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Volume 2010-1

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2010-1

Volume : 2010-1

The Role Of Land-Use Planning In Disaster Risk Reduction:
An Introduction To Perspectives From Australasia

Bruce C. Glavovic, EQC Fellow in Natural Hazards Planning, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand. Email: B.Glavovic@massey.ac.nz

Keywords:Natural hazards planning, disaster risk reduction, New Zealand, Australia, Pacific Island Countries

Bruce C. Glavovic

EQC Fellow in Natural Hazards Planning
Massey University
Palmerston North
New Zealand


This introductory article sets the scene for this Special Issue about the role of land-use planning in disaster risk reduction in Australasia. Proactive natural hazards planning enables communities to understand disaster risk and make decisions that promote their safety, resilience and sustainability. Despite the prevalence of natural hazards in Australasia, and efforts to institutionalise natural hazards planning, the promise of natural hazards planning remains elusive. Moreover, there is a paucity of scholarly research on this subject in this region. Synthesising key findings from natural hazards planning scholarship, primarily from the United States of America, this paper describes the nature of disaster risk, the role that land-use planning can play in building more sustainable, hazard-resilient communities, and introduces the papers in this Special Issue.

The Role Of Land-Use Planning In Disaster Risk Reduction:
An Introduction To Perspectives From Australasia


For millennia, people have lived with the reality of natural hazards – naturally occurring processes and events that have the potential to threaten people and the things they value (Tobin & Montz, 1997). Only relatively recently has scholarly attention been focused on realising the potential of land-use planning to avoid putting people in harms way by making land-use decisions that reduce exposure to or avoid the impacts of natural hazard events (see e.g., Board of Natural Disasters, 1999; Burby, 1998a; Burby et al., 1999; Godschalk et al., 1998; Mileti, 1999; Puszkin-Chevlin et al., 2006/7; Smith, 2008). Furthermore, pre-event planning yields significant benefits for post-disaster recovery and reconstruction (Rubin & Barbee, 1985; Schwab et al., 1998; Smith & Wenger, 2006). This broad field can be called natural hazards planning. Despite the prevalence of natural hazards in Australasia, and provisions to institutionalise natural hazards planning, there has been limited scholarship focused explicitly on this topic in this region. This Special Issue provides a point of departure for addressing this shortcoming. The papers in this Special Issue include (i) lessons learned about the importance of pre-event planning for disaster recovery based on experiences in the United States of America (USA); (ii) an overview of, and key issues and priority actions for, natural hazards planning in New Zealand; (iii) the potential of land-use planning to reduce volcanic risk in New Zealand; (iv) an analysis of New Zealand case studies on managing coastal erosion that highlight key factors shaping environmental outcomes; (v) a case study of community-based response planning in the Northland region of New Zealand; (vi) the value of social impact assessment for assessing vulnerability to and preparing for hazard events based on Australian research; (vii) a framework for understanding climate change vulnerability and to help prioritise climate change adaptation initiatives in South East Queensland, Australia; and (viii) the historical context of and future challenges for natural hazards planning in Pacific Island Countries. The concluding paper synthesises key findings from these papers and reflects on strategic challenges and opportunities for natural hazards planning in Australasia. This introductory paper sets the scene for these papers. It describes the nature of disaster risk and explores the role that land-use planning can play in building more sustainable, hazard-resilient communities. It then introduces the papers in this Special Issue.

