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date: 24 April 2019

Planning Systems for Natural Hazard Risk Reduction

Summary and Keywords

Planning systems are essentially a layer of guidance or legal requirements that sit atop plans of any type at any governmental level at or below the source of that guidance. In the case of natural hazard risk reduction, they involve rules or laws dealing with plans to reduce loss of life or property from such events. In much of the world, this is either unexplored territory or the frontier of public planning; very little of what exists in this realm predates the 1980s, although one can find earlier roots of the public discussion behind such systems.

That said, the evolution of such systems in 21st century has been fairly rapid, at least in those nations with the resources and technical capacity to pursue the subject. Driven largely by substantial increases in disaster losses and growing concern about worldwide impacts of climate change, research, technology, and lessons from practice have grown apace. However, that progress has been uneven and subject to inequities in resources and governmental capacity.

Keywords: natural hazard, planning, legislation, guidance, risk reduction, climate change, disaster, mitigation, flood, storm, vulnerability


Planning systems in the public sector are legally enacted or policy-based approaches to planning either on a comprehensive level for communities or regions or for specific governmental functions, such as transportation or housing. As such, they are prescriptive to varying degrees and issued from higher levels of government, either national or provincial (including states where that subnational designation applies). Natural hazards include any threats to people or property from events caused by natural systems such as earthquakes, floods, and windstorms. Mostly since the mid-20th century, planning systems have been created and have evolved in that they seek to reduce losses of life and property from such events. Planning systems thus are not the plans but prescriptions or templates for such plans, often legislated or directed at a national, state, or provincial level of government and implemented at lower levels.

Urban and regional planning generally is a highly synthetic activity, blending information from other fields into policy prescriptions and programs to solve problems and attempt to anticipate the future growth of a community or region. In the field of hazard mitigation, which aims to reduce risk from hazards, planning must incorporate practical insights from several areas of science, depending on the types of natural hazards that can be identified for the community in question. Natural hazards can vary widely by geographic region. For instance, many coastal areas around the world are subject to cyclonic storms (which include hurricanes and typhoons). Almost any river valley is inherently vulnerable to flooding. The entire Pacific rim, from Indonesia to Chile, is subject to a combination of geological threats including earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis.

It is the job of mitigation planners to distill useful information from the relevant scientific sources to identify local hazards of concern, assess the risks involved, determine the vulnerability of the community to those risks, and propose projects that will help mitigate those risks. That combination of activities generally constitutes what is known as a mitigation or risk reduction plan.

Table 1 lists some of the most predominant natural hazards with the applicable areas of science or engineering from which planning can access useful information for risk reduction or mitigation purposes. Listings in parentheses are especially relevant subfields of the area preceding them.

Table 1. Hazards and Relevant Fields

Natural Hazard Event

Applicable Areas of Science

Coastal storm

Meteorology, hydrology, civil and structural engineering


Climatology, meteorology, hydrology


Geology (seismology), structural engineering


Geology, hydrology, civil engineering


Geology, civil engineering


Meteorology, structural engineering


Geology (marine geology or oceanography), hydrology, civil and structural engineering

Volcanic eruption

Geology (volcanology), atmospheric science


Physics, biology (forestry), geography (topography)

It should be noted that, particularly in an era when climate change is a growing concern, climatology is a science of cross-cutting applicability for any hazards that may be a product of weather in any form. Its utility for addressing geological hazards such as earthquakes and tsunamis, however, is generally marginal or nonexistent, except for landslides, which are often triggered by heavy precipitation.

Because planning is an endeavor that involves crafting solutions and public policies to address societal problems, it must also use information from the social sciences and humanities. Disasters are defined by the interaction between natural hazards and the built environment; thus, this information is applicable to all types of natural hazards regarding issues of social equity and human acceptance and understanding of risk reduction methods and their economic feasibility.

Among the social sciences, the contributions of economics to risk reduction planning may seem the most straightforward. Does the cost of mitigation or prevention outweigh the long-term cost of the potential damage that may occur? Also, the pricing of insurance to ensure actuarily sound rates—and thus “price the risk” properly—is clearly an economic calculation. But, as with most problems rooted in environmental data, the challenge of obtaining and properly using accurate numbers in a holistic approach to the subject involves reliance on a great deal of data outside the purview of economics itself and forces a great deal of interdisciplinary collaboration. As a result, this is still an evolving area of inquiry, one that often has serious legal implications as well, as society seeks to allocate responsibility for the consequences of natural disasters.

Sociologists have focused a great deal of attention on the social structures and decision-making frameworks that either produce or alleviate risk. For instance, Tierney (2014) examines the idea that “disasters and their impacts are socially produced,” embedded in the way that societies choose to organize themselves and respond to threats and crises. Bullard and Wright (2009) have applied their expertise in examining racial inequities to illuminate socioeconomic issues in hazard mitigation and disaster recovery in events such as Hurricane Katrina. The value of such sociological research lies in drawing attention to questions of who makes decisions and who benefits or suffers (and why) in issues related to natural hazards.

