Book Review: Constructing Risk

Constructing Risk: Disaster, Development, and the Built Environment by Stephen O. BenderNew York: Berghahn. Vol. 4 of Catastrophes in Context. (2021).
Hardback 978-`-80073-162-2 $60.00; Ebook 978-1-80073-163-9 $29.95

Reviewed by Donald Watson, editor of the website theOARSlist.com, Organizations Addressing Resilience and Sustainability, editor of Time-Saver Standards for Urban Design (McGraw-Hill 2001), and co-author with Michele Adams of Design for Flooding: Resilience to Climate Change (Wiley 2011). He has served as consultant for United Nations, U.S. AID, EPA, FEMA, and numerous international humanitarian and disaster relief organizations.

Constructing Risk is a fully developed treatise on the current state of art of disaster risk and “development,” represented by planning, design and construction of the built environment. It applies to construction enterprises and land development worldwide.

The book is introduced by a “chronology” of quotations that track the evolution of theory and practice of disaster risk reduction (DRR), beginning with the 1972 UN Stockholm Declaration identifying threats posed by natural disasters, quotes from Dennis Mileti’s 1999 Disasters by Design, to the present with 2019 statements of UNDRR (United Nations Disaster Risk Reduction) Global Assessment Report that, “…institutional, legislative and policy frameworks did not sufficiently facilitate the integration of disaster risk considerations into… all sectors [of] land-use planning and territorial development.”

These statements document incremental progress to recognizing the principal message and caution of this book, that our development practices—the ways we build on the land—too often resulting in increasing risk of disaster, when they could and should be doing the opposite, reducing risk to natural disaster, climate change and sea level rise.

The author brings more than thirty-years of experience with disaster-related policies and practices to the review, detailed in thirteen chapters, what has been learned, what has been represented in numerous governmental and international policies, and what remains to be adopted in practice. While dense in some parts and requiring familiarity with definitions and acronyms of UN and related climate policy documents (a list of abbreviations is provided), a careful reading is rewarded by lessons learned and to be learned in the emerging field of disaster risk management.

Helpful anecdotes are inserted throughout, balancing critical assessments where organizations and countries have not used available methods of risk assessment, and as a result, “…acting individually and through collective bodies, succeed neither in effective policy nor practice in reducing vulnerability of the built environment.” [p. 179]

After a number of chapters about the failings to influence construction and land planning, chapter 15 imagines headlines of the future, visions of the good that all-hazard risk management could achieve:

2031 School Life Safety instituted so that classrooms in the 450,000 primary and secondary schools around the globe are less vulnerable.

2030 Disaster information is freely and widely accessible to facilitate informed DRR decision making.

2030 Major floodplains, including the Mississippi, returned to function as a natural drainage basins.

2029 Weather alerts about road conditions threatened by flood, landslide, and severe weather available internationally.

Given the depth and breadth of knowledge represented in this book, the conclusions should be and are important, worth shouting from the rooftops, for the author knows of what he writes, as he sums up in his closing chapter:

“Risk reduction should be proclaimed as a principal development goal. Development
must be the principal driver of DRR. Stakeholders may not now consider disaster risk
reduction the domain of development, but unwittingly development has become the
domain for survival of human beings.” [p. 223]

“Now populations around the globe again face a risk of catastrophic loss
generated by human action—put simply, development-induced vulnerability to
natural hazard events, including climate change and sea level rise. But this time
governments and communities ought to manage the risk with an acceptable
collective strategy. That strategy is MAS—mutually assured survival.” [p. 234]

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