Understanding urban everyday risks through methodological innovations

Mark Pelling - Principal Investigator's picture

The Urban ARK programme hosted a session at this year’s RGS-IBG Annual International Conference titled ‘Understanding everyday risks through methodological innovations’.

This session (organised by Hayley Leck and Maria Ruska, King's College London) explored different forms of research methodologies and knowledge generation that can capture the underlying drivers of risk accumulation and disaster production in urban centres and how these are spatially and socially distributed. It brought together analysis of urban governance and vulnerability from various urban centres across sub-Saharan Africa. This allowed comparison of the range of methods deployed to draw out their appropriateness, complementarities and synergies. 

African cities and small towns are highly vulnerable both to large disasters and to everyday risks. This provides opportunities and challenges for disaster risk reduction, adaptation to climate change, and transformative urban development. Large disasters including floods, storms, and earthquakes are increasingly affecting urban areas, at the same time as everyday risks associated with inadequate access to basic services, such as water, sanitation and health care grow in significance. At the same time, well-planned urbanisation offers scope for new infrastructure and land-use planning to build risk reduction and adaptation into urban design. Innovative actions and interventions by urban residents have considerable potential for effective and transformative risk management, yet are often constrained from influencing development pathways and risk accumulation and reduction patterns by inequality and uneven power relations.

Major constraints to resilience building for urban sub-Saharan Africa and beyond include limited understanding of urbanisation and risk relationships, constrained capacities of local authorities, and the difficulties in transforming the unequal power relations that underpin risk accumulation. Understanding risk production in urban centres is complex and requires an analysis of the complex interrelationships of socio-political, biophysical and spatial processes.

The conference theme of decolonising geographical knowledge was approached through the aspiration of designing large research programmes and individual projects that provide voice to multiple stakeholders and value positions and lead to multiple action outcomes. The opportunities afforded to large programmes like Urban ARK were discussed and the challenges too. While Urban ARK has been successful at deploying multiple methodologies and giving voice there remains a challenge in connecting this experience and new knowledge and understanding to the best range of actors so to facilitate tangible outcomes. Specific projects and wider capacity building has this as a specific target. More broadly work can be described as impacting in three ways: providing an evidence base for policy leverage and motivation; enabling collective reasoning and critical reflection amongst individuals. 

Scale arises as a particularly important question in deploying research that can open opportunities not only for dominant interests but for wider voices to become engaged in development. This can involve for example generating data at local administrative levels that can be aggregated to higher city levels where power lies for effecting change in local environmental conditions.

Papers presented in the session were:

MARK PELLING (KCL, UK), DAVID DODMAN (IIED, UK), HAYLEY LECK (KCL, UK) MARIA RUSCA (KCL, UK): Urban Africa Risk Knowledge - Setting the Agenda

ALEJANDRO BARCENA (KCL, UK): Understanding urban transformations: a coevolutionary framework underpinned by reflexivity and discourse contestation

FAITH TAYLOR, JAMES MILLINGTON AND BRUCE MALAMUD (KCL, UK): Understanding risk to the urban built environment in data-poor regions

IBIDUN ADELEKAN, EZEBUNWA NWOKOCHA AND FEMI OLANIYAN (UNIVERSITY OF IBADAN, NIGERIA): A contribution to city-wide risk knowledge in a data sparse environment-Ibadan city study

ELIJAH WANDA, MTAFU MANDA, ORTON MSISKA, JAMES KUSHE, CHRIS MPHANDE. DOMINIC KAMLOMO AND JEAN KAUNDA(MZUZU UNIVERSITY, MALAWI): Citizen science water quality and WASH related risk monitoring for building resilience in Karonga Town, Malawi

JOE MULLIGAN, JAMILLA HARPER, VERA BUKACHI (KOUNKUEY DESIGN INITIATIVE, USA/KENYA): Heterogeneity in flood and linked risks across neighbourhoods in Kibera, Nairobi

DONALD BROWN (UCL, UK), TAMARA PHIRI (MZUZU UNIVERSITY, MALAWI), WISDON BWANALI (URBAN RESOURCE CENTRE, MALAWI), MTAFU MANDA (MZUZU UNIVERSITY) Testing innovative methodologies for urban health research in data poor environments: Insights from Karonga Town, Malawi