Urban growth on the hillsides of Gangtok, Sikkim. Image: The National

Urban growth on the hillsides of Gangtok, Sikkim. Image: The National

Disaster Risk in Small Urban Places

Small cities will account for the majority of urban growth in the 21st century but are understudied and undertheorized in the urban disaster literature. This work is based in the Darjeeling Himalayas, a rapidly urbanizing mountain region that is vulnerable to landslides and earthquakes. In a peer-reviewed chapter in Disaster Governance in Urbanising Asia, I argue that small cities are distinguished from larger ones by virtue of their cultural and political distance from centers of economic and political power, low capacity for urban governance, inexperience managing environmental hazards, and lack of redundancy in core institutions and infrastructure. Building on these arguments, I examined the potential of government decentralization for improved disaster management in small cities, using the Darjeeling Himalayas as a case study. While India has the legal and institutional mechanisms to improve disaster risk management at the small-city scale, primarily the 74th amendment to the constitution and its devolution of power to local authorities, I find that decentralization has yet to make a substantial impact on everyday practice. In an article in Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, Jeremy Németh and I further examine urban development in small cities in the Darjeeling Himalayas as an illustrative example of disaster risk creation, an emerging concept in the disaster studies literature that seeks to establish agency in the production of risk. Multi-story concrete buildings (MCBs), which have proliferated in the region, represent a sharp increase in risk because of their vulnerability to natural hazards like earthquakes and landslides. In our paper we ask: by what standards should we consider whether the risks created by MCBs are justly shared or distributed? We propose a broad and foundational framework for procedural justice intended to help development professionals “move the dial” towards a fairer landscape of risk.

Urbanization in India is not limited to its cities, however — small towns and villages are also experiencing urban change and attendant increases in environmental risk. In a recent paper, Gretel Follingstad and I examine the relationship between small town and rural urbanization and risk using original data collected in five communities in the Darjeeling Himalayas region. We find that our case communities are characterized by rapid spatial growth and change, a dynamic hazard context, and low government capacity to document, govern, or adapt to environmental risk. These findings will be the foundation for a broader, multi-state and comparative analysis of environmental risk in urbanizing villages in mountain states in India.