VARANASI, INDIA – AUGUST 11: A man pedals a cycle rickshaw during flash flood in monsoon on August 11, 2011 in Varanasi, India.

The Challenge of Urban Disaster

David Sanderson discusses urban poverty and the importance of disaster risk reduction

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An interview with David Sanderson

An interview by Ekaterina Romanova

David Sanderson's professional experience lies in urban poverty, disaster risk reduction and livelihoods. He has extensive experience in development and disaster risk reduction across the world, working primarily with aid agencies, including CARE International UK as Head of Policy and subsequently Regional Manager for Southern and West Africa.

In this interview Sanderson discusses the role of the architect in reducing the impact of natural disasters, how to shape a new generation of professionals through education, and the importance of social activity and human vulnerability.
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You were originally trained and worked as an architect. How did your interests in development and disaster risk reduction start?

I fell into it! Basically, my career started when I got a job as a researcher while studying architecture in Development Practice at Oxford Brookes University. Since then I worked in development with an emphasis on disaster management and emergencies in over 30 countries.

How do you interpret the term ‘risk reduction’?

Well, risk reduction happens when people start taking control to avoid or reduce the effects of a disaster. This process involves people themselves determining the levels of risk. Risk reduction is a key factor in building resilient communities and nations.

Good work is built on minimizing vulnerabilities and disaster risks throughout a society, avoiding by prevention or limiting the adverse impacts of hazards, within the broad context of sustainable development.

You have 20 years of experience in all stages of project management and you’ve worked for a number of organizations, such as Qatar Foundation, USAID, World Bank (EDI Section), United Nations (UNDP/​UNDESA, UN-​Habitat), and British Council. Could you identify a few of the practices that define the professional approach you’ve developed over your career?

From my personal experience I can identify that working with people and organizations is the most valuable. Recently I finished an evaluation, Philippines Typhoon Haiyan Response Review, together with Delica Willisen. Also, in my earlier paper, ‘Responding to urban disaster: learning from previous relief and recovery operations’, the main focus is on improving humanitarian performance through learning and accountability.

Most of the Haitien people have home left to live, take a bath or sleep in. More than 200,000 people were estimated killed in the earthquake. Approximately a month after the disaster, a resiliant populace carries on, despite lacking many basic necessities, such as tents for temporary shelter.

What needs to be changed for aid agencies to meet the needs of rapidly growing cities?

A lot needs to be done. Fundamentally. With an urban approach we need to think differently almost at every level about what community is around, ideas, density and space and urban form and politics, commission… pretty much everything.

Did you have a particular experience working in a large city that brought you to the conclusion that everything must be rethought?

I don’t think that everything has to be rethought. It is an evolution. It is a slow progress, but hopefully in the right direction.

How would you define a ‘sustainable livelihood’ approach and how can it reduce disaster risk?

Oh, it is very interesting. Sustainable livelihood methodologies provide a valuable opportunity for understanding disaster within the context of development. Basically, it’s a useful ‘roadmap’ to understanding disasters, capacity, governance, et cetera.

A common understanding of livelihoods is given by Chambers and Conway: ‘A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets (both natural and social) and activities required for a means of living; a livelihood which is sustainable can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks, maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets, both now and in the future, while not undermining the natural resource base’.

People are the starting point in whole process of risk reduction

The key element of livelihoods approaches is that people are the starting point in whole process of risk reduction. Sustainable livelihoods methodologies provide a valuable opportunity for combining disaster reduction and development interventions in one unifying approach.

What was the mission of Centre for Development and Emergency Practice (CENDEP) at Oxford Brookes University during your work as a director of the program?

I was a director of CENDEP for 8 years and for 6 and a half years I led the Master’s Program. The mission of the program is to reveal and advance practice-​oriented approaches in disaster risk reduction and response, chronic poverty, building urban resilience, conflict transformation, refugee studies.


Port-​Au-​Prince, Haiti – February 8th, 2010 : Haitians sit, laugh, relax, walk and spend time together in the safety of their camp. An enclosed area with tents and other facilities has been built for the Haitians who have been rendered homeless by the earthquake. The earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.0Mw, destroyed most of Haiti’s modest infrastructure and ruined the lives of millions.

What were the most important issues that researchers explored there?

We were involved in three big things. First is development, which relates to chronic poverty all around the world. Second is emergency response, which relates to natural disasters and also conflicts. The last one and the most important was the practical part, the main focus of which is: What do we do about the rapidly changing world?

How have you observed climate change in your work in reconstruction and disaster relief?

Global warming and climate change are among the trends that affect the world at large. Among the most anticipated risks of climate change are the effects of sea level rise and accompanying hazards to small island states and coastal cities.

Following the earthquakes in Haiti and in Chile, you wrote: ‘Architects are often the first people needed in disaster reconstruction’. What are the architect’s responsibilities in this case?

Yes, architects play a key role. Architects have a very special role to play in engaging the built environment in process. When architects do it badly, they only really focus on the products. I think it’s most important to focus on learning. I had to relearn almost everything, especially the role of the ‘professional’ when working with others. The fundamental shift [in my perception of the architect’s role] is that it is not only about buildings to design products; architects have to work with people to design processes.

Lack of participation by affected people can cause poorly designed and incorrectly located buildings, as happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina

Most architects are taught almost the exact opposite of what is needed. Architects are taught to focus on the product, whereas humanitarian practitioners focus on the process. For architects, ownership of the design rests with them and fellow professionals; for the aid world, engaging beneficiaries through sharing decisions is paramount.

Could you explain some specific aspects of the architectural discipline that you had to relearn and why?

I had to become a facilitator of processes by involving people in post-​disaster conditions and places of rapid change. Without this change, many people would remain on the margins of humanitarian response.

How can architecture can serve post-​crisis reconstruction without transplanting alien architecture into a context where it wasn’t called for and without forgetting the importance of the memory of places?

It can take time. By listening to what people actually want a lot of things can be done. Lack of participation by affected people can cause poorly designed and incorrectly located buildings, as happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Port-Au-Prince, Haiti - February 13th, 2010 : Haitian policemen punish a young Haitian boy by stripping him of all his clothes and other belongings, as a punishment for vandalism. The earthquake destroyed thousands of structures and the lives of millions of people.

Port-​Au-​Prince, Haiti – February 13th, 2010 : Haitian policemen punish a young Haitian boy by stripping him of all his clothes and other belongings, as a punishment for vandalism. The earthquake destroyed thousands of structures and the lives of millions of people.

How do you envision the future of informal settlements and slums?

Currently there are around one billion people living in informal settlements and slums. UN-​Habitat forecasts an increase of up to two billion within the next 20 years.

There are around one billion people living in informal settlements and slums

Slum dwellers and squatters often settle in these dangerous locations as the only option for their livelihoods and survival. An example is the large squatter settlement in Central Delhi that has existed within the designated flood plain of the Yamuna River for more than 25 years. The settlement is forced to evacuate at least once a year to the busy roadside whilst their shelters are flooded for upwards of one month. The regular flooding is seen as the price to pay for living in the centre of the city at low cost.

In 30 to 50 years from now, how will the face of the modern megapolis be changed?

People will have to adapt. With more disasters coming to urban areas, those cities are in danger. They need more resilient development strategies, such as many cities in Japan have. In the future, we will find some cities that are really struggling to survive.