Why do people stay in disaster-prone cities?

Home among the ruins. Image: Rhona Wise/EPA.

The 2017 hurricane season has brought unprecedented destruction to the Caribbean and southern United States. As millions of people around the world have watched these events unfold from afar, no doubt some have found themselves wondering why people continue to live in places under threat from natural disasters – and even return to rebuild these places after they’ve been destroyed.

As a senior lecturer in government and public policy, I take a strong interest in these matters. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated portions of the US Gulf Coast in 2005, I conducted a survey of people who survived those hurricanes, as well as those who had followed the media coverage from other hurricane-prone areas in the US. My research offers three key findings, which help to explain the way people deal with disasters.

1. Trust matters

I found that people decide where to live in part based on how much trust they have in their public officials. If they trust the public officials and disaster managers in a particular community, they are more likely to continue living there after a disaster, because they believe the managers will do a good job in future crises.

This trust is continually built (or eroded) based on the performance of public officials in emergencies. The more positive contact people have with public officials, the more likely they are to trust them to do their jobs. Receiving aid swiftly from temporary distribution centres, or getting help over the phone from aid personnel, increases our trust in the people and agencies supplying that aid.

This means that people tend to have higher trust in their local officials, with whom they are more likely to come into direct contact. Even if trust declines in national officials due to their behaviour or performance, it will not influence someone’s choice of where to live if they believe their local officials will still do a good job in future crises.

So though it is somewhat counter-intuitive, I found that even after incredibly destructive disasters, good experiences with public officials actually strengthen citizens’ resolve to live in threatened areas.

2. You can’t imagine what it’s like

As outsiders, it can be confusing to see people return to rebuild amid devastation. Using the same survey, I compared what the hurricane survivors actually did, thought and felt to what outside observers predicted they would do, think and feel in similar situations. It turns out that when we imagine ourselves in situations seen in the media, we predict that we will behave in drastically different ways to the people who are actually experiencing them.

This is due, in part, to a natural tendency to fear events that are incredibly damaging – even if those events are highly unlikely to occur. A classic example is that many people are afraid of air crashes but not of car crashes, even though the probability of an aircraft crashing is much lower than that of a car.

Cause for alarm? Probably not. Image: HooLengSiong/Flickr/creative commons.

When presented with a hypothetical situation such as a hurricane, we often imagine the worst-case scenario: that our homes will suffer much more damage than the average and that our lives will suffer far more disruption than even the worst hurricanes in history have caused.

Research tells us that the media coverage of such events is partly to blame for this. Many outlets will focus on the most shocking or evocative images and stories, in order to keep viewers’ attention.

This combination of factors mean that outsiders tend to believe that, faced with such a scenario, they would take extreme action – such as never returning to their homes. But in reality, many more people opt to return to their homes and rebuild than those who choose to move away.


3. It just feels like home

When asked why people live where they do, both survivors and observers homed in on two answers. As one might expect, jobs and employment are important to people’s choice of where to live. But many choose where to live because “it just feels like home”. This sense of place compels people around the world to live where they do.

The longer a person’s family has lived in a particular area, the more likely that person is to return home after being evacuated. Likewise, the stronger their ties to church communities, neighbours and local economic activities, the more likely that person is to try to go back.

These personal considerations are difficult to quantify – but they mean that future threats do not factor as highly into people’s decision to return and rebuild as outsiders might think. So, you may look on from afar and wonder how anyone would want to rebuild a devastated area. You may even try to put yourself in the place of survivors – and still believe that you would never react the same way.

The ConversationBut my work shows that the ties that bind people to their homes are stronger than we typically imagine. So, if it comes to the point where communities need to be moved out of harm’s way, the answer lies not in highlighting the threat of disaster. Instead, it’s crucial to create governments which survivors can trust – and places where they can feel truly at home.

Gina Yannitell Reinhardt, Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor, Department of Government, University of Essex.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.