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Fire risk reduction on the margins of an urbanizing world

David Rush (Department of Engineering, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK)
Greg Bankoff (Department of History, University of Hull, Hull, UK)
Sarah-Jane Cooper-Knock (Department of Social and Political Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK)
Lesley Gibson (Department of Engineering, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK)
Laura Hirst (University of Manchester, Manchester, UK)
Steve Jordan (Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, Manchester, UK)
Graham Spinardi (Department of Engineering, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK)
John Twigg (University College London, London, UK)
Richard Shaun Walls (Department of Civil Engineering, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa)

Disaster Prevention and Management

ISSN: 0965-3562

Article publication date: 23 October 2020

Issue publication date: 27 November 2020




Globally, over 95% of fire related deaths and injuries occur in low- and middle-income countries. Within informal settlements, the risk of fire resulting in injury or death is particularly high. This paper examines fire risks in informal settlements in New Delhi and Cape Town, and tented informal settlements in Lebanon.


Our analysis draws on primary sources, secondary literature, statistical data and qualitative interviews.


The distribution of fire risk across urban societies is a fundamentally political issue. Residential fire risk can be tackled by accessible, affordable, safety-compliant housing. That said, important interim measures can be taken to mitigate fire risk. Some of the risks requiring attention are similar across our case studies, driven by high population densities; flammable housing materials; unreliable or inaccessible access to safe power sources; and – in the case of Cape Town and New Delhi particularly – the inability of fire services to reach sites of fire. However, these common risks are embedded in distinct social, economic and political contexts that must be placed at the center of any intervention. Interventions must also be aware that the risk of fire is not spread evenly within informal settlements, intersecting as it does with factors like gender, age, health and disability.


Informal settlement fires have been under-studied to date. The studies that do exist tend to operate within disciplinary silos. This paper represents an important interdisciplinary approach to fire within informal settlements, which grounds technical data, modeling and experiments in political, social and economic realities.



Rush, D., Bankoff, G., Cooper-Knock, S.-J., Gibson, L., Hirst, L., Jordan, S., Spinardi, G., Twigg, J. and Walls, R.S. (2020), "Fire risk reduction on the margins of an urbanizing world", Disaster Prevention and Management, Vol. 29 No. 5, pp. 747-760.



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