In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Natural Disasters and their Impact on Cities

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews: Disaster Risk in Cities and Urban Areas
  • Urban Disaster Vulnerability and Risk Factors
  • Extreme Heat in Urban Areas

Urban Studies Natural Disasters and their Impact on Cities
Mark Skidmore, Jungmin Lim
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0014


Two significant trends suggest that it will be increasingly important to consider urban resilience to natural disasters in the coming years. First, there is a consensus among most climate scientists that we are experiencing a period of significant and ongoing climate change, and it is expected that there will be an increase in the number and severity of extreme climate events in the coming years. Second, the global population is increasingly becoming urbanized, and many cities are located in coastal areas that are vulnerable to severe climatic events. As these trends play out over time, the potential for disaster losses and impact increases. At the same time, the growth of urban populations produces greater concentrations of people vulnerable to natural disasters. When disasters strikes in rural areas, there may be damage to structures and crops, but compared to urban areas, recovery and the restoration of basic functions is relatively straightforward. However, given the concentration of people and complexity of systems, urban disasters can lead to significantly greater impacts. Preparation for and recovery from major urban disasters is of paramount importance in order to minimize these losses. Further, natural disasters represent a significant threat to key technological systems that support urban life. The failure of technological systems due to disasters is a major concern to urban planners and policymakers, as lengthy disruptions are an ongoing threat to life well after the direct impacts conclude. This bibliography summarizes a body of work on natural disaster impacts in cities. It is organized into five sections. The first section presents research on the growing General Overviews: Disaster Risk in Cities and Urban Areas, with an emphasis on low-lying coastal or riverside locations. This section also highlights the consensus among urban planning scholars that disaster risk management should be integrated into urban planning and management more generally. Section 2 considers the Various Impacts of Natural Disasters on Cities and Urban Areas, including economic and labor market impacts, effects on housing markets and property values, and health impacts, including loss of life. In section 3, a series of articles on Urban Disaster Vulnerability and Risk Factors are summarized, focusing on the underlying societal conditions and systems that determine vulnerability. Section 4, Extreme Heat in Urban Areas, considers the narrower topic of heat vulnerability, which is very important given that many urban areas generate heat islands. The last section addresses Disaster Management and Mitigation in Cities and Urban Areas, including the political and governance challenges of implementing adaptation strategies, measuring and building resilience, and recovery and reconstruction.

General Overviews: Disaster Risk in Cities and Urban Areas

Increasing urbanization, which entails the spatial concentration of people and infrastructure in relatively small areas, means increased and concentrated exposure of human and economic assets to various geophysical and hydro-meteorological environmental hazards. The geography of many major cities around the world—low-lying coastal or riverside locations—is another critical factor that increases the likelihood of severe natural disaster impacts in urban areas. As the trend of urbanization continues across the globe, disaster scholars increasingly pay attention to the specificity and uniqueness of urban hazard risk when evaluating regional disasters and hazard management approaches. There is broad consensus among urban disaster scholars that disaster risk is large and growing in urban areas and that it should be an integral part of urban planning and management in order to effectively and proactively mitigate disaster risk, thus reducing the ex-post recovery cost, as discussed in Mitchell 1999; Bull-Kamanga, et al. 2003; Dilley, et al. 2005; and Lall and Deichmann 2012.

  • Bull-Kamanga, Liseli, Kade Diagne, Allan Lavell, et al. “From Everyday Hazards to Disasters: The Accumulation of Risk in Urban Areas.” Environment and Urbanization 15.1 (2003): 193–204.

    DOI: 10.1177/095624780301500109

    Summarizes the discussions in a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)–funded seminar on “Disasters, Urban Development and Risk Accumulation in Africa.” The authors stress the importance of understanding the risk of and relationship between catastrophic disasters and smaller-scale high-frequency hazards in urban areas. They also discuss the need for integrating disaster risk identification and vulnerability mitigation into urban management and governance.

  • Dilley, Maxx, Robert S. Chen, Uwe Deichmann, and Arthur L Lerner-Lam. Natural Disaster Hotspots: A Global Risk Analysis. Disaster Risk Management Series 5. Washington, DC: World Bank, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1596/0-8213-5930-4

    This series of studies is part of a global project (one of the Disaster Risk Management Series by the World Bank) that identifies geographic locations and characteristics of disaster hotspots (areas of highest disaster risk potential in terms of mortality and economic losses) at a subnational scale through global-scale multi-hazard risk analysis and case studies.

  • Lall, S. V., and U. Deichmann. “Density and Disasters: Economics of Urban Hazard Risk.” World Bank Research Observer 27.1 (2012): 74–105.

    DOI: 10.1093/wbro/lkr006

    Provides an overall discussion of why and how urban hazard risk is different from hazard risk in general. The article discusses the major consequences of the growing risk associated with urban concentration, as well as the role of markets, economic policy, and urban management in dealing with increasing urban hazard risks. The authors argue that proper hazard management is a critical part of good urban management practices.

  • Mitchell, James K. Crucibles of Hazard: Mega-Cities and Disasters in Transition. Tokyo and New York: United Nations University Press, 1999.

    Consists of regional case studies of ten megacities on five continents, written by scholars in various fields. Topics addressed in the book include discussions of the complexity and challenges of hazard/disaster management in urban areas, a critical review of existing metropolitan disaster response and hazard reduction policies, a quantitative hazard assessment and vulnerability analysis, growing environmental hazards and urban sustainability, and urban social heterogeneity and disaster vulnerability/coping capacity.

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