Questions on dealing with disaster: bottom up & top down
Earlier this week there was a major landslide in my hometown, La Paz (Bolivia), leaving at least 5000 people homeless. Whilst landslides during the rainy season are not really uncommon, this seems to be the worst incident of this kind in living memory.
The city sits in a valley, or rather a series of interconnected valleys made of what were originally a number of subsidiaries to a main river cause. The historic centre, colonial in origin, sits somewhere at the heart of this valley, where it was most suitable – or in fact, possible – to build the regular urban grid which characterised the Spanish settlements. The subsequent areas of growth occupied the remainder of these more stable lands, but as the city grew, more and more of the surrounding hillsides have been urbanised.
As Bolivia’s seat of government, La Paz is a bustling metropolis housing about a million people, with a metropolitan area estimated at close to double that number. The city has long overgrown its natural limits, with residential development taking over the hillsides which were once just a scenic backdrop to urban life. Over the past 30 years or so, the pressures of urban development have been such that the local government watched powerless as many areas of unstable land became home to huge numbers of rural migrants who came to the city searching for opportunities. Many settled illegally into areas which were known for their geological unsteadiness – often victims of unscrupulous ‘developers’ who pretended to own the land. Over time, these neighbourhoods have consolidated as the authorities sought to create some sort of regulation to these unstoppable areas of growth.
Every couple of years or so, an incident similar to the one that has taken place in the last few days reminds us of the fragility to which we have become familiar. A few buildings will fall down, victims of the season’s rains – lack of maintenance to water and sewage pipes also to blame. This time, though, the scale of the disaster reminds us that the problems are far greater than that. We have been building an unsustainable dream, a city built on clay that can give way any time, when we least expect it will, no matter how much we pretend to fight against it.
The time comes now to find who to blame. Is it those who built in the know that they were taking a risk? Those who agreed to provide a legal framework for these neighbourhoods to become legitimate? Or is it those who provided much needed public infrastructure for the communities that were already there? Was it a waste of money to invest in areas which we now know were doomed by geological failures long ignored?
Not very useful to point out these areas should never have become neighbourhoods in the first place. These developments are informal, unplanned and largely unmanaged, but they are here to stay. Thousands of hundreds of people live in this kind of environment throughout the developing world, generally in the hope that ‘the worst’ will not happen. It’s surprising how often it doesn’t.
But now that it has, what are we to do about it? Campaigns have developed to provide shelter and aid to those affected, to deal with the more immediate challenges of those that are now homeless, the local and national authorities struggling to respond to the situation. They all run to deal with what is indeed urgent, whilst at the same time struggling to plan what the future responses should or could be.
Is it the time, however, to find opportunities in this time of grief? Maybe this is the time to think laterally about these informal bits of city, to harness the strength of these communities to build from the debris into what could be the solutions for those who are still standing? It is obvious that long term views need to be taken towards dealing with these risks, to do with spatial management, planning and the deployment of infrastructure and services. So far, the centralised approach has not provided a satisfactory response – is it the bottom up approach what we should be looking into?
I personally do not believe the answer is in one approach or the other. I think some top down thinking is required to coordinate what the vision is for a place and its future, someone to join up the dots of the complexity of urban environments. But that is not enough. I strongly believe there are enormous lessons to be learnt from allowing communities to take initiatives and drive their futures – whether in times of disaster or in times of growth. How else are we going to be able to join the dots, if we do not encourage the dots to develop in the first place?