Possibly most significant, however, has been research by geographers, who have perhaps the closest relationship to urban and regional planning of any academic field because both fields focus heavily on spatial relationships. Geography is thus in an excellent position to examine how such relationships between the built environment and the spatial distributions of various natural hazards affect the outcome of hazardous events. For example, Campanella (2002) has produced significant explorations of the evolution of development in New Orleans and its profound impact in creating the vulnerabilities that have grown over time as a result. The University of South Carolina, on the other hand, has undertaken the examination and mapping of social vulnerability to disasters with the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute, led by Susan Cutter. Ample opportunity remains within and between all the social sciences, including political science and anthropology, among others, for further exploration of law, social relations, political processes, and other facets of the social production of risk. Moreover, while the citations here are from the United States, a significant amount of similar social science research has also occurred in settings worldwide such as Europe, Japan, the Philippines, and India.

History and Foundations of Natural Hazard Risk Reduction


Mitigation planning is, in the early 21st century, a rapidly evolving area of planning practice and has been since the 1980s. Nonetheless, some clear roots can be traced as far back as the 1930s in the U.S. efforts to address impacts of drought during what became known as the Dust Bowl period in the Midwest: these efforts included planting of windbreaks and changes in agricultural practices (Middleton & Kang, 2017). Gilbert F. White (b. 1911–d. 2006), a geographer who later founded the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, is famous for having observed, “Floods are ‘acts of God,’ but flood losses are largely acts of man”(see online) (White, 1945). White began his career in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration in various planning roles, later moving to the University of Chicago and ultimately to Colorado. He was also instrumental in founding the Association of State Floodplain Managers, the leading U.S. professional organization devoted to flood mitigation (Hinshaw, 2006). His approach, which focused first on natural solutions before resorting to structural protections such as flood walls, was slow to win acceptance but is now widely accepted wisdom. The underlying philosophical point is that natural hazard events become disasters only when we place people and the built environment in their path. The goal of planning would then be to avoid such outcomes whenever possible.

Mitigation planning has also evolved as a part of, and to some degree away from, emergency management. Mitigation has traditionally been identified as one of four phases in the emergency management cycle (Figure 1), as defined by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), although the concept is in use internationally.

Planning Systems for Natural Hazard Risk ReductionClick to view larger

Figure 1. Phases of emergency management and the disaster life cycle.

Source: Schwab et al. (1998, Figure 31, p. 44).

In the United States, the planning profession has asserted a growing role in the mitigation planning process, something that was relatively uncommon until the 21st century. The growth of American planners’ interest in issues related to disasters, hazard mitigation, and climate adaptation is clear from the growth in attendance and number of sessions at the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conferences (Figure 2 and Figure 3). Although APA may be the only national professional planning organization that has undertaken such a time-series assessment of attendance patterns, conferences in Europe, the Pacific, and elsewhere focused on hazards have proliferated in the 21st century. The International Conference on Planning for Natural Hazards and Environmental Management, for example, has explored such issues since 1999. A regional example can be found in the International Workshop on Natural Disaster Reduction and Management Among Japan-Korea-Taiwan, which met for the ninth time in May 2018.

In practice, several professions, including emergency management and civil engineering, tend to be involved, and the combination of engagement takes shape differently among nations depending on historical patterns of responsibility and the evolution of those professions. In developing nations, for instance, the profession of urban planning often is either a subset of architecture or nonexistent. That can mean that land-use planning receives inadequate consideration, particularly as it bears on questions of risk reduction.

Planning Systems for Natural Hazard Risk ReductionClick to view larger

Figure 2. The author in 2015 undertook an analysis of 20 years of attendance data at American Planning Association National Planning Conferences to determine change in level of interest among U.S. planners in hazard and climate change topics.

Source:Schwab (2015).

Planning Systems for Natural Hazard Risk ReductionClick to view larger

Figure 3. In the same analysis shown in Figure 2, this shows change in the number of sessions devoted to hazards and climate change topics over the same 20-year span.

Source:Schwab (2015).

Advances in Technology

Effective risk reduction is inevitably reliant on technology to refine methods for identifying areas and levels of risk from specific hazards. Since the 1980s, these advances have often been rapid and dramatic, providing planners and others with means of assessing these risks with significantly greater precision.


An emergent technology as late as 1990, geographic information systems (GIS) have become essential tools for public safety (e.g., see Amdahl, 2001), land-use planning, and other governmental functions with distinct location-based or geographic aspects of their operation (Chrisman, 2006). Fundamentally, GIS is a marriage of database and mapping technologies, allowing users to fashion maps based on chosen attributes. For local risk reduction purposes, these attributes generally include not only standard data such as parcel lines or building types but also flood history and floodplain lines, vulnerable infrastructure, elevation, slopes, wetlands, forest cover, and coastal erosion rates, among dozens of other options. Some data, such as roof types, may be particularly relevant to wildfire, while drainage systems and culverts may matter for flood risks. The resulting maps may be useful for deploying first responders but also for minimizing environmental risks and drafting regulations to steer development away from high-hazard areas (Walker & Anderson, 2014). In the United States, FEMA has developed HAZUS, a freely available software extension of ARC-GIS to facilitate estimates of potential losses from earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes (FEMA, 2018a).