Natural hazards and escalating disaster risk

People may choose to live in places exposed to natural hazard events because of the benefits they anticipate relative to the perceived risk (i.e., the probability that they will be harmed as a result of exposure to the source of potential harm). For example, people may choose to live and farm on a floodplain because of its access to water and highly productive soils notwithstanding the likelihood of periodic flooding. In other cases, people may live in exposed locations because they have limited alternatives. For example, people live in squatter settlements that are exposed to hazard risks. It has long been known that natural hazard events do not always result in disasters (see e.g., Burton et al., 1968; White, 1936, 1945). A hazard event, such as a flood, turns into a disaster when people are unable to cope with the impacts of the event using their own resources and capabilities, and thus need outside help (Quarantelli, 1998). It is now well recognised that disaster risk is not just a function of the physical characteristics of natural hazard events (e.g., magnitude, recurrence interval, etc.), but the product of such events and a vulnerable population (which is the result of complex socio-political and economic drivers) and their ability to take steps to anticipate and cope with the event (Alabala-Bertrand, 1993; CDRSS, 2006; Comfort, 1999; Haque & Etkin, 2007; Hewitt, 1983; Hoffman & Oliver-Smith, 2002; Pelling, 2003; Varley, 1994; Wisner et al., 2004). Despite this established scholarly understanding, and extensive international efforts to reduce disaster risk and build resilience, the global impact of natural hazard events continues to escalate, with vulnerable, poor and marginalised communities and groups especially hard hit (see e.g., CRED EM-DAT, 2009; IFRCCS, 2009; UNISDR, 2009). Increasing numbers of people are exposed to natural hazards because of exponential population growth; human modification of natural systems that reduces inherent protective functions (e.g., removing riverine vegetation that attenuates floods); development intensification and the concentration of people in megacities and urban areas, many of which are prone to hazard events; and the underlying causes and drivers of political and social vulnerability that result in people living ‘in harms way.’ To compound matters, climate change is likely to exacerbate disaster risk (IPCC, 2007; Van Aalst, 2006), although there are important regional differences in exposure and vulnerability (Hewitt, 1997; IPCC, 2007; Kasperson et al., 1995). Consequently, there is growing worldwide concern about natural hazards and increasing attention is being focused on ways to reduce the risk of disaster (Advisory Committee on the International Decade for Natural Hazard Reduction, 1989; National Research Council, 1994; UN, 2004; UNDP, 2004; WCDR, 2005). This imperative is keenly felt in Australasia – a region that includes New Zealand, Australia, Papua New Guinea and Pacific Island Countries (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: Australisia (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:LocationAustralasia.png, accessed 20 March, 2009).

Australasia experiences many natural hazards, including hydro-meteorological events (such as heatwaves, bushfires, floods, coastal erosion, cyclones, severe storms and drought), geological events (such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunami and landslides), and biological hazards (such as the spread of vector borne diseases that can have profound impacts on public infrastructure, public health, agriculture and biodiversity) (see e.g., Blong, 1997; ODESC, 2007; World Bank, 2006). Climate change impacts have profound implications for countries in this region (IPCC, 2007), including potentially catastrophic impacts for small island developing states that are, among other things, extremely vulnerable to sea level rise (see e.g., Barnett, 2001; IPCC, 2007; Pelling & Uitto, 2001). Notwithstanding a number of significant events in the region in recent decades, the region is fortunate not to have experienced the catastrophic impacts of events such as the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and a series of devastating earthquakes in Indonesia. Despite television coverage of these events, complacency is commonplace; and vulnerable groups and communities in the region are most at risk. It is imperative to bridge the gap between our understanding about what needs to be done to reduce disaster risk and build community resilience and sustainability, and the continued vulnerability of and exposure to hazard risks by many Australasian communities. Notwithstanding this imperative, there is a paucity of academic literature on this subject in this region.

