Urban Risk or Resilience? Opportunities for Improving Informal Settlements in Urban Africa

Event Panelists, Photo Credit: Wilson Center

Urban Risk or Resilience? Opportunities for Improving Informal Settlements in Urban Africa

“Most risk in African cities is not catastrophic. It’s not even episodic, but it is every day,” said Mark Pelling, a professor at King’s College, London, at a recent event on urban risk and resilience in sub-Saharan Africa. With rates of rural-to-urban migration reaching record highs, more than half of the urban residents in sub-Saharan Africa live in informal settlements, where they lack basic infrastructure and access to critical resources. Integrated projects like Pelling’s Urban ARK seek to build more resilient communities in cities and informal settlements.

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Urban ARK at IPCC Cities and Climate Change Conference, Edmonton

Urban ARK at IPCC Cities and Climate Change Conference, Edmonton

Several Urban ARK partners contributed to this event, including Mark Pelling (KCL and Urban ARK PI) David Dodman (IIED) (who sat on the organising committee) Hayley Leck (KCL) Lorena Pasquini and Jessica Lee (UCT), Shuaib Lwasa (Makerere University) and Mark Ojal (Nairobi Risk Partnership). The team helped to emphasise the importance and specific needs and opportunities offered by cities in sub-Saharan Africa.

Mark Pelling presented a short statement as part of a plenary on science-policy interactions, the transcript for this is presented below:

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The Sustainable Development Goals

by Joseph Hirst

As a Geography BSc undergraduate, the natural environment holds a very important place in my heart. I wouldn’t study it otherwise! This love for the environment isn’t recent either- I was part of my secondary school’s environment team throughout my time there (including 6th form). It was no real surprise to see that I’d join the Geography Department Sustainability Champions team at King’s when I heard about its existence. Given my history, I was surprised to hear that much of the work of the sustainability champions scheme focused on the sustainable development goals, something I knew little about! These goals aren’t explicitly taught in the Geography BSc but, as I grew to learn, these goals are incredibly important for everyone – from the international community to a single undergraduate student. Continue reading

MoDS: Mapping Knowledge with Data Science

I’m really excited to announce the latest addition to our growing stable of computational geography research: a fully-funded ESRC studentship involving the application of cutting-edge techniques (text-mining, topic modelling, graph analysis) to a large, rich data set of 450,000 PhD theses in order to understanding the evolving geography of academic knowledge production: how are groundbreaking ideas produced, circulated, and ultimately succeeded, and how do issues such as researcher mobility and institutional capacity shape this process?

We’re looking for a stellar candidate (either undergraduate or Masters-level) with a demonstrable interest in interdisciplinary research – you will be working at the intersection between disciplines and this will present unique challenges (and opportunities!) that call for resourcefulness, curiosity, and intellectual excellence.

Project Overview

The British Library manages EThOS, the national database of UK doctoral theses, which enables users to discover and access theses for use in their own research. But the almost complete aggregation of metadata about more than 450,000 dissertations also enables us to begin asking very interesting questions about the nature and production of knowledge in an institutional and geographic context across nearly the entire U.K., and this anchors the project in quintessentially social science questions about the impact of individuals, work, and mobility on organisations and cultures.

However, textual data of this scale is solely interpretable and navigable through ‘distant reading’ approaches; so although it remains rooted in the interests and episteme of the social sciences, the research involves genuinely interdisciplinary work at the interfaces with both the natural sciences and the (digital) humanities! At its heart, this project is therefore an exciting example of ‘computational social science’ (Lazer et al. 2009) in that it involves the application of cutting-edge computational techniques to large, rich data sets of human behaviour.

Ultimately, this project seeks to understand changes in the U.K. geography of academic knowledge production over time and across two or more disciplines. All applicants are therefore expected to demonstrate an interest in the underlying social science research questions and (at a minimum) basic competence in programming. Additionally, the successful applicant for the 1+3 route would be expected to successfully complete King’s MSc Data Science programme, while the successful +3 applicant would be expected to demonstrate a degree of existing facility with core analytical approaches.

For more information on the project, please see here.

Studentship type

1+3 (1 year Masters + 3 year PhD) or +3 (PhD only), subject to candidate’s existing academic/professional background. For applicants with a social science background we are suggesting King’s MSc Data Science programme. For applicants with a natural science background we will need to discuss how best to achieve a grounding in the social sciences.

Application deadline

31 January 2018

Student Profile: Asia Guerreschi, MSc student and programme student rep

Asia-GuerreschiI am currently enjoying…. MSc Climate Change: Environment, Policy and Science. Arriving at King’s from a Bachelor Arts in Communication, yet continuously passionate about protecting the planet with volunteering work in several charities, like the Jane Goodall Institute Italia, this program has opened a whole new way of looking at this topic. Continue reading

Interaction between Urban ARK and ForPAC: Urban Flood Forecasting in Nairobi

Nairobi, off Naivasha Road

The two programmes held a joint urban flooding stakeholder workshop held in Nairobi on 28th September, 2017. Links between researchers on ForPAc and Urban ARK were first established through institutional partnerships:

At Kings College London (KCL) Professors Mark Pelling and Bruce Malamud, and doctoral researcher Bernard Majani, provided initial opportunities for collaboration on urban flood risk. The ForPAc project links with the urban resilience expertise at KCL, bringing this together with local forecasters and data in partnership with the Kenyan Meteorological Department (KMD) through ForPAc.

The urban flood workshop provided the opportunity to further develop partnerships on this issue, linking Urban Ark partners including the Nairobi Risk Partnership, the Kounkuey Design Initiative and Nairobi City County Government officials with ForPAc partners including the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS), 3Di flood mapping and International Water Stewardship Programme representatives.

The stakeholder workshop included a series of short talks that brought together diverse perspectives from across Urban ARK and ForPAc:

Martin Todd, University of Sussex ForPAc Principal Investigator - Introduction to ForPAc

Mary Kilavi, Nairobi County Director KMD - Assessing flood-related risk in Nairobi

Halima Saado, KRCS - flood preparedness planning 2015 & 2016

Mark Ojal, Nairobi City Risk Partnership - raising risk awareness for effective disaster risk management, collaborating with the University of Nairobi and Nairobi City County Government.

Jamilla Harper Kounkuey Design Initiative – flood risks and management in Kibera

Mario Kainga, Water, Sanitation and Energy Director, Nairobi City County - solid waste management, water, sanitation and road and drainage during flood

Abel Omanga, 3Di – flood simulation systems and use for risk management

While flooding is in large part a structural issue related to infrastructure, regulation and planning, with issues of inequalities in wealth and power creating patterns of exposure and vulnerability, it is widely recognised that flood risk assessment and forecasting can play an important role in managing risks.

ForPAc and Urban Ark seek to further discussions between partners to develop ideas and initiatives and build on collaborations through follow-up meetings to develop more comprehensive stakeholder mapping, introduce prototype flood forecast products and move towards planning and training on approaches for Forecast based Action for resilience. 

Blog written by Olivia Taylor, Research Assistant & ForPAc Project Manager School of Global Studies University of Sussex


There are a growing number of national and international research programmes in Nairobi focused on disaster risk and climate change. The Urban ARK consortia and ForPAc: Towards Forecast Based Preparedness Action, are interacting in various ways to further strengthen collaboration and synergies for their related research being undertaken in Nairobi. 

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