GIS has also proven useful for tracking socioeconomic and demographic factors, such as income and race, in relation to hazard vulnerabilities, in order to highlight areas of a community or region in need of special attention, including disabled and elderly populations. For example, mapping the locations of such groups can facilitate their relocation by social service providers to air-conditioned shelters in the midst of an urban heat wave.

The most massive effort at mapping natural hazard risk unquestionably involves the flood insurance rate maps (FIRMs) of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) in the United States, managed by FEMA. The basic structure of the NFIP involves community participation in the program as a requirement for any property owners in that local jurisdiction to be able to purchase flood insurance. In other words, in communities that fail or refuse to enroll in the NFIP, property owners lack access to the program, which in turn creates political and financial incentives for communities to enroll. Participation, however, requires compliance with NFIP regulations, which include the adoption of a local floodplain management ordinance that meets or exceeds minimum standards established by FEMA, which manages the program. Those standards include restrictions on development within the 100-year floodplain, which is a statistical construct defining the area within which there is a 1% annual chance of flooding. Amendments to the NFIP over time added requirements for purchase of flood insurance for property owners with federally guaranteed mortgages and in other instances.

The NFIP focuses its resources on the larger and more developed waterways, but there are large sections of more rural and undeveloped land whose streams and lakes remain unmapped. In all, the FIRMs include a little more than one third of the “3.5 million miles of streams, rivers and coastlines contained in the [U.S. Geological Survey’s] National Hydrography Dataset” (Turner & Berginnis, 2016). However, communities can and do go beyond FEMA requirements when they have the motivation and political will to adopt stronger regulations. For example, Charlotte, North Carolina, has become a prominent case study in examining the future build-out implications of current zoning regulations and using that information to build a case for developing stricter local codes as a means of reducing exposure to future flood damage (Schwab, 2010; Turner & Berginnis, 2016). This is a prime example of local government mapping enhancing the federal program. Since 1993, FEMA has also offered premium reduction incentives for communities participating voluntarily in its Community Rating System, which uses a somewhat complex system of points earned for taking additional steps to reduce flood risk, which include a variety of planning and public education measures, among other options. Thus, residents can see reductions in flood insurance rates as high as 45% because of their community’s CRS scores (FEMA, 2017a).

The multiple uses of the FIRMs—for flood insurances rates, to define zones for various land-use regulations aimed at reducing flood risk, and to promote flood protection measures—lead to a certain amount of public confusion and contention over how those boundaries are defined and what they mean. Clearly, no one can guarantee that floods will not exceed 100-year floodplain boundaries or that they will happen no more than once in a century. Yet public misunderstanding on these points, and resistance to being included in the floodplain when flood zones are remapped (particularly following disasters) are common. (Reassessing floodplain boundaries is standard practice following a presidential disaster declaration where flooding is involved.) Changes in flood insurance rates can have serious consequences both for property values and in direct cost increases for premiums.

Remote Sensing

The development of satellite imagery has provided another dramatic advance in mapping capabilities by enabling users to gain access to increasingly high-resolution photos of the Earth’s surface. As the technology has become more sophisticated, prices for the imagery have plummeted, in the pattern of most other high-technology innovations, and private companies have become purveyors of a wide variety of value-added services in interpreting the resulting avalanche of information (none of which was available prior to the 1970s). For instance, municipalities can access both imagery of urban forest cover and calculations of overall forest canopy within their borders. Remote sensing data also relay information about soil moisture that can help in responding to drought but can also provide precise calculations of flood levels and help track the movement of tropical storm systems. All of this can be used to refine risk assessments for various natural hazards (National Ocean Service, 2018b).

Remote sensing can also be performed with aircraft using a technology called Light Detection and Ranging (Lidar). A special advantage of Lidar is its ability to use either active or passive means to detect energy reflections from Earth to delineate relatively small variations in elevation, shifts in shorelines, or measure changes in water temperatures (National Ocean Service, 2018a).


Advances in digital technology have made it gradually easier to develop models to facilitate or simulate the decision-making process in planning. The ability to forecast logical consequences resulting from decisions about mitigation or avoidance of specific natural hazards has also enabled visualization technology, which aids in effectively communicating with the public and elected officials about the likely impacts of stormwater, riverine flooding, earthquake tremors, and other threats. As computer science technology continues to advance, the influence of modeling tools on the planning process is certain to grow as well.

Other Advances

The widespread adoption of smartphones and Internet systems has extended the use of these tools into a variety of field applications, including uploading cellphone photos from disaster sites or areas of concern, easy (and in many cases, nearly universal) access by interested citizens to the resulting plans, and wider public involvement in the planning process, including the use of website portals for public input and reaction to draft plans. In short, technology has had a dramatic influence on risk reduction planning on an almost worldwide basis. Planning systems predictably have incorporated these capabilities into the expectations of what can and should be done with respect to hazard mitigation. While it is not the purpose of this article to explore these technologies in any depth, the underlying point is that their collective evolution has had a dramatic impact on the methodology, success, and sophistication of risk reduction planning systems. These impacts are likely both to continue and to accelerate.