Database searches revealed no academic journal articles by Australian planning scholars on the subject of natural hazards. A few relevant articles were written by overseas scholars (e.g., Nichols, 2005; Pearce, 2003) or were tangentially related to land-use planning (e.g., Blong, 2004; Handmer, 2008; Stephens et al., 2009), or were published in a conference proceedings or book chapter (e.g., Bryant et al., 2005; King, 2006), or non-academic journals or reports (e.g., ALGA, 2006; EMA, 2002; Gabriel, 2003; Maguire & Hagan, 2007; March & Henry, 2007; SCARM, 2000; URS, 2002). There appears to have been comparatively more focused study of natural hazards planning in New Zealand (e.g., Glavovic et al., in press), but most of this research has been published in professional journals (e.g., Becker & Johnston, 2000; Becker & Saunders, 2007; Becker et al., 2005; Becker et al., 2008; Bell et al., 2002; Ericksen, 2005a, b; Ericksen et al., 2000; Forsyth et al., 2005; Goodwin, 2005; Jacobson, 2005; Kerr, 2005; Kerr et al, 2003; Mamula-Seadon, 2009; Mamula-Seadon et al., 2008; McKay, 2005; Norman, 2006; Olsen & Williams, 2005; Paton et al., 2006; Saunders & Becker, 2008; Saunders & Glassey, 2007; Saunders et al., 2007; Saunders & Glavovic, 2009; Van Roon, 2003; Wright et al., 2009), as technical reports (Becker et al., 2008; CAE, 2004, 2005, 2009; Forsyth & Becker, 2005; MfE, 2003; Tonkin & Taylor, 2006), a book chapter (Ericksen, et al., 2000), or is an unpublished doctoral dissertation (Mamula-Seadon, 2007). Two books on land-use planning in New Zealand have focused attention on natural hazards planning (Ericksen et al., 2004; May et al., 1996), and books on dealing with hazards by Handmer & Dovers (2007) and Paton & Johnston (2006) address issues pertinent to natural hazards planning in Australia and New Zealand. King et al., (2007) explore the issue of Māori environmental knowledge and natural hazards. There is a paucity of scholarly work on natural hazards planning in Pacific Island Countries (PICs) (cf. World Bank, 2006). Most of the academic literature on natural hazards planning is based on studies in the USA, but the underlying principles and lessons learned have relevance to Australasia. What role can and should land-use planning play in reducing disaster risk?

The promise of natural hazards planning

The only way to eliminate disaster risk is to keep people out of harms way. Natural hazards planning can play a pivotal role in helping communities understand disaster risk and make prudent decisions that ensure community safety and build sustainable livelihoods. This section explores the promise of natural hazards planning to avert or reduce disaster risk by making informed pre-event decisions about where to locate infrastructure and physical development, retaining the inherent protective functions of natural systems, designing resilient buildings and infrastructure, and empowering communities to work together proactively to increase hazard understanding, awareness and preparedness, and reduce hazard exposure and vulnerability.

The limits of traditional measures to deal with natural hazards
The 1666 Great Fire of London may have been the first disaster in the West to stimulate significant public policy changes and introduce land-use planning regulations to avert future tragedy (Platt, 1998). The fire destroyed most of the medieval part of the city and prompted the first complete code of building regulations intended to make the city safer. Since that time, however, human settlement has often taken place in places prone to natural hazards, such as on or near floodplains, fault lines, steep slopes and the seashore. The safety and long-term sustainability of urban development has been given scant attention. Governments and communities have relied on a combination of warnings and evacuation to get people out of harms way; insurance and disaster relief to reduce financial loss; and a range of structural measures to control or limit the hazard impact and / or protect vulnerable structures (e.g., flood control works and building standards to make structures more ‘hazard proof’) (Burby, 1998b; Godschalk et al., 1998; Mileti, 1999; Petak & Atkisson, 1982; Sheaffer & Roland, 1976). These traditional ways of coping with natural hazards have failed to stem the rising toll of disasters. Disaster warnings are not always feasible or effective. Even when warnings are issued, they are not heeded by enough people – so they cannot be relied upon as the sole means of coping. Relief and insurance provided after an event are helpful but not sufficient. Among other things, relief efforts subsidize those living in hazardous areas and may foster complacency – those living with hazard-risks may be reluctant to take appropriate precautionary measures that might otherwise have been taken without risk subsidization. Moreover, relief does little to prevent recurrence of disasters because many people rebuild in precisely the same places and in the same manner so that they remain exposed to recurring events. Structural measures that attempt to control the impacts of hazards help to protect investment in hazard-prone areas but have inherent (and even perverse) shortcomings. Building codes and structural protection reduce the probability of disaster but only when extreme events are at or below the design standards of such measures. Losses can be catastrophic when extreme events exceed such standards. Structural protection can lull people into a false sense of security because they don’t appreciate the limits of such structures (Burby & French et al., 1985; White et al., 1958). Building codes may also stimulate development in hazard-prone areas, especially when combined with insurance provisions (Burby & French et al., 1985; Miller, 1975). Furthermore, structural measures do little to protect and may actually cause harm to environmentally sensitive areas such as the seashore and wetlands. Structural protection measures are thus likely to be inappropriate and unaffordable in situations of new low-density development, especially when developable areas are available in non-hazardous locations. The limitations of traditional coping mechanisms have been apparent for many decades. But exposure to and the impact of natural hazards has increased dramatically because governments and communities have relied upon these mechanisms whilst allowing and even encouraging human settlement and physical development in areas vulnerable to extreme events. Seldom have adequate proactive measures been taken to avoid or reduce the disaster risk facing communities.

