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Chapter 1.1 Context

Ways of seeing the city


There are a number of ways of describing, defining and classifying a city.+This review uses the term ‘city’ to refer to urban settlements, including cities, towns and peri-urban areas. They include population density and size,+In some countries, a place is ‘urban’ if it has a population of 2,000 or more and provides amenities and facilities which indicate modern living, i.e. a combination of commercial, industrial, residential and other urban land use functions, such as health and educational facilities, restaurants, banks and police stations. infrastructure, range of economic activity and physical characteristics, the proportion of inhabitants engaged in non-agricultural activities, or a specific density of people to a particular area of land. An urban area may also be defined in relation to a particular administrative set-up. One UN report found that, ‘Of the 233 countries or areas for which estimates and projections of the urban and rural populations were produced, 125 use administrative criteria to distinguish between urban and rural areas’, while ‘Sixty-five of these countries use administrative designations as the sole criterion’. On population numbers, the report found that ‘the lower limit above which a settlement is considered urban varies considerably, ranging between 200 and 50,000 inhabitants’.+UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, World Urbanization Prospects: 2014 Revision (New York: UN) ( Recent research points out that the different ways in which ‘urban’ is understood lead to inaccurate generalisations (the world may be far more urbanised than is usually thought).+G. Scruggs, ‘“Everything We’ve Heard about Global Urbanization Turns Out to be Wrong” – Researchers’, Thomson Reuters Foundation, 12 July 2018 ( There is also a view in critical urban studies going back nearly a century that the fundamental understanding that ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ are two different things is flawed, and that everything is urban (this is further discussed below).+See for example the extensive writings of Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid at the Harvard Urban Theory Lab:

1.1.1 Three ways of describing the city

This section presents three interrelated and overlapping ways of describing the city: the physical city; the city as a series of systems; and the people-centred city. These are emphasised here because they form the basis of much of the subsequent content presented in this GPR.

  1. The physical city

The physical manifestation of the city is perhaps what people think of first when thinking about what a city is. Thinking about physicality introduces words into humanitarian action that may not be often used, such as density, space, buildings, infrastructure, squares and streets. The physical city also reveals stark differences between wealth and poverty (and therefore the underlying vulnerability of many poorer urban dwellers). The physical city can be described in terms of:

  • A variety of building types and uses, with high densities and verticality and a wide range of functions, including industry, commerce and education.
  • A location for businesses (both formal and informal), commerce and government.
  • Infrastructure, such as water and sewage systems.
  • Public spaces, such as parks, sports halls and exhibition venues.
  • Informal settlements, which in many cities are home to large numbers of people, often with complex land arrangements (see Section 4.1).
  • Transport networks, such as rivers and canals, motorways, public transport and thoroughfares.
  • Large-scale infrastructure, such as airports and power stations.
  • Historical landmarks and culturally important spaces.

The physical city also relates to a city’s location, whether coastal, landlocked or in mountainous terrain. Urban locations of course are significant in terms of susceptibility to naturally-triggered disasters (see Section 1.2.3) and climate change (Section 1.2.4). A physical understanding of the city is the basis for land planning laws, administrative boundaries and municipal expenditures. Several aspects of urban humanitarian programming have a strong link to a city’s physical attributes, including area-based approaches, geospatial analysis (mapping) and infrastructure provision, such as debris management, shelter and WASH.

A physical description of a city, however, has its limitations. For example (if discounting administrative boundaries), deciding where a city stops, and where the countryside begins, is not straightforward. The traditional concept of the city as a physical space within rural surroundings is also eroding and being replaced by much more complex and inter-connected human settlements (mega-cities, metropolitan regions, a ‘rural–urban continuum’ or city ‘clusters’). Suburbs can be ‘outer cities’ connected to multiple urban centres. Many informal settlements grow into self-organised areas, known variously around the world as favelas, shanty towns, urban villages and banlieues.

  1. The city as a series of systems

A systems-based approach describes how different elements, aspects or functions of a city work together. Systems can be defined as ‘an interconnected collection of things (for example people, institutions, infrastructure, societal norms, economy or ecosystems), organised in a pattern or structure that changes frequently’.+E. Levine, E. Vaughan and D. Nicholson, Strategic Resilience Assessment Guidelines (Portland, OR: Mercy Corps, 2017) (, p. 5. Systems here are used to describe how different elements, aspects or functions combine. An example would be financial markets or healthcare, which in a city might include hospitals, ambulances, health infrastructure, medical supply industries, pharmaceuticals, doctors, nurses and support staff. A systems approach also makes the links, and arguably helpfully blurs the lines, between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ areas – for example a market system concerning the consumption of fish involves catching fish in the sea, processing them and transporting them from what may be coastal rural areas to the city.