Statutory Mandates for Risk Reduction Planning in the United States

Federal Systems

In 2000 the U.S. Congress created one of the most dramatic shifts anywhere regarding risk reduction planning by enacting the Disaster Mitigation Act (DMA). However, it is difficult to understand the full importance of this legislation without at least a brief overview of what preceded it and the political circumstances that enabled it.

The United States effectively had no national programmatic legislation for addressing or responding to natural disasters before 1950, when Congress enacted the Disaster Relief Act. This mostly provided programmatic authority for providing federal resources through designated agencies following a natural disaster. Responsibilities were scattered among several agencies and sometimes were moved until President Jimmy Carter created FEMA in 1979 by consolidating several agencies from different departments. FEMA remains the primary U.S. disaster agency, but in 2003 it was absorbed into the newly created U.S. Department of Homeland Security, part of a larger reaction to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

The legislative enactment that remains central to the U.S. disaster management system was the passage in 1988 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Reliefand Emergency AssistanceAct, also known simply as the Stafford Act. Although amended numerous times since 1988, it still provides the essential framework for how the president declares a disaster and how that event authorizes the provision of federal resources for disaster relief; More importantly, the act also provides a framework for state-level hazard mitigation plans. Although the legislation envisioned plans being prepared by states prior to disasters, in practice it became a mandate for states to produce such plans within a prescribed period following a federal disaster declaration. Importantly, this act and the creation of FEMA generated a system of state emergency management organizations under parallel state legislation, with their own state-level authorities for managing risk reduction and responding to disasters with either state-level or presidential declarations.

Under the original Stafford Act, the state hazard mitigation plans also became known to practitioners as “409 plans” because the authority resided in Section 409 of the act, whereas Section 404 provided the authority for states to propose specific hazard mitigation projects for federal funding. The Stafford Act also established a system of cost sharing, in which federal support for mitigation projects would be matched by state and local funds. Over time, the federal government has assumed a larger share, typically 75%, of the cost of projects under FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP).

One major criticism of HMGP has been that it provides funds only after a disaster declaration, thus in effect requiring a disaster to happen before the mitigation can take place. States and local governments, to be sure, can and do undertake hazard mitigation projects with their own money, but with HMGP providing the dominant share, the temptation to rely on federal support has played a major role in mitigation planning, especially for more financially strapped state and local governments (Godschalk et al., 1999).

Moreover, during the 1990s the costs of major natural disasters began to rise dramatically, both in the United States (Hurricanes Andrew, Fran, and Floyd; Northridge earthquake; 1993 Midwest floods) and worldwide (Hanshin earthquake, Japan; Hurricane Mitch, Central America). Hurricane Andrew, which struck southern Florida in 1992, inflicted damages exceeding $25 billion, a record at the time, yet one to be completely overshadowed in the early 21st century. Naturally, this resulted in significantly higher costs for the federal government. Those financial pressures and a felt need for greater accountability by local and state governments for helping to reduce those losses, led to the passage of DMA in 2000 (Sylves, 2007).

DMA also shifted the timetable for state and local hazard mitigation plans from a post-disaster focus to pre-disaster. Congress used federal mitigation grant money as the hook. States were mandated to produce hazard mitigation plans and update them every three years. Without such a plan approved by FEMA as compliant with regulatory standards it developed over the two years after enactment, the state would be ineligible for federal grants for mitigation projects. In addition to HMGP, which retains its post-disaster focus, this included other flood mitigation grant programs and the newly created Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) grant program. However, PDM has never been funded anywhere near as richly as HMGP, which remains the largest pot of money for mitigation projects. HMGP is calculated as a percentage of the overall disaster assistance granted to a state under a presidential disaster declaration; as a result, larger disasters still result in more money for mitigation, while communities that have done a great job of averting losses necessarily receive less for any additional mitigation. Nonetheless, DMA at least forces states and communities to anticipate and propose needed mitigation projects before disaster strikes.

By and large, FEMA has used DMA to foster hazard mitigation plans that have four principal components, although FEMA guidance is considerably more complex and addresses process questions including public participation. Those components can be summarized as hazard identification, risk assessment, vulnerability assessment, and proposed mitigation actions and priorities.

Under this scheme, states are responsible for coordinating planning efforts at the local level. Counties, municipalities, and special-purpose sub-state units of government such as regional water management agencies or state universities can all develop local hazard mitigation plans and earn their own eligibility for mitigation grants (through the states) by preparing, winning approval for, and adopting local hazard mitigation plans. These local and regional entities can also combine their efforts under DMA in multi-jurisdictional plans, so long as they all adopt the plan that results from their collaboration. Some observers have raised questions about the level of commitment by many smaller communities to these multi-jurisdictional plans, and how well those plans are linked to their implementation and land-use planning practices, but it remains an effective way for many small communities to participate in plans without overtaxing their own limited planning capacity.

At least in terms of nominal participation, and often in substantive participation, DMA seems to have wrought a quiet revolution in the United States in risk reduction planning. All 50 states have maintained FEMA-approved plans, and more than 20,600 jurisdictions, representing 83% of the national population, had approved plans at the end of 2017 (FEMA, 2018a).