Land-use planning for sustainability and disaster risk reduction: Insights from the USA
Recent natural hazards planning scholarship has been grounded on the unifying theme of sustainable development (e.g., Beatley, 1998; Berke, 1995; Burby, 1998a; Geis & Kutzmark, 1995; Godschalk et al., 1998; Mileti, 1999; Mileti & Gailus, 2005; Munasinghe & Clark, 1995; Puszkin-Chevlin et al., 2006/7; Schneider, 2002; Smith, 2008; Smith & Wenger, 2006). Making land-use decisions that expose people and property to significant hazard risks is clearly not sustainable – especially if alternative, less risky settlement patterns are feasible.

“In the pre-disaster period, sustainability values seek to avoid saddling future generations with sprawling, wasteful land use patterns that not only reduce the social livability and economic viability of communities, but also undermine the ability of the natural environment to absorb hazard forces and expose people to significant hazard risks. In the post-disaster period, sustainability values seek opportunities to relocate land use out of hazard areas and rebuild damaged homes and infrastructure in more resilient ways instead of replicating brittle and unsustainable development practices” (Godschalk et al. 1998: 86).

According to Mileti (1999: 155-156), lead author of the second national assessment of natural hazards in the USA:

“No single approach to bringing sustainable hazard mitigation into existence shows more promise at this time than increased use of sound and equitable land-use management. Many political, social, and economic forces conspire to promote development and redevelopment patterns that set the stage for future catastrophes. However, by planning for and managing land use to accomplish sustainable hazards mitigation, disasters – though not wholly eliminated – can be reduced to a scale that can be borne by the governments, communities, individuals, and businesses exposed to them.”

This conclusion has been echoed by key role-players in Australia [e.g., the Council of Australian Governments (COAG, 2004; Ellis et al., 2004) and the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA, 2006)], New Zealand (e.g., MfE, 2008a-c; ODESC, 2007; Tonkin & Taylor, 2006) and Pacific Island Countries (e.g., World Bank, 2006). Sustainable hazard mitigation (endnote 1) seeks to reduce long-term risk to people and property from hazards and their effects. It shifts the focus from a reactive response towards proactive, anticipatory measures that seek to reduce risk and exposure.

“By planning for and managing land use to enhance sustainability, we can reduce our vulnerability to disasters, if not eliminate them. Land use plans enable local governments to gather and analyse information about the suitability of land for development, so that the limitations of hazard-prone areas are understood by policy-makers, potential investors, and community residents. In the process of preparing plans, local governments engage in a problem-solving process that works to ensure that all stakeholders understand the choices the community faces, and that they reach some degree of consensus about how these choices will be made. … While plans provide general guidance for managing development, land use regulations such as zoning set specific rules for the private sector about where development will be allowed and how development (and redevelopment) is to take place so that vulnerability from natural hazards is minimised. … Land use management also includes complementary governmental policies, such as campaigns to inform citizens about areas that face the greatest risks from hazards, and policies to locate infrastructure such as roads and sewer lines so that they steer development away from hazardous areas. In combination, plans and land use management programs enhance prospects for a sustainable future – one in which citizens and their elected officials make informed choices about using hazardous areas in ways that will not jeopardise the long-term viability of their communities” (Burby 1998b: 1-2).

