Uncharted Terrain: the clash between “risk management” and informal urbanisation
– Erich Wolff

This article examines how the idea of “risk” has become one of the most significant frameworks to determine which land is appropriate; which land is unsuitable and which land is desirable for human occupation. Looking at the context of informal urbanisation in the Global South, this text intends to provoke a reflection on how risk-oriented practices have dominated governmental planning and what consequences this framework has for social and ecological justice. Evidence from numerous “urban upgrading” projects shows that risk management has monopolised democratic debates and, indirectly, created obstacles for the right to the city by substantially undermining citizen participation in the decision-making process. While this text does not intend to provide definitive answers, it intends to discuss the challenges of informal urbanisation in hazardous areas, such as landslide and flood-prone sites, and suggests ways of reconsidering land occupation beyond traditional risk-oriented views. The conclusion points to authors and practitioners that have been questioning the monopoly of centralised risk analysis and planning by looking at alternative models to incorporate diverse perspectives towards environmental hazards. This article intends to show that challenging traditional risk management can reshape how planners understand land and, as a result, support active civic participation in land regulation and planning.


Population growth and migration are some of the most important forces shaping urban expansion and the occupation of land globally. While central urban areas have historically played central roles in terms of cultural and economic significance, urbanists have long been advocating that the critical forces for the future of cities are in the self-help processes taking place in the urban fringes (1). This urban phenomenon, that came to be known in literature as informal urbanisation – or even more commonly through terms such as “slums” (2)- is a major challenge for urban planners, in particular when self-built neighbourhoods encroach on mountainous or lowland areas exposed to floods or landslides.

This phenomenon is even more noticeable in the Global South, where authorities often struggle to accommodate migrants or offer affordable options to solve the housing shortage for the urban poor (3). While the source of informal urbanisation depends on the specificities of each neighbourhood, the phenomenon has historically been linked to governmental omission, to the lack of housing alternatives or to the failure in the application of planning tools in urban peripheries (4). In this context, it can be argued that the pace of informal urbanisation outpaces traditional planning tools and imposes on governments a necessity to understand and manage land under such conditions.

For decades, engineers, planners and designers have tried to perfect tools for managing the contested territory that emerges as informal urbanisation encounters natural hazards, such as the neighbourhood of La Sierra in the outskirts of Medellin [Image 1]. Literature shows that those decision-makers have over the decades increasingly discussed land-use and urbanisation using risk management frameworks (5)–(7). However, as early as 2003, UN Habitat already acknowledged that technocratic decision-making was one of the core reasons linked to the failure of several “urban upgrading projects”. (8). This article supports the argument that, while useful to understand hazards and facilitate decision-making, risk management frameworks are insufficient to address the challenges posed by informal urbanisation in the 21st century.

1. The neighborhood of La Sierra in Medellin (Colombia), 2019. Source: Photo from the author’s private archive.

(Informal) Urbanisation in the 21st century

Urbanism-oriented thinkers and authors seem to agree that the 21st century will be characterised by significant social, ecological and political transitions in urban areas (9). As humans become increasingly urban, the peripheries of global cities have become vibrant hubs of economic activity (1). In those areas, informal urbanisation has become a controversial topic at the core of urban discussions regarding planning, sustainability and social justice (10). As a result, policy-makers have been committed to discussing the causes and the possible ways of managing informal land use.

It is of paramount importance to highlight that it is not a coincidence that the processes of self-construction observed in the peripheries of major cities often occupying hazardous areas. At the root of informal urbanisation is often the inability of the State to provide conditions for communities to settle on safe and affordable areas. When migration and urban growth pressures are not met with robust planning and alternatives for alleviating the housing deficit, self-construction tends to encroach on accessible areas that are deemed inappropriate or undesirable for official planners. As such, it must be stated that the provision of services and safe housing opportunities for all citizens should be the first priority for urbanists operating in this context. The discussions here proposed apply only to cases in which urbanisation has already sprawled over hazardous terrain and land-use is directly disputed by established communities and centralised decision-makers.

