New Research: "Resilient Growth - Fantasy Plans and Unplanned Developments in India's Flood-Prone Coastal Cities"

Urban development encroaching on the East Kolkata Wetlands. Credit: HSBC

Urban development encroaching on the East Kolkata Wetlands. Credit: HSBC

In the face of rising seas and rapid growth, coastal cities in India have taken up the mantle of “resilience” in glossy climate action plans, high-profile international partnerships, and voluminous disaster management documents. And yet, while resilience has firmly entered the Indian city planning lexicon, environmentally destructive urban development continues largely unabated. What explains this seeming disconnect between the transformational goals of resilience planning and the everyday practices of urban development?

In a new article just published in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Liza Weinstein, Saumitra Sinha and I examine the contradictions between global and national discourses of urban resilience planning and continuing patterns of destructive urban development. We look specifically at Kolkata and Mumbai, two of India’s largest and most flood-affected cities. We argue that resilience planning, promoted by the central government and international consultants, and presented in locally produced “fantasy plans,” fails to address the risks of flooding due to its tendency to sidestep questions of politics, power and the distributional conflicts that shape urban development. We conclude that analyses of governance and informality, and especially the politics of planned and unplanned development, should more directly inform studies of urban coastal flooding.

The paper is part of a symposium in IJURR on the future of urban political theory in light of hydrological crises in Asia. The symposium includes several terrific papers on the urban politics of coastal flooding:

The symposium follows a workshop convened by Gavin Shatkin and generously supported by Northeastern University in 2016, and a subsequent panel at AAG in 2017.

I hope you will give the symposium a look. As always, if you don’t have access to these articles, just contact me and I can share soft copies.

CU Denver Will Not Participate in the Planetizen Rankings

Dear Colleagues,

As planning educators, we believe it is our responsibility to help prospective students identify the graduate program that best fits their needs, goals, and interests. In light of this responsibility and after considerable deliberation, the full-time faculty of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Colorado Denver have decided against participating in the 6th edition of the Planetizen Guide to Graduate Urban Planning Programs.

We have several concerns with the Planetizen rankings that led us to our decision. First and foremost, we feel that our continued participation in the Planetizen process elevates a faulty premise – that PAB-accredited planning programs can, or should, be ranked against one another. Planning schools certainly have strengths and limitations that should be carefully weighed by prospective students, but the Planetizen rankings work to obscure these important differences by reducing multi-dimensional programs to a single score. In our experience, factors like the quality of a program’s curriculum, the skills it teaches, its location, student access to faculty, and the program’s connection to the local and regional planning community are the crucial factors that inform a student’s job-market success and career satisfaction, yet are all difficult to quantify and measure. We believe that ranking graduate planning schools – programs which already meet rigorous accreditation standards – discourages the kind of nuanced and critical assessment a prospective student must make to determine which program best suits them.

Even if we did support the premise that program rankings are a valid or useful tool for prospective students, we have several additional concerns. Foremost among them is graduate school affordability. Our experience tells us that many students’ interests are better met by in-state or regional-serving institutions with lower tuition and costs, yet such programs tend to appear lower in the rankings. We believe this gives some prospective students the false impression that if they choose a lower-cost program they will receive a lesser education.

A related concern is the cost of the Planetizen guide itself. To produce their guide, Planetizen relies on substantial effort by planning faculty and staff, which they then package and sell to prospective students at a premium. We are concerned about a private company using our limited resources for their own profit, and are particularly worried about the burden it places on smaller programs.

Finally, we have concerns with the ranking methodology, which after a decade remains opaque and proprietary to Planetizen. As critics of the Planetizen guide and other ranking processes have noted, the self-reported data that impacts such rankings are vulnerable to manipulation. Further, using a faculty survey of program reputation would seem to intrinsically favor large, nationally-prominent universities with high-profile research faculty and PhD programs from which most planning faculty earned their degrees. These are excellent programs, but we believe the survey of program reputation disadvantages many smaller and more regional-serving institutions that also deliver an excellent graduate education.

We believe there is value in having a comprehensive and informative guide to graduate urban and regional planning programs. We also believe that the Planetizen process has encouraged programs to more routinely collect comparable information that is useful for prospective students – a trend we support. In the near term we will continue sharing these and other key indicators about our  program on our website. In the long term, we welcome the opportunity to collaborate with like-minded programs to help make comparisons as straightforward and transparent as possible by sharing common data and metrics. We are also committed to working with colleagues to produce a free guide to graduate planning programs, one that allows students to understand the many nuances that make our programs unique.  


Carrie Makarewicz, Jeremy Németh, Rocky Piro, Andrew Rumbach, Ken Schroeppel, Manish Shirgaokar, Jennifer Steffel Johnson, Austin Troy, Elizabeth Walsh and Nan Ellin

Department of Urban and Regional Planning
University of Colorado Denver

Residents of mobile home parks were at greatest risk To the Camp Fire

Burned mobile home park in Paradise, CA Image: Noah Berger / Associated Press

Burned mobile home park in Paradise, CA Image: Noah Berger / Associated Press

This excellent LA Times story on the Camp Fire paints an all too familiar scene: low-income, elderly, and disabled residents of a mobile home park in Paradise were the most likely to perish in the disaster. Some quick thoughts on this important story…

There is a stunning lack of research on mobile home parks, generally and specific to disasters. Mobile home parks house nearly 3 million households in the United States, in all sizes and shapes of communities. They are a vital source of affordable housing in many places, especially California, Texas and Florida.