Sustainable hazard mitigation encompasses a variety of measures (see e.g., Burby, 1998a; Godschalk et al., 1998; Schwab et al., 2007), including land-use planning provisions such as identifying hazards and vulnerability, developing hazard mitigation plans that avoid hazard-prone areas by directing new buildings and infrastructure away from such areas, and relocating vulnerable structures and land uses to less risky locations. Hazard mitigation also uses structural approaches to reduce the risks associated with physical development that has to be located in close proximity to hazards. Structures that have to be located in risky areas need to be designed to withstand anticipated hazard impacts; or retrofitted to meet standards relating to the hazard threat. Vital lifeline systems (roads, utilities and other support facilities) need to be able to continue to function despite extreme events. The integrity of natural systems needs to be safeguarded as far as possible to, among other things, retain and enhance the hazard-reduction services provided by natural systems (e.g., the flood-‘absorbing’ capacity of wetlands and riparian vegetation). The community – including government, nongovernmental organisations, businesses, indigenous and community groups – needs to be able to work together to anticipate and cope with hazards, paying particular attention to vulnerable groups. Functional hazard plans should be prepared (and where appropriate integrated into other land-use and community planning and decision-making processes). Proactive awareness and educational programmes need to be designed to improve understanding about and capacity to deal with natural hazards. Communities need to work together to deal proactively with hazards, based on up-to-date hazard information, effective communication networks and appropriate emergency management resources. Importantly, no single mitigation strategy can be relied upon to solve all hazard problems. A combination of approaches is needed, including proactive land-use planning and management, warning and evacuation provisions, relief measures, structural protection, etc. However, land-use planning and management processes and provisions have an especially important role to play in enabling communities to craft the right mix of mitigation measures that are appropriate to their particular situation.

Avoiding development in hazard-prone areas protects lives and livelihoods from extreme events and can help to protect sensitive environmental features. But it could also mean missing out on valuable economic opportunities. Consequently, it may not be appropriate to restrict all development activities in hazard-prone areas. For example, it may not be appropriate to prohibit activities in a hazard-prone area if such activities are an important part of the economic base of a community and do not significantly increase disaster risk. The natural hazards planning challenge is to decide what activities are appropriate in hazard-prone areas given the nature of the hazard(s), community vulnerability and the feasibility of hazard mitigation options in specific localities. Pressure to allow new buildings and infrastructure in hazard-prone areas is, however, likely to increase when a community is growing rapidly and development opportunities in non-hazardous areas are limited (Burby & French, 1981; Burby & French et al., 1985). Communities are less likely to allow new development in hazard-prone areas when the risk and costs of dealing with hazards are readily apparent, and especially if they are aware that the hazard could affect their personal safety or property. Wealthy communities, that are less dependent on property taxes, may be more likely to restrict development to mitigate hazards compared to less well-resourced communities (Burby & French, 1981; Burby & French et al., 1985; Godschalk, Brower & Beatley, 1989; Luloff & Wilkinson, 1979; Wyner, 1984). There is, however, some evidence to suggest that wealthy gated communities in California have fought increased risk reduction measures (widening of roads, brush clearance, etc.) intended to mitigate wildfire risk (Davis 1998). Any decision to allow development in hazard-prone areas should be made on the basis of sound information about the likelihood and nature of hazards and the vulnerability of the community. Moreover, such decisions should be made with the active participation of all stakeholders. A wide range of land-use planning and management tools (e.g., building standards, regulations, impact assessment, land and property acquisition, tax and fiscal policies, urban service control, awareness and education etc.) can then be used to promote development that is sustainable and hazard-resilient. Furthermore, pre-event planning provides considerable advantages for post-disaster recovery and reconstruction (Rubin & Barbee, 1985; Schwab et al., 1998; Smith & Wenger, 2006).

As recently as three decades ago, there was little empirical information available about the effectiveness of land-use planning and management tools in mitigating the impacts of natural hazards (cf. Baker & McPhee, 1975). A growing body of recent research in the USA shows that local and higher levels of government can help to ensure that communities are less likely to experience significant loss of life, property and livelihood due to natural hazards, and can become more hazard-resilient, if they make prudent choices through land-use planning and management (see e.g., Berke, 1998; Berke et al., 1996; Brody, 2003; Brody et al., 2007; Burby, 1998a, 2005; Burby & Dalton, 1994; Burby et al., 1998; Burby et al., 2000; Burby & May et al., 1997; Deyle & Smith, 1998; Deyle et al., 2008; Mader, 1997; Mileti, 1999; Nelson & French, 2002; Olshansky, 2001). The crucial role that land-use planning and management decisions play in exposing communities to disaster risk, and to enabling or hindering post-disaster recovery and reconstruction, has been graphically demonstrated by New Orleans’ Hurricane Katrina experience (Berke & Campanella, 2006; Burby 2006; Campanella, 2006; Glavovic, 2008; Irazábal & Neville, 2007; Kates et al., 2007; Laska & Morrow, 2006/7; Nelson et al., 2007; Olshansky, 2006; Olshansky et al., 2008). Building a sustainable, hazard-resilient community requires more than resilient physical infrastructure. It also requires integrity of natural systems, a vibrant economy, and strong and flexible social and institutional systems.