Systems thinking cuts across disciplines and is increasingly being used to describe and understand the complex processes by which people live their lives in society. Systems-based thinking forces consideration of the links between and within different components of the city. This may challenge existing ways of working for humanitarian actors, where single-sector delivery may be the norm (see for example Section 3.6.1 on multi-sectoral assessments). A focus on systems also highlights the complexities of urban humanitarian action, and underpins the approaches and issues described in a number of sections of this review, including governance, corruption, violence and the role of cash programming and its relation to markets.

There are a number of different ways of describing urban systems. UN-Habitat describes urban systems in terms of five attributes: space, organisations (such as neighbourhood groups and other associations), physicality (including buildings and infrastructure), functions (described as commercial, governance and social processes) and time (noting that cities change over months, years and centuries).+For a further description, see UN-Habitat, City Resilience Profiling Tool (

Figure 1.1, from ALNAP, presents five interlinked systems, from which the following might be noted. Infrastructure, services, space and settlements relate to the physical city, described above. Redundancy and flexibility of physical systems are extremely important. Systems should be built in such a way that they are safe to fail, i.e. will cause minimal harm in the event of a disaster.

Figure 1.1 Five urban systems

Source: L. Campbell, Stepping Back: Understanding Cities and Their Systems, ALNAP Working Paper (London: ALNAP/ODI, 2016) (

Politics and governance relates to how power is exercised in cities. Governance concerns how goods, resources, people and power are organised, which can have positive and negative outcomes for how people live their lives in cities. Governance is sometimes confused with government, but constitutes a much wider set of structures, entities and relationships. Governance includes:

  • Formal power structures, such as municipal government and neighbourhood organisations.
  • Laws and regulations.
  • Law enforcement bodies, such as the police and civil defence.
  • Other power structures, such as gangs and organised crime.
  • Legal and cultural norms.

The quality of governance is directly linked to disasters and conflict. Governance failures (such as unresolved disputes) can lead to conflict, while weak governance does little to quell violence (further discussed in Section 1.2.2). High levels of corruption underpin vulnerability and exacerbate the effects of naturally-triggered disasters (Section 1.2.3).

Economy and livelihoods relates to:

  • Income generation through formal and informal employment.
  • Production, consumption and supply chains.
  • The formal and informal economy.
  • Markets.
  • Human capital – the skills and abilities people possess and/or develop.
  • Land values.
  • Taxes and municipal revenue generation.
  • Private sector companies and trades.

Culture and society describes how people live, work, engage and interact with one another. It includes:

  • Social networks, including networks of cooperation, reciprocity and trust.
  • Combinations of different social and ethnic groups, e.g. tribal affiliations, caste groups and groups from a particular heritage or culture.
  • Collective and shared histories.
  • Belief systems and religions.

The people-centred city

A people-centred approach emphasises the central belief and motivation of humanitarian action, which concerns providing help to the most vulnerable. The people-centred approach is used throughout this Good Practice Review as the basis for understanding what drives good practice, and is reflected in a number of sections relating to project management, such as assessments, profiling, response analysis and area-based approaches (each of which is discussed later).

Cities are homes to billions of people, with competing and similar interests, and with differences in wealth and poverty and in their ability to meet their needs and realise their ambitions. A focus on people is vital for all humanitarian operations, and is something that can become quickly lost.+A compelling study relating to this is M. Anderson, D. Brown and J. Isabella, Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid (Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, 2012) ( The researchers asked over 6,000 people from across the world of their experiences of humanitarian aid after disaster. Among other things, the study found that ‘Very few people call for more aid; virtually everyone says they want “smarter” aid. Many feel that too much is given too fast’ (p. 2). Good urban programming remembers that dignity is an essential element, and that humanitarian action is, as noted above, about assisting affected people in times of crisis. The International Federation of Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)+IFRC, Road Map to Community Resilience (Geneva: IFRC, 2016) ( describes the people-centred approach as ‘listening to and understanding what people think at all times, rather than imposing ideas or projects on them’.

