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

Post-disaster re-housing in cities: should we support social dynamics or reinforce the status quo?
Sandra D’Urzo

The increasing number of conferences and debates about urban vulnerability show how important it is to tackle this subject and improve understanding about it within humanitarian organisations. This gradual change has a number of symptoms: the use of ‘uncommon’ approaches to post-disaster housing such as financial aid and host families means that international organisations are moving away from traditional emergency solutions like tents and tarpaulins. Finding housing solutions in emergencies in big cities is extremely complex: lives and expertise, goods and workers have been lost, there is an urgent need to identify provisional locations to re-locate people, there are political and legal constraints and issues of fairness and loss of memory and identity to consider. Many of the lessons which have been learned – in terms of building partnerships to prepare for disasters and in terms of working within the framework of legal and property procedures – can help to overcome these recurring problems. There is not just one correct answer, but it is certain that making the most of urban opportunities such as access to technology, a developed market economy and innovation can act as a guide to help design a response in relation to housing which is more adapted to needs.

Take an urban scenario in one of the poorest countries in the world, add two million people packed into poorly-built buildings on mountainsides and other at-risk sites, remove all building regulations, quality control, urban planning and water and sanitation networks, then shake vigorously» [1]. This ‘recipe’ is none other than that of a disaster which shook and destroyed Port-au-Prince on 12 January 2010. It could easily apply to other cities in poor countries, where there are large marginal populations who live in zones where there is a high risk of disasters.

But we have recently seen that even the cities of the richest nations can not consider themselves to be safe. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan struck an urbanized coast with one of the most advanced levels of disaster preparedness in the world, with norms to regulate construction and structures in place to mitigate the effects of sudden disasters.

Over and above the radically different resources and capacities that these countries have, the reality is that urban density in multi-risk contexts generates unprecedented reconstruction challenges - How can housing solutions be provided in a very short space of time, all across a city, when the areas affected are full of debris or have been made inaccessible? How can community centres and residential buildings be used to house refugees in the early period after a disaster? How can housing policy be influenced to promote equitable reconstruction and use of land without risks when the administrative bodies involved are extremely weak? How can gravel be cleared, land be bought and structural damage be evaluated when the local authorities do not want to or cannot do it themselves?
There is no single answer to these questions, but they highlight the limits of the classic operational methods of many humanitarian agencies, which are designed to provide assistance in clearly confined spaces like refugee camps, which are often run directly by the international aid sector. Their assistance is often synonymous with the mass distribution of emergency shelters, whether these are tarpaulins, tents or collective centres. These pre-established solutions are rarely suitable in dense residential neighbourhoods where there is a mixture of houses, whether they are damaged or completely destroyed, rented or owned, one-story or multi-story, with a clear property status or, on the contrary, one that is very ambiguous. For example, two weeks after the earthquake, it was impossible to set up family tents in the neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince as these tents are designed to give families minimal living space which require an area of 25 m2 on the ground. An area of this size was occupied, on average, by four different families having set up makeshift shelters. Urban density was only one of the problems that many organizations were confronted with in Haiti and which forced them to adopt more flexible and context-based options based more on existing social and economic dynamics.

But this does not just happen. It requires good knowledge of the spatial organization of neighbourhoods, solidarity and help networks within the population (what is known in English as “safety nets”) and the population’s preferred coping and re-housing strategies.
In a city where 80% of the inhabitants are tenants (very often of a room in a building), the question is, who should be helped to rebuild – the tenant or the landlord? What guarantees and agreements about rental conditions should be established? Should only the poorest be provided with aid, that is to say , those without resources or those who were homeless before the disaster, or the middle class of teachers and nurses who lost their homes but also their jobs when the schools and hospitals were swallowed up with the rest? It is therefore necessary to understand the complexity of the civil society which is constantly mixing in urban environments, and to distinguish the “community” mechanisms which exist.

[1] IFRC, report published 12 months after the earthquake in Haiti

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