“Building a disaster resilient city goes beyond changing land use and physical facilities. It must also build the capacity of the multiple involved communities to anticipate and respond to disasters. … An important limit on the adaptability of communities is their vulnerability to disaster. … In effect, the poorest and most vulnerable communities within a city are the weakest links in its mitigation capacity. Here is an important opportunity to integrate hazard mitigation with economic development and social justice, achieving the multiple objectives needed for a resilient system” (Godschalk, 2003: 140).

In summary, USA scholarship on natural hazards planning demonstrates that integrating hazard mitigation measures into land-use planning practices is compelling because it can avert disaster; and if disaster occurs, pre-event planning can facilitate recovery and reconstruction. This scholarship, coupled with growing public awareness and improved understanding about the nature of hazards, and broad agreement about the merit of promoting sustainable development, underlies a profound shift in disaster management in recent years: from response and recovery to sustainable hazard mitigation and disaster risk reduction. But despite the compelling logic to build sustainable, hazard-resilient communities, and the empirical evidence in support of incorporating hazard mitigation measures in local plans, deeply rooted barriers need to be overcome to realise the promise of natural hazards planning: sustainable, hazard-resilient communities.

Barriers to effective natural hazards planning
Translating sustainable hazard mitigation intentions into practical reality is difficult for a number of reasons. Firstly, hazards often have a low priority on public agendas because risk-averse actions against hazards, such as earthquake hazards (Berke & Beatley, 1992), flood hazards (Burby & French et al., 1985), coastal storm hazards (Godschalk et al., 1989), and tsunami, are superseded by more immediate and pressing concerns (Berke, 1998; Berke et al., 1996; Birkland, 1996; May & Williams, 1986; Petak, 1985). Secondly, local hazard mitigation planning may be undermined by well-intentioned higher-level policies and practice that take the risk and burden off individual property owners, communities and local authorities, discouraging risk-averse behaviour (Burby, 1998b; May & Deyle, 1998). Thirdly, it is difficult for different agencies and spheres of government to develop the necessary collaboration and consistency that hazard mitigation requires, especially in federal systems. Unless required to do so by higher authorities, local governments often fail to plan for hazards and if they do so the hazard-related elements of these plans are often poorly crafted, not regularly updated and frequently ignored (Godschalk, Kaiser & Berke, 1998; Steinberg & Burby, 2002). Fourthly, political and regulatory imperatives are predisposed to facilitate rather than restrict property development, even in areas that are prone to extreme events.

Despite the shift in thinking among academic researchers, the strength of economic forces favoring unfettered property development, … and deeply rooted social values and legal precedents supporting individual property rights, define the politically viable hazard mitigation policy options. As a result, the public policy response to hazards vulnerability does not adhere to the precautionary principle but rather a loss reduction paradigm that accepts development of vulnerable land and attempts to reduce the impacts of hazard events through adaptive mitigation … [including] land development regulations, engineered solutions, emergency preparedness and response, and a combination of market and government-subsidized insurance. … Through the end of the 20th century, the preferred hazard mitigation strategies adopted by [USA] local, state and federal government have been those that do not infringe excessively on property rights, rely on market forces rather than government regulation, and involve measured public investment. Hazard mitigation has focused heavily on improving emergency preparedness and response, building codes, design standards, beach management, and subsidized and regulated insurance. It has undervalued the importance of preserving the natural landscape and the protective features, such as tidal wetlands and dunes, that are nature’s buffers” (Puszkin-Chevlin et al., 2006/7: 8-9).