In addition to DMA, however, it is important to note the impact of the National Flood Insurance Program, which is also managed by FEMA. Created as a national program under the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968, it has evolved and been amended numerous times. For purposes of risk reduction, what is important is that the NFIP makes insurance available only in communities that enroll in the program. This local involvement requires passage and enforcement of a floodplain management ordinance that complies with FEMA standards. FEMA provides the national mapping services for any applicable floodplains in the community, but communities can apply higher standards than the FEMA minimums, thus tightening requirements for elevating above FEMA’s defined base flood elevation, restricting development in the floodplain, and acquiring flood-prone properties for open space (Freitag et al., 2009). FEMA provides incentives, in the form of lower insurance premiums, for communities participating in its Community Rating System (CRS), which awards points for a wide variety of risk-reduction activities. As of June 2017, FEMA listed 1,444 communities enrolled in CRS, which included 69% of all flood insurance policies in force (FEMA, 2017). For many small communities, NFIP provides a major (sometimes the only) impetus for local land-use planning.

State Systems

There is no authority for general land-use planning at the federal level in the United States. DMA and the regulatory requirements of the NFIP are simply examples of federal incentives for specific types of planning at state and local levels. For comprehensive community and regional planning, one must instead turn to the 50 states for legal frameworks that either authorize or require local planning and spell out how it must be done. There are, in effect, not one but 50 systems for local government planning in the United States.

As of 2018, about half of the states required some or all communities to produce local comprehensive plans, referred to in some state laws as either master plans or general plans. Depending on how one wishes to define risk reduction, about 10 of those laws mandate the inclusion of some type of hazard mitigation element in those plans. A few other states prescribe the contents of a suggested or recommended hazards-related element. Those with mandates include some of the largest states, such as California and Florida. The precise parameters of what must be considered have varied among the states, largely depending on the political and geographic circumstances. California has moved closer to an all-hazards mandate over time, including flooding and wildfires, after initially focusing on seismic hazards. Eastern states such as Florida have placed most of the emphasis on coastal hazards, while two western states—Idaho and Colorado—have used an all-hazards approach (Schwab, 2004). Iowa’s 2010 Smart Planning Act suggested but did not mandate either local planning or hazard mitigation and also took the unique step of stating that the hazard element should be prepared with reference to the hazard mitigation plan prepared for FEMA under DMA, thus establishing a direct link between local comprehensive planning and the federal requirement (Rebuild Iowa Office, 2011). Overall, the impact of these state planning laws, where they occur, has been to make risk reduction a more integral element of comprehensive urban planning.

Statutory Mandates for Risk Reduction Planning Outside the United States

Although the scope of the Disaster Mitigation Act has no precise parallel elsewhere, other nations have been gradually adopting and adapting programs for planning for risk reduction since at least the 1990s. However, such planning systems at a national level remain rare in most of the world. (It must be understood that these systems are distinguished from emergency management, which is nearly universal but focused on disaster response, not risk reduction or hazard mitigation.)

It should also be noted that only a few nations are as large as the United States in either geographic size or population, and few have as diverse a set of challenges with regard to the types of natural hazards they must address. Put simply, the United States finds itself more hard pressed than most to prepare for and respond to the range of disasters inherent in its environment. This section reviews some of the better examples available.


Canada has a federal and parliamentary system of government. With a geographic size comparable to its neighbor, the United States, but with slightly more than 10% of its population (about 35 million in 2016), it comprises 10 provinces and three territories. Like the United States, the federal government delegates most authority for the legal framework of municipal governance to its provinces. That also puts provinces in the lead for much of what happens regarding planning for natural hazard risk reduction, as well as emergency management. For example, in 1999, British Columbia issued its Flood Planning and Response Guide for British Columbia (Provisional Emergency Program, 1999). However, a close look at this and similar documents reveals that, much like the United States, these earlier efforts to address natural hazards relied much more on emergency management measures and structural flood protection measures; they tended to mention hazard mitigation through land-use controls in passing (if at all). This remains a problem.

But this is also changing. In 2015, the Canadian federal government established the National Disaster Mitigation Program, which made $200 million available over five years to provinces to facilitate provincial and local flood mitigation planning and projects on a cost-sharing basis. The money is divided into four streams covering risk assessments, flood mapping, mitigation planning, and investments in non-structural and small-scale structural mitigation projects (Public Safety Canada, 2017). Provincial authorities are free to partner with municipal and other entities.

Given its short history as of 2018, it remains to be seen how effective the program will be and whether it may be expanded in scope, range of hazards, or financially over time. It clearly bears some resemblance to the U.S. model but on a smaller scale and initially limited to flood mitigation.

New Zealand

Two factors are critical to understanding natural hazard risk reduction in New Zealand. The first is that New Zealand is a geologically young nation, mostly consisting of a pair of islands (north and south) that are riven by its location straddling the Australian and Pacific plates. This renders the nation subject to earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes even as its oceanic location also makes it vulnerable to cyclones and extreme weather, and its mountainous topography creates the setting for landslides and flash floods. It is, in effect, a “landscape of hazards” (Schwab, 2008). The second factor is that this relatively small nation of about 4.6 million people has a parliamentary system of government at the national level that is directly responsible for establishing the ground rules of municipal and regional governance. Under the Local Government Act of 2002, it created a system of urban and rural municipalities responsible for local land-use management. The Resource Management Act of 1991 had created a system of regional councils whose primary purpose involves land-use and environmental policy; the regions are not general-purpose units of government, but essentially planning and policy bodies (King, 2003).

