Design for Urban Disaster

June 9, 2014

By Karima Benbih, Fulbright scholar, PhD Student- Shelter and Settlement – Virginia Tech 

Last month in Boston, Habitat for Humanity International sponsored the “Design for Urban Disaster” conference, along with the International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent Societies, The Graduate School of Design The South Asia Institute at Harvard University and Oxford Brooks University. If this title sounds unusual, that’s because it is; up to now, those who design urban areas had not communicated directly or frequently with those who provide aid when disaster strikes such areas. This conference was designed to change that by bringing humanitarian aid practitioners and architectural and urban designers to the same table to discuss innovative and effective ways to improve actions before, during and after a disaster. Within each of the three tracks of panels – Response, Resilience, and Transformation – attendees explored how design can inform disaster response, the role of the urban design actors in the recovery processes, and the impact of design on the transformation, prediction, and adaptation to the increasing risks of disaster.

Urbanization is a growing focus throughout the world, and the humanitarian sector, which had previously focused primarily on rural areas, is shifting toward urban areas as well. Over-populated and highly vulnerable to disasters, the urban areas of the developing south pose a different challenge for the humanitarian aid practice and require new approaches in disaster response and recovery. Unlike rural areas, urban areas are a sum of all parts (transport, building, livelihood, economics, culture, etc.) and cooperation between humanitarian workers and urban planners, architects, and space practitioners to develop systems of response and reconstruction at every stage – from pre-disaster through the recovery period – yields better results.

The current disconnect between the regulatory environment, land tenure, infrastructure and finance is exacerbated in the aftermath of disasters. Instead of fragmenting urban space into silos, urban areas should take a holistic design approach to disaster response and recovery, both in terms of government organization and community involvement.  

As several panels at the conference noted, certain practices of the physical design community are either overlooked or misunderstood by the humanitarian sector. The use of maps, drawings, and representation adds fresher, more accurate and communicable information to the response and recovery process. This discussion highlighted the practice and responsibility of design, where anticipation and prediction of potential problems become significant drivers of design production during the disaster response, affecting how we generate forms, use materials, and value performance of spaces and structures. For its part, the humanitarian sector provides organizational power, negotiating priorities and pooling efforts of international aid, private sector expertise and governments.

Questions of how best to approach urban disaster response and recovery are critical as the rate of urbanization continues to increase. A single conference cannot provide time to address in depth all matters of spatial practices and their role within the human behavior in urban areas, how that is disrupted by disasters and how can the recovery lead to an establishment of urban disaster response that takes into consideration the individuals and communities habitus and relationships to their spaces. “Design for Urban Disaster” provided a powerful start to a conversation that should continue in the months ahead. For more information, see


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