In Australasia, like the USA, addressing the above barriers is key to realising the promise of natural hazards planning. As highlighted by the above quote, this is a systemic challenge that demands a paradigm shift in thinking and practice. Bridging the divide between those who create disaster risk and those who bear the consequences is central to meeting this challenge. Writing in the context of managing flood risk in Australia, Handmer (2008: 538-539) sums up the situation in terms that are pertinent to natural hazard planning for disaster risk reduction in the wider region:

In contemporary Australia, flood risk is characterized by private sector profit while the costs are borne by the public sector, individuals and small businesses. … The apparent paradox is that there are strong commercial rewards for increasing the overall flood risk despite all the government rhetoric about the desirability of risk reduction or at least of reducing exposure. Commercial incentives for risk reduction exist only in terms of selling plans and devices for minor risk modification. … Solutions seem illusive. … One approach that would probably be acceptable to all parties would be to accept the situation and to work on substantially strengthening all aspects dealing with the residual risk including warnings and emergency planning. Of course, this does nothing to alter exposure.

The promise of natural hazards planning under the above ‘business as usual’ scenario remains unrealised. The papers in this Special Issue explore how to unlock the potential of land-use planning to reduce disaster risk and build sustainable, hazard-resilient communities in Australasia.

Land-use planning for disaster risk reduction: A sample of Australasian reflections

In the first paper in this Special Issue, Smith (this issue) focuses on the role of pre-event planning for post-disaster recovery and reconstruction based on experience in the USA. Drawing on his academic roots and extensive practical experience in natural hazards planning, Smith points out that the failure of the USA government at federal, state and local level to conduct meaningful pre-event planning for post-disaster recovery results in: (i) lack of clarity about who is ‘in charge’ of community recovery; (ii) land-use planning tools and processes that could contribute to community recovery remain under-utilised; (iii) data collection and analysis is not effectively integrated into policy-making and decision-making processes to facilitate recovery; and (iv) more attention needs to be focused on the linkages and interconnections between hazard mitigation (including risk avoidance), sustainable development and building disaster resilience. A case study of the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, demonstrate how the above issues can be addressed – identifying an organization responsible for leading recovery efforts, applying land-use practices and collaborative processes, developing a strong fact base that informs planning decisions, integrating hazard mitigation into recovery, and linking risk reduction strategies to broader sustainable development principles. Following a major flood event in 1995, the city and county decided to adopt a planning approach that reduced future flood-related losses, improved water quality, and enhanced existing recreational opportunities without excessively constraining economic development. More general lessons are then presented for realising the potential of land-use planning for disaster risk reduction. These lessons deserve focused attention in Australasia.

A selection of four papers about natural hazards planning in New Zealand is then presented. Glavovic et al. (this issue) present an overview of the policy and legal setting for natural hazards planning and then go on to analyse five critical issues and priority actions for realising the potential of land-use planning to reduce disaster risk in New Zealand. They argue that the policy and legal setting for land-use planning provides a robust foundation for disaster risk reduction. But much remains to be done to improve hazards planning policy and practice with particular attention needing to be focused on: (i) improving understanding about the nature of hazards; (ii) prioritising Reduction measures; (iii) providing national guidance for communities exposed to repeat events and confronting the relocation issue; (iv) mainstreaming climate change adaptation; and (v) facilitating cooperative hazards governance.

Becker et al. (this issue) provide an overview of volcanic hazards in New Zealand and the role that land-use planning can and should play in reducing associated risks. There are a wide variety of volcanic hazards and a number of cities and towns are at risk. Mitigation can occur in a number of ways, including structural measures, emergency management processes, and land-use planning. But land-use planning is relatively underutilised. New Zealand and international case studies are presented to highlight challenges and opportunities for reducing volcanic hazard risk through land-use planning.

Blackett et al. (this issue) focus on the issue of coastal erosion; which poses a serious threat to many New Zealand communities. There are divergent perspectives and intense debate about how to resolve this issue. The authors analyse six case studies to identify key factors shaping the environmental outcomes of efforts to manage coastal erosion. It emerges that environmental outcomes are the product of the negotiation process: who is involved, how resource management agencies engage in this process and the nature of the physical environment. Positive environmental outcomes are achieved when cooperative relationships are established; learning and trust are developed; risks are addressed; scientific input is managed effectively; lobby groups are defused; contending interests are reconciled, and records are kept of the negotiation process and agreements reached.

