Local Urban Communities and Extreme Weather Events: Mapping Social Vulnerability to Flood

By Baum, Scott; Horton, Stephen et al. | Australasian Journal of Regional Studies, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Local Urban Communities and Extreme Weather Events: Mapping Social Vulnerability to Flood


Baum, Scott, Horton, Stephen, Choy, Darryl Low, Australasian Journal of Regional Studies


1. INTRODUCTION

In the middle of the last century 30 percent of the globe's approximately 2.5 billion people lived in cities. Now, a little more than 50 years later, half the world's population live in urban settlements. Historically the concentration of population in the urban form has been to the greater social benefit: to defend together, to produce together and to exchange amongst each other. The consequences of global warming, however, are exacerbated by urban settlement. Large concentrations of people fixed in space are particularly vulnerable to the structural effects of global and regional climate change such as rising sea-levels, dwindling water supply (for domestic, industrial and energy use) and the general loss of environmental elasticity and capacity. The structural effects of global warming are, however, not confined to a widely-defined geography of climate. They include, in addition, a temporal dimension. There is, in short, indicative and gathering evidence of climatic instability with a global rise in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as floods, heat waves, cold snaps and cyclones (IPCC, 2007a&b; McMichael et al., 2003).

The impact of the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events on an ever greater spatial concentration of population has in the last decades emerged as the most readily perceived manifestation of 'climate change'. It is not surprising therefore that the economic and physical costs associated with extreme weather events have, in recent years, become an important part of the academic and policy literature (Mills 2005, Warren et al. 2006, Changnon 2004, Comfort 2006, Waugh 2006). In the US, for example, in the wake of hurricane Katrina a range of research has reported the economic and insurance implications of the disaster (Kunrether 2006, Daniels et al. 2006, Comfort et al. 2006, Baade et al. 2007) as well as the social and health impacts (Cutter et al. 2006, Coker et al. 2006).

Research into extreme weather events however is not confined to its consequences. A growing set research has attempted to understand and measure human vulnerability to these events (Alwang et al. 2001, Adger et al. 2004, Downing and Patwardhan 2004, Rygel et al. 2006, Clark et al. 1998). The definition of 'vulnerability', however, is not constant with researchers from different disciplines taking different meanings and concepts as their points of departure. Social scientists tend to conceive of vulnerability in terms of socioeconomic and demographic factors that reflect the capacity of individuals and/or groups (i.e. the community) to cope with or adapt to the challenges of (climate induced) disruption. 'Hard science', in contrast, focuses more on the forecast of the physical geography of a particular climatic event (i.e. risk of flood) assuming, by default, the social geography to be constant (Adger et al. 2004). In building policy and programs to address issues associated with climate change events we need to address both the potential physical dimensions of impact and the varying vulnerability of individuals and groups to the event. That is there is a need for the development of a social geography of risk. The need for such a focus is echoed by Clark et al. (1998 62):

   The crux of vulnerability to global environmental change is as
   follows: people stand to experience impacts from hazards of global
   change in varying degrees that fall along a spectrum from positive
   to negative, based on their position in the social and physical
   worlds.

The focus on both the 'social and physical worlds' means being able to describe, analyse and map vulnerability across varying spatial scales (regions, cities, communities and neighbourhoods) taking into account the physical geography of the potential climate change event while also accounting for the social, economic and demographic characteristics of the communities or neighbourhoods at risk. …

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