Planning Systems for Natural Hazard Risk ReductionClick to view larger

Figure 4. Stakeholders with an interest in New Zealand land-use planning for natural hazards.

Source: GNS Science, in Glavovic, Saunders, and Becker (2010).

In effect, three principal national laws govern risk reduction planning activities for natural hazards: the Local Government Act of 2002, the Resource Management Act of 1991 (RMA), and the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act of 2002 (Glavovic, Saunders, & Becker, 2010). Only since 2017 does the RMA explicitly require the significant risk of natural hazards to be addressed; this is now a matter of national importance under the act. Natural hazards and their risks are managed through plans, policies, and rules, implemented through a process of “resource consents” for local government decisions affecting such management. In addition, the Building Act controls “building consents” and the standards for hazard-resistant construction, particularly important for geological hazards. Figure 4 summarizes the relationships between those legislative acts and risk reduction planning in New Zealand.

Another noteworthy facet of New Zealand legislation is the provision added in 1992 to the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act of 1987 for Land Information Memorandums, whose purpose is to disclose existing hazard exposures on land subject to development; there is a parallel for Building Information Memorandums in the Building Act (Glavovic et al., 2010). While geared to real estate transactions rather than planning, these inevitably have some impact on the market and property values. They also have liability implications for councils that prepare the information. However, like other types of sensitive disclosures, research has indicated inconsistent application of LIM requirements, as well as issues regarding cost and delays in preparation that may limit their usefulness in real estate transactions (Saunders & Mathieson, 2016).

Planning Systems for Natural Hazard Risk ReductionClick to view larger

Figure 5. Erosion-scarred, landslide-prone landscape on the North Island of New Zealand.

Photo by Jim Schwab.

The result has been the steady but somewhat uneven incorporation of risk reduction in regional policy statements and plans and in the local planning process, where it often competes with development priorities but with regional land-use consent procedures as a check to ensure compliance. National policy statements based on the RMA help to establish overall guidance (e.g., New Zealand Government, 2010).

The distinguishing feature of New Zealand hazards planning compared to the United States is that it is derived more from a combination of national laws with divergent but overlapping purposes, whereas the Disaster Mitigation Act in the United States has the solitary purpose of requiring or incentivizing state and local plans specifically focused on hazard mitigation. One advantage for New Zealand may be that the system can facilitate a more holistic focus on hazards in the larger context of planning. The disadvantage that appears in the research is a degree of inconsistency in practice from one region to another. Nonetheless, some regional councils have produced high-quality assessments of local hazards (e.g., Bay of Plenty Regional Council, n.d.). In assessing New Zealand’s progress, Glavovic et al. (2010) identified what they labeled four “burning issues,” namely:

  • improve understanding about the nature of hazards;

  • prioritize risk avoidance (reduction) measures;

  • provide national guidance for communities exposed to repeat events and address the issue of relocating at-risk communities; and

  • mainstream climate change adaptation.


The small island of Taiwan may well be the most vulnerable nation on Earth, given its simultaneous exposure to earthquakes, landslides, typhoons, floods, and debris flows. It has taken emergency management seriously. Following other efforts to address natural hazard challenges since 1965, the parliament in 2000 passed the Disaster Prevention and Response Act (DPRA). The law covers the four phases of emergency management—mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. It requires every level of government to create a Disaster Prevention and Response Council (DPRC) and its own disaster management plan.

Amendments to DPRA in 2010, following Typhoon Morakot, created an Office of Disaster Management within the Executive Yuan, one of five branches of government. Known as the Disaster Prevention and Protection Act (2010), much of the law remains centered on response and recovery, but Articles 17 and 18 describe the process of drawing up a Disaster Prevention and Protection Basic Plan, with the contents prescribed in Article 18, including an overall long-term prevention and protection plan, essential items of prevention and protection and regional plans, and any other items deemed necessary by the Central Disaster Prevention and Protection Council. There is thus a tiered system aimed at providing for some locally oriented mitigation below the national level. Taiwan also maintains a think-tank function, the National Center for Disaster Reduction, operating as an administrative entity under the Ministry of Science and Technology.

What has been less clear is the degree of emphasis on risk-reduction planning versus a bias toward response and preparedness, which remains the typical orientation around the world. The system also has retained a Taiwanese emphasis on technological solutions, whereas the United States, however, has slowly moved toward a greatly increased emphasis on using natural functions as part of a more holistic risk-reduction strategy (Tso & McEntire, 2010).

Controversies and Debates

The foregoing examples highlight some dominant debates concerning planning systems for natural hazard risk reduction. Some of these have been persistent issues and may well remain so, particularly as such planning systems emerge in nations that previously lacked a consistent approach.