Planning perspectives towards (informal) urbanisation

At the turn of the century, as informal urbanisation increasingly challenged traditional urban managers, a group of influential urbanists such as De Soto, suggested some of the social and economic factors that lead to unplanned urbanisation in the Global South. Back then, in a highly influential work, De Soto argued, for instance, that the excess of regulation and the prevalence of top-down planning act as barriers to the access of citizens in vulnerable conditions to the real-estate market (11). The incapacity to access housing options in an “overly regulated” (and therefore unaffordable) market is, in his perspective, a factor that fosters informal encroachment of hazardous terrains. As his work influenced numerous govenrnmental authorities in Latin America in the coming years, it also became a reference to discuss planning approaches and regulation in the context of informal urbanisation.

His writings deserve merit for questioning centralised decision-making, but they have also been highly criticised for suggesting that planning tools such as zoning and hazard mapping could be impediments to an “entrepreneurial” occupation of land. Such an idealised view of self-construction is not only problematic, but it also can be used to justify the transfer of governmental responsibilities – such as addressing environmental hazards – to vulnerable individuals (12). From another perspective, authors that have developed the ideas of land approrpriation – first proposed by Henri Lefebvre when discussing the instability of modernist planning models (13)- have been advocating for an approach that radically includes citizens in urban planning practices.

The ideas of insurgent citizenship and participatory planning also acknowledge the failure of the State in providing equal opportunities for all citizens in contemporary cities, but they propose different solutions for it (14). Authors that advocate for an insurgent participation model suggest that planning – in this case, decision-making related to environmental hazards – should operate as a mediator to radically allow citizen participation (15). This is particularly important as there is still limited consensus on how to manage unplanned land occupation.

Researchers agree that current models are too slow and costly and have resulted in an astounding gap in the access to land as well as infrastructures in the Global South (8). In the next section the idea of risk management is examined to reveal how this concept is at the core of this problem.

2. The occupation of flood plains in the surroundings of Suva (Fiji), 2018. Source: Photo from the author’s private archive.

Risk and Land Management

Risk management has become an essential tool to address uncertainty in decision-making pertaining to land use. Risk assessment came to be known as the process in which the outcomes of a plan are evaluated according to technically recognised methods for predicting the intensity and frequency of a particular threat (16). Risk management, as a result, can be understood as the assessment and evaluation of and intervention on the potential of a particular threat to cause results that differ from expected outcomes in a specific system (17). This means that within a risk management framework, land is translated into its desirability and safety properties. Land characteristics in this model are associated with floods or landslide probabilities and managed according to the potential damage expected to happen (5). In making uncertainties quantifiable and comparable, the use of risk assessment as a planning framework has significantly shaped how informal urbanisation has been approached by decision-makers (18). In practical terms, occupants of lands considered improper for urbanisation are commonly ignored by the State and when governmental action happens it tends to be in the form of evictions. This situation has been described in several case studies all over the world (19).

While risk management has facilitated planning from a technical, evidence-based perspective, its use has also often excluded many agents from the decision-making process. In particular, experiences that are not based on traditional western-oriented knowledge models are often disregarded (20). Consequently, decisions in the risk management realm are made based on a “preference-based valuation at the individual level”, often by an external agent that evaluates “a simple utilitarian aggregation of individual gains and losses” as described by Randall (21). When applied to land regulation, this approach inevitably leads to a specialist-driven approach that separates land into specific uses with little or no participation of local communities. As a result, risk has been the target of criticism for the last decades (22), even though it is still often positioned as the main tool to inform land use planning in locations considered unsafe by official standards such as mountainous areas (as seen in image 1) and flood pains (as seen in image 2).

The concept of risk has been criticised over the last decades first by the pioneer works of Ulrich Beck (23) and Anthony Giddens (24) and later by researchers from different fields that advocate for a more reflexive approach towards uncertainty (25). In the land-use context, this means that risk is a technical term used to describe how decision-makers understand natural processes (such as water level fluctuations and land movements). Since conventional risk management is deemed to be a technical characterisation of sites in relation to their degree of hazard, this practice has arguably contruibuted to reduced participation of inhabitants in the decision-making process (26). This is particularly problematic when communities have developed their own modes of making sense of land and natural dynamics.

