Towards a wider process of sheltering: the role of urban design in humanitarian response

Killing, A.
Publication language
Date published
01 Jan 2011
Research, reports and studies
Disasters, Urban, Shelter and housing
Centre for Development and Emergency Practice (CENDEP), Centre for Development and Emergency Practice (CENDEP), Oxford Brookes University


The rapid growth of cities has lead to an urbanisation of vulnerability and a corresponding increase in urban disasters, for which humanitarian agencies’ largely rural experience has left them unprepared. Rural approaches have too often proved to be inadequate to the challenges of cities where humanitarians have been confronted by high population densities, a shortage of land and a complex and delicate economic and social ecosystem. Recognising
the predominantly rural experience of aid agencies and the stated need for new approaches to urban disasters this dissertation looks at the role that urban design could potentially play in the reconstruction of urban areas in the recovery phase of a humanitarian response, as part of the process of achieving durable shelter solutions for the affected population.

The response to Haiti’s earthquake of January 2010 forms the main case study for this piece of research, although the dissertation also draws on a number of other recent emergency responses. Haiti is an extreme case, combining severe poverty, unplanned city growth, very weak governance and a resultingly high vulnerability to disaster, which can largely be blamed for the widespread destruction and high death toll following the earthquake. The response to this disaster forms the basis for a study of the problems that humanitarians have faced in attempting the reconstruction of urban areas. The dissertation then looks at the new guidance that is starting to emerge to guide humanitarian response in urban areas to assess how far it meets the stated needs for a new approach. An analysis of the wider strategy and organisation of a humanitarian response sets this within a larger context, to expand on the brief that a new way of working in urban areas would need to meet.

In response to this apparent need, suggestions for the use of tools derived from urban planning have been advanced several times. While this approach is seen to be highly relevant to the reconstruction of a city following a disaster, it is also seen to be the legitimate task of government, not that of humanitarian agencies. This dissertation suggests instead, that an approach based on urban design and development practices could fulfil many of the stated needs for agencies working on reconstruction in urban areas in the recovery phase of an emergency response, aiding coordination, forming a strategic framework related to larger scale plans within which smaller scale interventions could be realised and linking emergency relief to a longer term process of development.

It has long been recognised that investment in shelter is important to support people’s livelihoods, security and health. In a dense, closely inter-connected urban environment, this study looks at how far this argument for shelter can be extended to the reconstruction of a wider urban area. It suggests that humanitarian response needs to navigate a difficult course, using both direct and indirect methods of support to help people achieve durable shelter solutions and intervening at a variety of closely inter-related scales in seeking to reconstruct the city.