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Small Cities Need More Help With ‘Extreme Events’

Worldwide, small to mid-sized cities are growing at a fast rate. But does a city’s ability to handle natural disasters increase with its population?

By Nathan Collins


Collapsed buildings in Portoviejo, Ecuador, on April 19, 2016. (Photo: Juan Cevallos/AFP/Getty Images)

When studying the aftermath of natural disasters, researchers tend to focus on big cities—and not without reason. An earthquake in Tokyo, after all, is going to affect a lot more people than one in Fairbanks. But that focus on the largest cities is misguided, according to a comment published this week in Nature. Instead, it’s smaller cities that need the most attention, in part because they’re growing so much faster.

“In our view, the central focus of Habitat III should be on small and medium-sized cities that are vulnerable and fast-growing, especially in Africa and Asia,” write Joern Birkmann and his colleagues, referring to the United Nations’ conference on sustainable urban development to be held next month in Quito, Ecuador.

Ecuador itself is a good example, the authors write. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake there in April killed more than 650 people, injured upwards of 16,000, and destroyed hundreds of buildings. Three months after that quake—and two months after another pair of major earthquakes struck—many in the country still lacked basic services, Birkmann and his colleagues write, suggesting that Ecuador’s towns and cities weren’t prepared for the worst when it struck.

The U.N. could start by prioritizing cities based on size, vulnerability to disasters, growth, and income.

The problem with small and mid-sized cities—those with populations up to about five million—is how fast they’re growing, and the fact that their populations seem to be growing faster than those of large cities. High growth rates, particularly in low-income countries, often translate into more informal settlements and slums, the construction and location of which tends to make them more vulnerable to floods, earthquakes, and so forth.

Behind those issues lie limited data, political power, and resources, Birkmann and histeam write: “The Maeslant Barrier, which protects the Dutch city of Rotterdam from storm surges with 240-metre steel arms, cost $500 million; the 2016–17 national budget of Uganda is about $8 billion.”

Addressing the issues will not be easy, but the researchers argue that the U.N. and others could start by prioritizing cities based on size, vulnerability to disasters, growth, and income. At the same time, there will need to be improvements in monitoring risks and in governance in general, as well as in understanding how governance influences a community’s ability to respond to disaster.

“Strengthening the resilience of vulnerable small and medium-sized cities is where the success or failure of the U.N.’s New Urban Agenda will be decided,” Birkmann and his colleagues write.