaac floods a highway near New Orleans August 31. Credit: Sean Gardner / Reuters

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