Figure 1.2 The people-centred city

Source: D. Sanderson, Integrating Development and Disaster Management Concepts to Reduce Vulnerability in Low Income Urban Settlements, PhD Thesis, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford. Cited in ALNAP, Responding to Urban Disasters (London: ALNAP, 2009) (

The model in Figure 1.2 describes people’s lives and livelihoods: how they access resources (and what gets in the way); how resources are controlled; and how they use resources to meet basic needs and build assets to withstand threats, including shocks (such as rapid-onset disasters) and stresses (such as escalating violence).

From this model the following might be noted.

Assets are key to reducing vulnerability to external threats. Assets, and how people access, manage, keep control of and trade them, is a central aspect of how people live. Asset types include:

  • Physical (belongings, land, a property).
  • Economic (money, jobs and opportunities).
  • Social (including friendships and relationships, connectedness).
  • Human (for example knowledge, skills and abilities).
  • Political (the organisation of power, such as community groups, slum groups or political parties).
  • Natural (land, water and the functioning of ecosystems).

Assets play a key role in people’s vulnerability and capacity – broadly speaking, the stronger their assets, the less vulnerable people are likely to be to external threats. The use of assets by people in development and in vulnerability reduction is well documented.+C. Moser, Assets, Livelihoods and Social Policy, paper delivered at the Arusha Conference on ‘New Frontiers of Social Policy’, 12–15 December 2005 ( This includes social assets, especially among low-income urban neighbourhoods, for borrowing and loaning money,+Strong social assets are the basis for savings and loans schemes popularised by the Grameen Bank and others. and more widely within post-disaster recovery – it’s often your neighbours who pull you out of the rubble (see Section 1.5.1 on emergent groups). Belonging to a particular ethnic group can also make people more or less vulnerable, depending on the circumstances. Assets therefore act as the ‘buffer’ between people and sudden-onset disasters (shocks) or slow-burning stresses (for example an illness that, without access to proper treatment, can prove life-threatening). Assets are key to living in the city: having assets enables people to access resources, such as education, healthcare, food and markets. It therefore follows that those with fewer assets have less access to resources.

There are different types of community in the city. While traditionally ‘community’ was often synonymous with a fixed location, such as a village or neighbourhood, the term has wider application in the city. Communities can be linked by non-physical connections. Recent research+Adapted from L. Campbell, Working with People and Communities in Urban Humanitarian Crises, ALNAP Working Paper (London: ALNAP/ODI, 2017) ( identifies six typologies of urban communities:

  • Communities of interest, which form around a common issue or concern.
  • Communities of culture, where people share a common language, values or faith.
  • Communities of resistance, where people coalesce around a shared negative experience, such as forced migration.
  • Communities of place – people with a common spatial connection, for instance living on the same street.
  • Communities of practice, such as a common livelihood.
  • Virtual communities – people connected through social media.

Discrimination hinders access, for example belonging to a marginalised group, a minority faith-based group or LGBTQ+ people (see Section 4.7 on protection). Refugees living in cities and those who may be internally displaced regularly face discrimination (see Section 1.3 on displacement). People who are most vulnerable are also routinely discriminated against (see Section 1.4 on vulnerability).

Threats are described as shocks (rapid-onset events, such as earthquakes, fires or floods) and stresses, which, while being less ‘rapid’, may be no less damaging. Stresses may include escalating violence or worsening climate change-induced heatwaves. Threats are discussed further in the sections that follow.

Resources within the city are controlled. This might be land controlled by the authorities, jobs controlled by private sector organisations or services such as water and electricity controlled by service providers. Control of neighbourhoods might be in the hands of gangs or organised crime (see Section 1.2.2 on urban violence).

In summary, therefore, for many the very notion and understanding of cities is complex, contested and confusing. As regards humanitarian action, this section has sought to introduce and emphasise a number of key points (which form the basis of the rest of this Good Practice Review). The first is that the humanitarian principle of helping the most vulnerable is equally essential for urban areas as elsewhere – a people-centred approach steers limited humanitarian efforts to those who need help the most. Within this, understandings of who is most vulnerable may be nuanced and not immediately obvious (see Section 3.6 on assessments for further discussion).

A second key point is complexity. Activities, services and livelihoods do not take place in isolation. Almost everything is linked to something else, and often has a knock-on effect. In this regard, a systems approach helps to identify, and increase understanding of, some of the links and overlaps that shape how people live.

A third point is that cities are home to complex levels and understandings of different forms of power held by different groups, ranging from formal governance structures (such as levels of government) to ‘informal’ groups, such as gangs (see Section 1.5 on urban actors). As with the other points, effective humanitarian action seeks to understand and work with power, while recognising how complicated that is.