Urban Africa: Risk Knowledge

Mark Pelling - Principal Investigator's picture

Urban Africa Risk Knowledge (Urban ARK) is a three year research and capacity building programme funded by the UK Department for International Development and the Economic and Social Research Council. 

Africa’s cities are amongst the most dynamic and variable places on earth. Full of activity; traders brush shoulders with professionals and families, multiple languages wash over each other and life carries on at a pace. As policy and business cycles turn there is hope that life can be a little, or a lot better for individuals, households and cities. And why not? There is much human resource, innovation aplenty and increasingly economic and technological capacity in African cities. At the same time, the ‘development deficit’ in many towns and cities across Africa is considerable. While national economies may grow so do slum settlements.

Urban Africa Risk Knowledge (Urban ARK) is a three year research and capacity building programme funded by the UK Department for International Development and the Economic and Social Research Council. The objective is to examine processes shaping urbanisation in Africa and in so doing to better understand the ways in which Africa’s urbanisation leads not only to improved life chances but also to the accumulation of disaster risk. This is fundamental if cities and towns are to become more resilient and sustainable – to protect progressive development gains from the impacts of disaster events and in the act of reducing risk and responding to disaster enable improved wellbeing. It is not sufficient to return households and communities to pre-disaster conditions – the very conditions that generated risk and disaster in the first place. Yet even ‘bouncing-back’ is a challenge and too often reconstruction means a loss of home, social capital and identity. The Sustainable Development Goals as well as the Sendai Framework for Action are explicit about the centrality of urban resilience for sustainable development. As the Sustainable Development Goals state: “Disaster risk reduction (DRR) is an integral part of social and economic development, and is essential if development is to be sustainable for the future.” (UN 2015)

Urban ARK identifies and aims to respond to three key challenges that hamper efforts to enhance sustainable development by integrating disaster risk reduction into urban development:

  1. A lack of basic data – on hazard and loss and on the social conditions that shape susceptibility to harm but also coping and adaptive capacity.
  2. A lack of systematic analysis of the ways in which urbanisation processes influence the social, geographical and temporal distribution of risk and loss in contemporary African towns and cities.
  3. Inadequate human capacity amongst those at risk, in civil society, government and the private sector and a lack of coordinated effort to reduce disaster risk.

Urban ARK focuses in depth on four cities – each presenting different development and hazard contexts: Ibadan in Nigeria, Karonga in Malawi, Nairobi in Kenya and Niamey in Niger. We also work in Dakar, Senegal and Mombasa, Kenya. Much of our research and project outputs will be in French as well as English as a result. City level research teams and stakeholders including city planners, community groups and businesses take a lead in defining key gaps in data, understanding and capacity; responding in partnership with the programme’s international consortium.  

If you have read to the end of this blog you surely agree with us that Africa’s cities, and urbanisation worldwide is at a threshold. There is now not only a significant challenge in front of us, but also growing regional and international political will to confront the development trends that are generating inequality and risk in cities and in consequence for global sustainability. Please join us.

Urban ARK will only succeed if the programme can learn from the experiences and knowledge of the many actors – practitioners and citizens as well as researchers – joined in efforts to reduce urban risk.

Urban ARK encourages wide collaboration – please join the conversation. If you have time and capacity we invite you to join our city science and stakeholder meetings, to apply for our visiting researcher fellowships and for places in our intensive training workshops. For those unable to participate directly we welcome your reactions, thoughts, cries and celebrations through this blog site, our twitter links and our website community of practice pages.


UN (2015) The Sustainable Development Goals, Accessed from