By Dr Sérgio Esperancinha, Professor John McCloskey, Professor Mark Pelling, Professor Iain Stewart, Tomorrow’s Cities

When in 2008 the United Nations estimated that, by the end of that year, half of the global population would be living in cities, it was signalling an unstoppable trend. Since then, this trend has gained momentum, with more people now living in urban areas than in rural regions across the globe. In recent years, that trend accelerated with cities expanding at historically unprecedented rates. It is projected that by 2050, urban areas will have accommodated over two billion new inhabitants, resulting in a surge in the urban population to 70%.

At the same time, the current urbanisation trend has the potential to condemn hundreds of millions to a future dominated by repeated earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, heat waves and landslides, many exacerbated by climate change. This perfect storm of rapid urbanisation and pervasive threat presents the historical pinnacle of the growth of disaster risk globally. According to the 2022 UN Disaster Risk Reduction Office’s Global Assessment Report, medium and large-scale disasters are on the rise and, at the midway point in the UN’s Sendai Framework (2015–2030) timetable for disaster risk reduction, none of the major goals are on target.

Despite this, and with nearly 60% of the area projected to be urbanised by 2050 still to be developed, there is a time-limited opportunity to reduce risk stemming from the coalescence of multiple hazards and the poor urban-planning decisions that lead to disasters. To achieve this, the conventional approach of managing disasters as isolated events, and the traditional risk assessment methods that focus on managing current risk to existing infrastructure and almost exclusively consider asset value of impacted buildings, is no longer fit for purpose. The root causes of systemic and multi-hazard risk develop over time through complex interactions between human and natural systems, so to manage, and especially to reduce, the risk of disasters, we must integrate multiple disciplines and perspectives, blending academic knowledge from the natural and social sciences and the situational knowledge of those living on the risk frontline. That’s the approach that Tomorrow’s Cities, the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Urban Disaster Risk Hub, is using.

Tomorrow’s Cities acknowledges that the fundamental causes of systemic and multi-hazard risk are rooted in human choices and the decisions that shape them, which can either promote resilience or exacerbate vulnerability and exposure. Drawing on extensive research in disaster risk science, Tomorrow’s Cities is now utilizing it to inform decision making and governance within the social context of risk. To achieve this, an international team of scientists is working towards reducing multi-hazard disaster risk for impoverished and marginalized populations in rapidly expanding cities, employing a people-centred and pro-poor approach to catalyse a shift from crisis management to risk-informed decision making in urban development and planning.

In pursuit of this goal, Tomorrow’s Cities has collaborated with local teams in Quito, Istanbul, Kathmandu, and Nairobi to develop the Tomorrow’s Cities Decision Support Environment (TCDSE). The TCDSE employs an iterative approach with five distinct stages, facilitating inclusive and evidence-based decision making that leads to low-disaster-risk and more equitable urban development.

The framework starts with an initial stage of Future Visioning, a co-production process whereby stakeholders carefully selected by Tomorrow’s Cities researchers to represent power imbalances relevant for a discussion about risk, gather to collectively imagine, discuss, and propose visions for the future of their city. During the process, participants express their past challenges, everyday life experiences, and future ideas, with a particular focus on hazard events.

On the next stage, Visioning Scenario Development, these visions are translated into tangible GIS-based spatial models which also consider the policies necessary to enhance the efficacy of the proposals against hazards.

Using the Visioning Scenarios, the Computational Model stage characterises the impacts of selected multi-hazards on the physical and social fabric defined in each. Addressing factors such as the displacement of low-income individuals, job losses, the rise in orphaned children, limited access to education for children, and the loss of healthcare services, the Tomorrow’s Cities framework overcomes the restrictions of traditional approaches to quantifying natural-hazard risks that primarily concentrate on direct economic losses arising from physical destruction. It acknowledges that the impact of $1 in losses resulting from direct physical damage is not uniform across diverse income groups; and that other factors, such as age, gender, disability, homelessness, sexual orientation and identity, and membership of indigenous groups, determine how calamities affect specific individuals or communities.

At the fourth stage of the TCDSE, Risk Agreement, researchers return to the stakeholders, to understand what the Impact Metrics mean to them. It is a process in which objective measurements of impacts are transformed into a co-produced and subjective definition of ‘Agreed Risk’, which accounts for the distinct perspectives of diverse stakeholders and supports a pioneering democratization of the concept of risk.

On the last stage, researchers work with local authorities and communities to integrate the findings into ongoing pro-poor risk-based urban planning decision-making processes, including capacity building and citizen participation.

On the final year of funding, Tomorrow’s Cities is now recruiting up to six new cities to experience the TCDSE and to help us understand the consequences of current decisions on the futures of cities for hundreds of years.