Bottom Up Versus Top Down

As simple as the question of bottom-up versus top-down management of hazard planning sounds, it is not binary in this case but rather involves a spectrum of options. The distance between top and bottom varies with the complexity and size of the system, ranging from the very large (say, China or United States) to relatively small (Taiwan or New Zealand), with two or more layers of governance that may affect how national or subnational governments design their planning systems. It also involves questions of enabling public participation, generally an easier task at the local level, and of resources and governmental capacity. Capacity also signals differences between large urban and small rural communities, with the former more capable of marshaling the necessary information and investing in innovations. National governments sometimes struggle to address issues of flexibility that may serve to encourage or facilitate innovations at the local level, as rigid requirements may forestall such innovation.

Nonstructural Versus Structural

Much of the early history of hazard mitigation involved attempts to protect communities against natural forces by building levees, seawalls, and other types of engineered structures to prevent floodwaters from entering developed areas, for example. Structural approaches remain important for many reasons, particularly for hazards where using land-use controls to steer development away from hazardous areas is difficult or nearly impossible; for example, with tornadoes or earthquakes. In those cases, building codes can influence seismic or wind resistance to ensure greater resilience in the built environment. In other cases, most notably flooding, the contours of the hazard are so well known that extensive mapping is possible, and limiting development in flood-prone areas can be highly effective. All that said, the overall trend in the 21st century has been to place greater emphasis on nonstructural risk reduction techniques whenever that is feasible. In the United States, the Association of State Floodplain Managers (2003) has introduced the concept of “no adverse impact” and the natural and beneficial functions of floodplains, arguing that floods are a natural process and that the problem is the failure of human settlements to stay out of harm’s way. Other groups have focused on increasing the role of green infrastructure (i.e., natural systems) to mitigate damage from natural hazards.

Examples of nonstructural strategies include retreat from some hazardous coastal areas, buying out or relocating flood-prone properties, and limiting development in areas subject to landslides or soil liquefaction during earthquakes. Because there are both philosophical and economic components, this debate is likely to continue and will affect the evolution and design of planning systems to achieve risk reduction.

Notable Advances

Over the decades since the 1970s, research and practice have advanced considerably because of technological and scientific changes but also because of conceptual changes in the way officials and experts think about risk reduction in theory and practice. A few of these changes are particularly worthy of attention.

Quantifying Savings From Risk Reduction

Strong economic arguments often produce strong political motivation for change. Demonstrating savings from investments in hazard mitigation has sometimes been difficult because of the unpredictability of catastrophic events, but it is not impossible with an adequate time frame for considering event probabilities. One major study that sought to quantify the return on investment from expenditures on natural hazard mitigation occurred in the United States with the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), which in 2004 published Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: An Independent Study to Assess the Future Savings from Mitigation Activities (Multihazard Mitigation Council, 2004). This study popularized the summary observation that $1 of federal investment in mitigation produces $4 in savings, a finding more recently updated to $6 saved (NIBS, 2017).

Shift to Pre-Disaster Mitigation

The United States, with the Stafford Act, locked itself into a planning design that emphasized supplying federal and state money for mitigation projects as part of the rebuilding process after a disaster occurred. Over time, numerous observers have questioned the logic of this emphasis, noting a need to place greater emphasis on supporting mitigation before the next disaster in order to better reduce losses. The Disaster Mitigation Act promised such a shift, but Congress has rarely allocated significant money for the Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) program the act created. Nonetheless, the emphasis on pre-disaster mitigation has grown, along with a growing emphasis on pre-planning for post-disaster recovery (Schwab, 2014).

Evolution Toward Plan Integration

Driven in part by the professional segregation of emergency managers and urban planners in many settings, and in the United States by the isolation of local hazard mitigation plans from comprehensive community planning, the idea has taken root that hazard mitigation should be a core priority of all aspects of the local community planning process. The American Planning Association, in partnership with FEMA, advanced this notion in a major research document (Schwab, 2010), and new FEMA guidance has pushed the idea even farther (e.g., FEMA, 2013). But it has also gained increasing acceptance elsewhere, including New Zealand. One major impetus has been the expectation that implementation of risk reduction priorities will benefit from such integration.

Growing Focus on Social Equity

The growing involvement of planners, with an increased emphasis on public participation in the planning process, has led to an increased focus on social equity as an outcome. Researchers since 2000 have sought to empower such concerns with the creation of tools for measuring social vulnerability as a means of calling attention to long-standing inequities. One leading example in the United States has been the development at the University of South Carolina (USC) of the Social Vulnerability Index (Cutter, Boruff, & Shirley, 2003). While the USC index is focused on the United States, the concept of a social vulnerability index has been adapted in academic literature to contexts in other nations (e.g., Rygel, O’Sullivan, & Yarnal, 2006; Fekete, 2009). On a broader international basis, it is easy to see that nations and their communities struggle to define what constitutes social equity and how to achieve it, if it is in fact an explicit goal. Thaler and Hartmann (2016) compared flood risk management and justice concepts across four European Union nations (England, Austria, Germany, and Netherlands) and find various concepts operative to varying degrees but no particular coherent approach despite the implementation of a 2007 European Floods Directive that required member nations to develop flood risk management plans by 2015. The most bottom-up approach was that applied in the Netherlands, which may well reflect that nation’s high level of exposure and consequent focus on high design standards to protect a vulnerable population. Nonetheless, the growing effort to identify ways to quantify and score such efforts may at least yield some measurement tools that may affect decision making in the future.