I’m sure we have all heard the jokes about mobile home parks and tornados. Toby Keith affectionately sings about the stereotypes in the song Trailerhood, for example. Disaster researchers do know a little bit: we know that mobile homes, especially pre- “HUD code” homes (built before 1976) are especially vulnerable to natural hazards like fire and high winds. But this is only one dimension of vulnerability. Many of the unique aspects of mobile home parks and their relationship to disaster risk remain unexplored.

My colleagues (Esther Sullivan and Carrie Makarewicz) and I have a lot to say about this in a paper that is currently under review and hopefully coming out soon, but I can share a few of our key insights from an 18-month study of Colorado that align strongly with this case in California:

  • Mobile home parks can be fantastically affordable, especially in the context of the growing affordability crisis in many parts of the country.

  • Mobile home parks tend to spatially concentrate socially vulnerable households.

  • Mobile home parks tend to be in more hazardous areas (like floodplains) relative to site-built housing, for different historical reasons.

  • Mobile home parks are stigmatized in popular culture and even the affordable housing world, and tend to get stigmatized in local plans and regulations - what Esther Sullivan identifies and terms “socio-spatial stimgatization” in her new book. This has all kinds of important implications for disaster risk, including presenting major barriers to recovery.

  • Mobile home parks have unique tenure arrangements, where residents often own their housing unit but rent the land underneath. Again, this has all kinds of important effects on disaster vulnerability, from lack of insurance to exclusion from community engagement processes.

Lots more to say, and I will share our article when (fingers crossed!) it gets published. In the meantime, the NSF has given us the resources to do a large-scale study of mobile home parks and Hurricane Harvey in the Houston metropolitan area. You can read a few of our preliminary findings here.

New Research: Rural Urbanization and Disaster Risk in India


Gretel Follingstad (PhD candidate, University of Colorado Denver) and I have a new article in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction entitled “Urban disasters beyond the city: Environmental risk in India’s fast-growing towns and villages.” We studied 5 fast-growing towns and villages in the mountains of West Bengal, India with some pretty eye-opening findings.

The mountains of West Bengal are exposed to numerous hazards, most importantly landslides and earthquakes. We used Birkmann et al.'s MOVE framework to study household and community risk to these hazards. Numerous factors contributing to disaster risk, most importantly the expansion of the built environment into hazardous areas. In places still governed as rural we found that the number of buildings and paved roadways has increased by 40-80% in the past decade alone. The economy has also shifted, away from agriculture and towards tourism, an industry highly vulnerable to acute "shocks," especially from a major disaster. Lastly, towns and villages are still governed by rural institutions which are largely unequipped to manage urbanization. There is little-to-no regulation of building and development, or coordinated efforts at hazard mitigation.

While urbanization has brought many short-term benefits and increased resilience in some ways, disaster risk is being created and is accumulating in the built environment, and will someday be "released" by a major disaster event. While this is a small-N study, we expect to find similar trends and dynamics in fast-growing villages and towns elsewhere in India. This "hidden urbanization" is a force that is virtually absent from the hazard/disaster research literature.

Please see the abstract of the article below. The full article is available here. If you do not have access to IJDRR, please contact me and I can provide you with a copy.


India is one of the fastest urbanizing countries in the world. Although urban scholars tend to focus on India’s large cities, urbanization is also transforming its villages and towns. In this paper we ask how urbanization is shaping environmental risk in five fast-growing towns and villages in the Darjeeling District, a mountainous region in the state of West Bengal. We base our study on the MOVE Framework, a comprehensive and integrative framework for assessing disaster and climate risk. Drawing on primary and secondary data collected over a 3-year period 2015–2017, we find that urbanizing towns and villages are characterized by rapid spatial growth, dynamic and challenging hazard contexts, and limitations in governance capacity or resources to document, govern, or adapt to emerging environmental threats. The risk that is accumulating in the built environment and economy may only be “revealed” after a major disaster, however. These characteristics and trends are likely common in other small urbanizing places and must be managed to achieve national and international goals for sustainable and resilient development.

Lecture: disasters and uneven recovery (University of Utah)

Damaged mobile homes in Evans, Colorado. Image: The Greeley Tribune.

Damaged mobile homes in Evans, Colorado. Image: The Greeley Tribune.

I will be speaking at the University of Utah on February 21st, 2019 on “Disasters and Uneven Recovery: Lessons from the 2013 Colorado Floods.” My lecture will report findings from an 18-month study of mobile home parks in Colorado that were impacted by the disaster, and the struggle of residents to return to their communities and rebuild. The lecture is part of the Year of Resilience Event Series, hosted by the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning and the Global Change and Sustainability Center at the University of Utah.

For information on the time and location, and to learn about other resilience events at the U, visit their webpage.