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Theme 2.1 Understanding urban vulnerability

Vulnerability is a widely commented concept that aims to account for everything that can contribute to weakening a society, a territory, a population or social or natural objects. Seen from this perspective, exposure to hazards is one of the types of vulnerability that allow a population, a territory or an element to function. A territory’s vulnerability is also characterised amongst other things by their ability to face major crises such as floods or earthquakes.

Over recent years, disasters have proven that risk prevention and crisis preparation are insufficient and perhaps even ineffective in the North as much as in the South. The challenges encountered by crisis management raise the question of a society’s ability – and in particular, that of a large metropolis – to tackle out-of-the-norm situations, whose scale reaches beyond known frames of action, and whose chain of consequences escape control. With sequences of events that had so far remained unforeseeable, these disasters have demonstrated that passive protection measures are not sufficient. It is therefore necessary to understand protection and crisis management policies by formulating a line of investigation on urban vulnerability that reaches beyond the scope of physics and engineering to embrace political, economic, sociologic and geographic dimensions. This type of research is bound to develop in large cities of the South and of the North. In parallel, to respond to “slow risk” and disasters announced as unavoidable in the context of climate change and coastal urbanization, it is essential to undertake research on physical phenomena (hazards) and their representations (by the population as well as engineers and politicians). Starting from perspectives developed by past research projects, we will aim to reach a better understanding of physical, social and spatial mechanisms that contribute to urban vulnerability, including:
- The spatial and territorial dimensions of crisis management (management, preparation, reconstruction); the connection between resource spaces and vulnerable spaces; the various levels of territorial competence required for crisis management, leading to the construction of a geography of crisis.
- The vulnerability of urban networks and its weakening impact on large conurbations (critical lifelines), in particular the propagation of risk caused by the networks’ interdependence.
- The consequences of devolution, privatization and globalisation on risk prevention, including the respective parts played by the State, local authorities, social services and the private sector in collective response to large crises.
- In Southern cities, morpho-climactic hazards mostly affect disadvantaged areas, revealing their extreme vulnerability. Mitigating this vulnerability is a real challenge for crisis management. It requires a joint knowledge of both the hazards’ mechanisms and triggers, and the community stakeholders’ mechanisms and involvement.
- Anthropic risk caused by industrial activity on polluted sites, the legal conflicts and social tensions, as well as the identification of technological risk and the analysis of technological accidents.
- The development of public risk protection policies in response to climate change is based on a combination of scientific knowledge, political action and social representations. Urban coastal spaces are particularly exposed to this kind of risk.
- Developing fine measurements of urban climate and atmospheric pollution and analysing their spatial variations are an innovative field of physics. It can help us detect invisible risks whose understanding requires a combination of physical and chemical factors, of urban morphology and territorial planning, with implications in terms of environmental justice.
- The development of new infectious diseases has put our societies to the test, and highlighted the need for a better understanding of the spatial and social dimensions of health risk.