Increasingly, humanitarians are responding to urban crises and are often poorly equipped to understand and respond to cities' complex dynamics.
Port-au-Prince, Aleppo, and Monrovia have suffered man-made or natural disasters. Humanitarian response in these cities have one thing in common: the need to #ThinkUrban for better response.
A 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck January 12, 2010, claiming hundreds of thousands of victims, hitting urban areas and the housing sector hard. Funding and assistance to Haiti were generous, but did not guarantee sustainable urban recovery. From Day 1, decisions need to account for urban dynamics and the longer term impacts of emergency interventions.
Families sought refuge as close as possible to their damaged home, their neighbors and livelihood opportunities, settling in open spaces, some with high risk of flooding. Looking back, it would have been better to consider these sites as part of the neighbourhood and the city, not as camps.
The government made land available in Canaan, a neighboring town, for an emergency relocation of an urban camp. Surrounding areas were invaded and in four years, the informal town expanded to approximately 150,000 people. Failing to anticipate the choices families would make to relocate to Canaan resulted in a missed opportunity to plan ahead and reduce risks.
Over US$500m was spent on emergency and transitional shelter solutions, often replacing destroyed multi-family structures with imported single-family options, which proved inefficient. Early efforts to upgrade and return to neighborhoods were supported by communities. However, families prioritised returning to school over spending money on improving and rebuilding their homes.
While resources and efforts were not in short supply, critical humanitarian decisions taken during the early days of recovery must take into account urban dynamics and priorities for longer-term impact, in order to allocate resources properly.
The Syrian conflict has been raging since 2010, and has increasingly become an urban war. The frontlines are redrawing the map of the city, cutting off roads, erasing certain neighborhoods, and dismantling basic services.
People leave their neighborhood not only when they are in physical danger or their house is damaged. Lack of access to water, electricity, markets, or livelihoods are also important factors. Systems must be kept running, and supporting basic economic activities are critical.
Assistance must be provided to ‘safe’ neighborhoods to limit further displacement. Out of the 1.5 million people displaced in Aleppo, half did not leave town, but crowded in to safer neighborhoods, resulting in overburdening housing, services and infrastructure.
Lack of cross-line access to dumpsites, clean water and electricity creates serious health risks. Sourcing and distributing electricity and water typically runs throughout the whole city and its periphery, often turning it into a tool of war and subject to local negotiations.
From March 2014 to January 2016, Liberia saw a health crisis spiralling out of control. Monrovia represented over 50% of the Ebola virus cases, with slums hit the hardest.
Slums were mostly a result of displacement during the Civil War. Slum-dwellers maintained socio-cultural and economic ties to their areas of origin, and the spread of the virus proliferated as they moved back and forth, in search of jobs, attending social events, seeking assistance and refuge from the virus.
Tailoring response to the urban reality meant producing maps showing the diversity of neighborhoods, mapping their rural areas of origin and empowering city governments to mobilize those trusted by the communities.
The density, the lack of sanitation, the use of informal clinics, the tendency to treat the sick at home and the distrust of the government accelerated secondary transmissions. Response needs to move beyond delivering goods and messages and needs to be built on a continuous community engagement.
The Global Alliance for Urban Crises was created to bring together local authorities, networks of planners, architects and engineers, and humanitarian and development actors to adapt humanitarian action to our urban world. Let's work together to better prevent, prepare for and respond to urban crises.