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Helping Cities Cope With Disaster

Dr. James D. Guy
Executive Director & Cofounder, Headington Institute, 2015.


For the first time in our history, the majority of the population lives in major urban areas.  Nearly 200,000 more people move into cities each day.  By 2050, over 80% of world’s inhabitants will reside in a metropolitan setting.  This dramatic urbanization is documented in a startling report just released by Global Communities in preparation for the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul.  I don’t know about you, but I am still surprised at this shift in where we all choose to live.

The implication for humanitarian aid work is clear: future natural disasters will look like those recently impacting cities in Japan, China, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines; civil war and urban conflict will create humanitarian emergencies similar to those in Syria, Kabul, Gaza, and Mogadishu.  Together, they present new and complicated challenges to humanitarian aid organizations used to working on their own in rural and remote locations.

Picture the world’s major cities – now, focus on the one you love most.  Imagine what would happen there if water, sanitation, food distribution, communication, healthcare, and shelter were destroyed or interrupted.  The resultant chaos is the environment within which humanitarian assistance would be provided.  That’s already increasingly the case.

To be effective, humanitarian aid organizations are learning to work within large, complicated urban communities.  They are partnering with local government agencies to strengthen existing systems and infrastructures, increase community risk management and hazard reduction, and build coordination among multi-stakeholders.  The combined efforts of humanitarian aid organizations and local emergency responders will be needed to effectively handle future disasters in our cities.  There is no alternative.  This is what the future holds.

This is why the Headington Institute now includes domestic emergency responders among those we serve.  By promoting the individual, team, and family resilience and trauma recovery of local law enforcement, fire, and emergency management agencies, we’re building the capacity of those who will respond to future natural and human-made disasters.  Through our training and counseling work, as well as our ongoing resilience research, we’re equipping domestic emergency responders with the tools and information they need to take good care of themselves.

Although there are obvious differences among the various city agencies we serve, the emotional needs of domestic responders are quite similar to one another.  They are also parallel those of international humanitarian aid workers deployed to emergencies worldwide.  So, we’ve decided to support both groups of responders.  After working for 15 years all over the world, we understand how the human brain and body handle stress and trauma.  We know what it takes to work effectively in emergency situations and recover afterwards.  By sharing the latest brain science and our field experience with all those we serve, while respecting the uniqueness of each culture and context, we’re helping both humanitarian aid workers and emergency responders stay at their best.

If you’d like to learn more about our work and ways you might help, please contact me at It will take all of us to help with future urban disasters.

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