The national capacity to respond to the increasing frequency and impacts of disasters is strained. Over the last forty years, 19 of the 20 largest property losses have been weather related. Worldwide the costs of natural disasters are increasing. The 2011 Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi demonstrate the devastating impacts on Queensland communities.
Experts agree that extreme weather events are on the rise as a result of our impacts on the earth’s climate system. Increases in extremes of temperature, precipitation, droughts, storms, and floods will be more frequent in Australia. This is compounded by a growing population, concentrated within 50 km of the coast, exposing greater numbers of people and infrastructure to extreme weather events. These trends are projected to continue for at least the next half century, and thus Australia’s vulnerability to extreme weather events will continue to increase.
Building individual and community resilience is integral to our nation’s ability to respond to natural disasters. The aim of the Australian National Disaster Resilience Framework “is to support measures to strengthen communities, individuals, businesses and institutions to minimise the adverse effects of disasters. This improves the ability to prevent, prepare, respond to and recover (PPRR) from disasters across social, economic, environmental and governance elements” (Australian Government, 2008).
Resilience is the capacity of social groups and communities to recover from, or respond positively to crises. After a crisis, resilient communities can even be in a stronger position post-event. Those that are not resilient are prone to long term suffering – physically, socially and financially. They are then more prone to adverse impacts from smaller scale events. Communities have varying levels of resilience.
So how can urban design and place-making minimise the impact of natural disasters? Understanding what makes a community resilient has been the subject of much research. A range of factors have been identified as contributing with those of particular relevance to urban design including social capital, social cohesion and sense of community, and community involvement.
The role of good urban design
Good urban design has a role to play in building social capital, the ability to form and maintain relationships to facilitate goal and objective attainment. Buildings and places can be designed to facilitate interaction between people – residents, workers, neighbours and users of places, to enable relationships to form. Many of the great cities of the world benefit from a consistency in urban form which encloses the street. This gives these places the quality of continuity and enclosure. The streets, footpaths and open spaces are overlooked by buildings, which facilitates interaction. For example, houses which have a front veranda or porch to the street enable residents to interact with neighbours and passers-by.
Another place-making quality of inclusiveness and interaction can support social cohesion. We need to protect and create public places where all people are free to encounter each other as civic equals. We can design active, safe and well used streets, parks and squares through: active edges; activities in and overlooking public spaces; and comfortable and interesting places.
Good urban design introduces, maintains and intensifies human interaction within the public realm and enables these connections to be built over time. It is these social connections which ultimately create social support which can be accessed during times of trouble or crisis, and in times of support and calm. As stated by Chia (2010) “connections do not happen; rather they are slowly developed with relationships increasing mutual respect and understanding amongst relational partners”. Urban design and place-making can minimise the impact of natural disasters.
Those researching and working in the area of disaster management have identified the value of community resilience before and after events like floods, hurricanes and bushfires. Neighbours who know each other tend look after each other – especially those, like the elderly, who need assistance. With natural disasters likely to increase in frequency and intensity, the government and insurance agencies should support good urban design outcomes which enable community resilience.