3. Households built in a riverine area in the surroundings of Brasilia (Brazil), 2018. Source: Photo from the author’s private archive.

Reconceptualising risk in land management: Is there an alternative?

First and foremost, it is essential to fight for equal access to opportunities in the city. In the context of environmentally hazardous areas, this can only be achieved once urbanists advocate for new models for land and risk distribution among all city dwellers. However, the challenge of how planning practices should proceed once those areas have been occupied can only be addressed once traditional risk management frameworks are reviewed. While this approach suggests that eviction and relocation should be avoided whenever possible, it also exposes the controversial debate on what the acceptable living conditions are for a particular society in a particular set of circumstances.

As an alternative to centralised risk analysis, it is essential to acknowledge that what can be considereded a threat to western planning models can also be seen as normal to a particular community. A significant example that exposes the clash between local interpretations and risk management views is the understanding of water fluctuations around emerging settlements, such as the ones seen in images 2 and 3. The very definition of “flood” as the situation in which “water covers land that is normally dry” (27) already suggests that a central decision-maker decided what can be considered a normal water level. These approaches are often rooted in biased risk-oriented perspectives that fail to acknowledge that there might be other ways of understanding natural procceses such as established indigenous knowledge or emerging local understandings (28). In those situations, the questions then are: Who decided what is the normal water level? Who decided what is a flood? Who decides who should be resettled based on the characterisation of a “flood”?

Over the last decades, several projects have been based on approaches that seek to improve living conditions and support vulnerable communities. Generically known as “Urban Upgrading Programs”, they are are not inherently problematic, but picturing informal urbanisation as purely “informal” and “risky” offers minimal opportunities for the civic participation within land-use planning. While this text rejects the idea that the responsibility of managing natural disasters should be transferred to individuals (29), it also advocates that there is no other alternative: risk management must be decentralised. Using alternative methods such as the frameworks of citizen science (30) or strategies for consolidating local knowledge (31), planners and urbanists operating in the 21st century will need to critically review established risk management policies and tools to incorporate the active participation of citizens in planning decisions.

Fortunately, a new generation of thinkers have been championing a new view of risks in the context of informal urbanisation that is open to local participation in environmental-hazard characterisation (32). Those works show that land management can be more open to citizen participation and, therefore, operate as an enabler of the right to the city (14) within a reflexive society that acknowledges personal experiences as well as scientific evidence in decision-making. Contemporary urban planning should encourage approaches such as citizen science” that foster active participation of residents in decision-making as local specialists and, therefore, as central stakeholders in the discussions surrounding floods and landslides. As suggested by Ananya Roy, this transformative approach towards risk is expected to expose that land-use planning is not merely a technical issue but rather a political process (33).

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The work presented in this article was developed during my PhD period at Monash University. I would like to acknowledge the support from Monash University, MADA and the Informal Cities Lab that have funded my PhD scholarship. I would also like to thank David Gouverneur, the Field Stations team and the Wright-Ingraham Institute for the insightful experiences during the Field Stations 2019 program in Colombia that have inspired this text.

Erich Wolff is a researcher and educator with a civil engineering and architecture background. He currently teaches in Melbourne (Australia) at the department of architecture of Monash University and at the masters of landscape architecture of the Royal Melbourne institute of Technology (RMIT). His research seeks to connect communities, design, policy and science. In particular, his work on “citizen science” explores floods and community-based ways of understanding water, particularly in data-poor contexts vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Having practical and research experience with floods, water landscapes, risk analysis and infrastructure planning, Erich has participated as a critic and guest lecturer on courses in several institutions worldwide. His experiences include collaborations in courses in Brazil, Colombia, Fiji, Australia, the United States and the Netherlands such as the Summer Course “Design and Planning with Water” (TU Delft, 2018) and a period as a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania (2019).

rise program


Volume 3, no. 3 Autumn 2020