By Dr. Stuart Fraser, Dr. David Lallemant, and Dr. Brenden Jongmen

Disaster risk is constantly evolving due to changes in hazard, exposure, and vulnerability; these complex dynamics have led to an increase in disaster-losses over recent decades. Urbanization and population growth are among the key drivers of this risk increase. In 2008, for the first time urban dwellers outnumbered rural dwellers; from homo sapien we have truly evolved into homo urbanus.

These changes in the drivers of risk are having profound impacts already in cities, which are often located in areas prone to flooding, earthquakes and other hazards. Nearly 1 billion people are estimated to live in areas prone to flooding, an increase of 90% from 1970. In addition, climate change induced increases in frequency and intensity of weather-related hazards may further aggravate the situation, especially for the poorest urban citizens.

The future of disaster risk in cities is being written now. Decisions on urban design and land use planning all contribute to future levels of risk and resilience. Investments with long life spans effectively ‘lock in’ disaster risk changes for decades to come. Rapid construction of buildings on reclaimed, low-lying land or to inadequate design standards immediately place more people at risk, but increases in exposure and vulnerability can propagate in that location as development and economic activity increases there. On the other hand, developments which locate high density populations outside of hazard zones can alleviate risk for many years to come. It is possible to build disaster risk reduction into the decision-making processes to ensure that development is not causing an inadvertent increase in disaster risk, but is contributing to a reduction in risk over the coming years and decades.

Future disaster risk is a key issue for members of the Understanding Risk community. Most disaster risk assessment today is static, focusing only on understanding current risks. A paradigm shift is needed toward dynamic risk assessments, which reveal the drivers of risk and the effectiveness of policies focused on reducing risk. The drivers of disaster risk are in the control of policy makers, society, and individuals – but accurate assessment and continuous re-evaluation of risk are required to enable effective risk reduction and prevent drastic increases in future losses.

There are multiple emerging technologies that can help us to take control of the risk trajectory of cities. Earth observation technologies provide new methods for monitoring population and infrastructure growth, which can be used to understand dynamics of risk linked with urbanization and other changes in exposure. While ad-hoc incremental expansions of buildings is often the de-facto process of city-building in many of the world’s cities, new structural engineering tools are beginning to simulate these changes in buildings over time and their effect on building vulnerability. In parallel, time-varying hazards are increasingly being measured and monitored at a scale useful for city-level decision making (e.g. urban land subsidence, flood frequency monitoring, etc).

These are just a few of the ways that we are starting to better measure and predict our future risk. Collectively, these tools can guide risk-sensitive urban policy and planning by demonstrating potential trajectories of risk of cities and the impact of policies made today on these trajectories.

The ‘Building a less risky future’ session at UR2016 will summarize the current state of and projected changes in urban risk at the global level, and will demonstrate tools available to help us quantify projections in urbanization and population growth, ultimately helping to quantify disaster risk. Urban design concepts and risk mitigation strategies that contribute to reduction in risk and poverty will be discussed among a distinguished panel of speakers and the active audience.

The ‘Building a less risky future’ session provides a convening forum and platform to form new partnerships among those passionate about understanding the potential risk trajectories of cities and how to control them. The session exists within a broader discussion and effort, building upon recent work conducted by GFDRR, including the Making a Riskier Future publication.

Please use the #FutureOfDisaster tag on twitter/instagram to share thoughts, information, and relevant links with the UR2016 community.

For more on this session and others, please see the full UR2016 Session Topics and Focus Days.