thoughts on our urban future

Questions on dealing with disaster: bottom up & top down

Photo: David Mercado / Reuters

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?

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  1. It’s interesting to think about other places that have faced natural disasters and were destroyed through failed infrastructural systems – such as New Orleans. While logically some places should not have been settled due to natural risks, once settled it is very difficult to remove the temptation to resettle.

    People’s ties to a place are very strong, and it is against our nature to pack up and leave. Where is the balance between ever more sophisticated man-made infrastructural systems to mediate settlement risks and abandonment of places (or less intensive future use of riskier locations)?

  2. Muy bien ximenez!

  3. We reap what we sow.

    If we insist on developing lands (formally or informally) that are geologically unstable (be it potential for landslips, flood or earthquakes) , we have to face up to the fact that at some time there will be massive loss of life and property. We don’t allow history to teach us. We are a stubborn being that puts economics and political divsions ahead of human sensitivities, wellbeing…

    Yes, there may be some sound economic reasons for locating in riskier areas…but we should…as Scott says…engage in “less intensive future use of riskier locations” . We seem to be doing just the opposite and we’re quite happy in doing so….

    At the end of the day, we locate based soley on economic and political rationale.

    And in rapidly increasing numbers throughout the world….our location choices are forcing us to pack up and leave…. whether we like to or not. That is the sad reality of the future.

  4. This is obviously a very difficult and sensitive problem. When people colonize an area that is not suitable for habitation, I believe it’s the job of the government to look out for the greater good of their population and ensure that this does not happen. But when government’s have no other option to offer these people, it is obviously easier to let them get on with it, then to take on all the problems without having resource to solutions. Without an alternative, what options does a government have? If you have 5000 people that would otherwise be homeless, and you have no way to home them, can you simply take their homes away? Tell them they can’t live on land that they think they can scratch a living out of?

    The problem of course is that when something goes wrong, like these landslides, how do you allocate responsibility, and how do you ensure it doesn’t happen again? A clearly difficult problem. It seems you need both a top down and bottom up approach. You need people in power with access to knowledge, land, and skills to develop solutions and you need popular buy in, belief, and motivation to mobilize these populations into changing their patterns of behavior for their own good.

    Is it an impossible ask? I don’t know.

  5. Sadly thinking about it is, I believe, all we can do since proposals are worth little in such an environment. Tragic as it is, I don’t think either the government or the communities will find a solution. I don’t know if you remember a few years back I don’t remember how many Tembladerani and many of the people living there were buried in a similar landslide. Afterwards the government blamed the people for settling at an unstable terrain even after being told that it was unstable, and the people blamed the government for not doing enough to safeguard their lives. Still many were offered housing elsewhere but refused to leave and now they rest were they used to live. Yet years later, the ground was bulldozed and new houses even rudimentary buildings rose on top of the resting place of many who could not be found. Tragedy awakens awareness of the flaws that poise our fragile surroundings even more so when Mother Nature reminds us as now it has, of that fragility. Yet as long as our people remain slow learners, plus the need for space and not enough strength in society and government to actually do something about it. All that remains is talk and proposals and utopist solutions that will remain undoable.

  6. I think there is indeed a lot to learn from how others have dealt with disaster, and doing nothing is not an option. Surely there are ways of looking at the problem – and I think there may be something in a combined approach, that can offer at least some solutions.

    The fact that both the government and the communities have been slow in learning lessons from the past does not mean that cannot change. Because these are empoverished communities who have little trust in the authorities working together is not always easy, that is partly why the bottom up approach would be particularly needed here…

  7. What has happened can not be changed. It may not even be possible to prevent these unregulated settlements appearing again. I believe it is important to be positive and focus on the opportunities of rebuilding. Many cities have suffered wars and natural disasters and use the opportunity of a ‘blank canvas; to create newly optimised economies. Now where is that funding from the booming economy?

  8. Lúcido y bien escrito; Necesitamos gente formada para manejar estas situaciones en La Paz. Ojalá contemos contigo pronto en el futuro.

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