Mitchell et al. (this issue) reflect on emergency management planning efforts in the northern-most region of New Zealand, Northland, where particular attention has been focused on developing community response plans in close collaboration with local communities. A case study of the Kaitaia Community Response Plan process is presented. Informed by international experience in community participation in natural hazards planning and collaborative planning more generally, the article presents lessons for community based natural hazards planning.

Cottrell & King (this issue) focus on the integration of social assessments into emergency and disaster risk management planning informed by their research in Australia. They review the linkages between social impact assessments as pre-event activities, post-disaster impact assessments as post event activities, the types of variables that need to be considered, and the different types of methodologies that might be used. The linkage to pre-event assessments and the role of planning in disaster mitigation is also made. A classification of disaster impacts is presented that identifies different timescales and methodologies of impact studies. An approach for social impact assessment of disasters is developed to guide both the methodology and the assessments within the context of pre-existing vulnerability and mitigation strategies.

Smith et al. (this issue) explore the issue of climate change adaptation and propose an approach for understanding this issue that is being applied in South East Queensland, Australia. They argue that an understanding of vulnerability is critical to inform and help prioritise climate change adaptation initiatives. Whereas past approaches for understanding climate change vulnerability have largely focused on assessments of exposure rather than assessments of sensitivity or adaptive capacity, the authors propose a participatory and transformative approach to understand and enhance adaptive capacity through: (i) assessing past adaptation options; (ii) conceptualising climate change systems as perceived by various sectors (based on regional climate change projections); (iii) identifying key adaptive capacity attributes; (iv) analysing adaptive capacity; and (v) designing strategies to enhance adaptive capacity.

In the penultimate article, Campbell (this issue) provides an overview of natural hazards planning in the Pacific Island Region, which faces a range of natural hazards that assume even greater significance in this age of climate change. Traditional communities, particularly those in rural areas, continue to be resilient to many of these events. But colonialism has resulted in the decline of many activities that contributed to this resilience; a trend that has been reinforced by disaster relief provisions in the post-colonial era. Improved institutional arrangements for disaster management, mostly in terms of preparedness planning, have taken place at the regional level and by recently independent countries. But in general there has been insufficient support for incorporating risk reduction measures into national planning activities and decision-making. Moreover, planning efforts have been inadequate for dealing with the rapid urbanisation and the associated escalating hazard risk taking place in many Pacific Island Countries. Regional efforts are underway to address these issues but they are nascent.

The concluding article by Glavovic (this issue) explores future directions for natural hazards planning and, informed by the papers in this Special Issue, discusses key challenges and opportunities for natural hazards planning in Australasia.

Preparing a Special Issue involves many people. I would like to thank each of the authors for their contributions and willingness to address issues raised by reviewers and me in my role as Guest Editor. I would like to thank each of the reviewers for providing, in most cases, detailed and critical but constructive feedback to authors. I would also like to thank Douglas Paton for inviting me to put this Special Issue together, and to Harvey Jones for assistance with the final publication.


On Wednesday 30 September, 2009, soon after the manuscripts for this Special Issue were submitted for publication, a 8.3 magnitude earthquake triggered a series of tsunamis that destroyed dozens of villages in Samoa, killing 110 people, and severely damaging the capital of and villages in American Samoa, killing 34 people, and striking Tonga, killing 9 people (as of 11pm on 1 October, 2009, New Zealand Herald). This devastating event underscores the imperative to focus attention on the challenges and opportunities for building community resilience and sustainability in Australasia. Choices made in the aftermath of this tragedy will shape vulnerability to future events. Lessons learned from natural hazards planning experience can help to inform the recovery and reconstruction efforts that are soon to be underway; and hopefully help to realise the promise of natural hazards planning.


The support of the Earthquake Commission to undertake this research is gratefully acknowledged.


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1. The term ‘mitigation’ is used with somewhat different meanings in Australasia and the USA. According to the USA Stafford Act (44 CFR 206:401) “Hazard Mitigation means any action taken to reduce or eliminate the long-term risk to human life and property from natural hazards.” In Australasia, the term is commonly used to mean reduce or alleviate hazard risk; not eliminate it. (return to text)


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