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Humanitarian Aid on the move #8, special issue: Cities and crises

Cities and crises
Béatrice Boyer and François Grünewald

Groupe URD has worked on the challenges facing humanitarians and reconstruction actors in urban contexts for a long time. We have conducted a large number of field missions and we have produced several books and numerous articles in connection with this issue. The conference of 26 April 2011 was an opportunity to share our experience in this domain and to revitalise the debate about the interaction between cities, humanitarian action and reconstruction. It aimed to review current thinking about vulnerability in built and urban environments and the issues involved in conducting humanitarian action and reconstruction in such contexts. This document is the topic overview which was prepared in advance of the conference to place the debate in its context and present the different issues raised by these questions

Built and urban environments are increasingly affected by destructive events and can themselves be a source of fragility. In general, crisis management and relief activities in these contexts are extremely complex due to multiple interconnected factors and population density. These multiple factors (e.g. social, spatial and economic) create a certain number of problems for those providing post-emergency aid in terms of security and providing supplies for essential needs. Whether local or international, these organisations do not have the appropriate know-how or logistics and struggle to find the right scale for their operations. In terms of the post-disaster reconstruction of buildings, neighbourhoods and, more broadly, of cities, there are serious difficulties in establishing relevant and appropriate aid strategies. Between emergency relief, short-term economic aid and aid for in-depth structural improvement, a whole range of skills, technical sectors, funding mechanisms and policy strategies are involved.

We propose to look at these issues from three angles:

1 – The issue of fragility in built and socio-urban environments and risk prevention – What are the potential risks, resilience factors and socio-urban fragilities? How can information about these be shared more effectively between actors conducting operations in urban environments? What risk reduction tools can be put in place? What problems affect prevention?

2 – The issues involved in conducting humanitarian action in cities – What is the current state of the debate among humanitarians, with their different mandates, practices, logistics and experiences? How should methods and tools be adapted to operations in built and urban environments? What lessons have been learned from previous disasters? Could other sectors improve the aid provided during this phase?

3 –The challenges of urban reconstruction – What is the most appropriate response faced with the multiplicity of inter-linked urban systems to be rehabilitated and the scale of technical and economic needs involved in the reconstruction? What type of action should be carried out: rehabilitation, reconstruction or redevelopment? What should the timescale be? What skills and funding mechanisms need to be activated? Who should be included in coordination: local or international actors; emergency relief, development or private sector organisations; communities or authorities?

Following exchanges with the IASC Task Force and UN-HABITAT about humanitarian action in cities at the end of 2010, and other debates since, this Groupe URD – Mairie de Paris conference will aim to complement the work of other stakeholders on this subject.