State of the Art of Planning Systems for Natural Hazard Risk Reduction

Context Matters

One crucial point about planning systems is that local and regional context matters. All natural hazards have inherent geographic components, and risk and vulnerability are inevitably determined by cultural, political, and economic factors that are unique to specific community settings. This point is important because both the design and success of larger planning systems establishing the framework for local and regional plans—and even state and provincial plans in federal governmental systems—must be flexible. This flexibility must recognize both the common factors that prevail throughout a national or provincial system, including the need for certain basic minimum standards and the circumstantial differences that must be accounted for by those preparing a plan. This conflict between national-level requirements and adaptation to local circumstances is an ongoing concern for many types of planning but has particular poignancy where climatic, topographical, and geological conditions vary widely—and not only in large nations such as China and the United States. Ideally, a national planning system will also allow ample room for local or state-level creativity and experimentation that may provide vital feedback into the larger system, thus enhancing the learning process for all involved. For example, in the United States, the City of Baltimore (2013) (in Maryland) is produced a local hazard mitigation plan that incorporated a climate adaptation plan into a single document, thus addressing both current and future hazards in a coastal setting.


Resilience has been defined as “the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events” (National Academies, 2012). This concept has become the focus of major interdisciplinary research and is a frequent topic of planning practice regarding hazard mitigation, including the production of guides on planning for resilience (e.g., Masterson, 2014). This has extended to international comparisons of planning practices, particularly in coastal areas, with an increasing emphasis on climate change adaptation as a component of resilience (e.g., Blakely & Carbonell, 2012).

The interest in resilience as an element of planning practice logically has led to interest both in developing better guidance tools based on empirical research and in how that guidance can be incorporated into existing planning systems such as the Disaster Mitigation Act in the United States. This has led to investments in such research by federal entities in the United States including the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NIST work specifically includes a planning guide for communities (NIST, 2016), as well as an economic decision guide for achieving resilience (Gilbert et al., 2015). More specifically, the Transportation Research Board also sponsored a study on transit resilience, looking at planning approaches to maintain transit service in the face of natural disasters with international case studies (Matherly, Carnegie, & Mobley, 2017). The focus in most cases is on how to turn the broad goals of resilience into measurable outcomes, a focus made more challenging by the numerous ways in which specific forms of resilience (economic, physical, technological, environmental, etc.) can manifest themselves. Because of NIST’s scientific and technological expertise, for example, the NIST studies focused largely on resilience for buildings and infrastructure, a distinctly physical emphasis. NSF, on the other hand, has also supported social science–based studies of resilience.

The concept of resilience clearly has grown roots on an international scale, even if its application is far from universal. Australia, for example, has a national resilience strategy that includes discussion of land-use planning (Council of Australian Governments, 2011). ICLEI: Local Governments for Sustainability is active in propagating resilience planning concepts among its international network of member communities in Europe, North America, and elsewhere (see ICLEI, 2017). While the overwhelming portion of academic research and planning practice regarding resilience has emerged in the 21st century, the momentum behind the concept has been substantial.

Almost surely, the boldest and most ambitious international initiative in this arena has been the 100 Resilient Cities program created by the Rockefeller Foundation. Among the member cities are 16 in Latin America, as well as others in Africa (e.g., Accra, Ghana), the Middle East, Australasia, and Europe, in addition to North America. The focus is on supporting the hiring of a Chief Resilience Officer in member cities, helping them to develop a “holistic resilience strategy” and implementing that strategy. Philosophically, the program does not limit itself to addressing natural disasters but incorporates approaches to a whole series of shocks and stressors. The former include sudden events that may include earthquakes and storms, while the latter include long-term and chronic impacts from issues such as systemic racism, income inequality, and environmental pollution.

Training for Planners

At least in the United States, academic training for planners regarding natural hazards has been growing but is still far from universal. The complaint that urban planners largely learn about hazard mitigation and disaster recovery planning on the job remains largely true, although the opportunities for professional development and continuing education in this area have grown significantly, as suggested by Figure 2 and Figure 3. In the case of the American Planning Association, this has been accompanied by the growth since 2015 of a new membership-based Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Planning Division.

Figure 6 shows the courses in U.S. graduate and undergraduate urban planning programs documented by the American Planning Association as of 2015. Figure 7 and Figure 8 illustrate the percentages of such programs offering hazard-related or climate-related curriculum. It was not clear that any comparable data had been compiled on an international scale to assess the evolution and impact of training and degree programs.

Planning Systems for Natural Hazard Risk ReductionClick to view larger

Figure 6. In the same analysis shown in Figure 2, this graph shows courses offered as of 2015 in U.S. collegiate planning schools.

Source: Schwab (2015).

Planning Systems for Natural Hazard Risk ReductionClick to view larger

Figure 7. In the same analysis shown in Figure 2, this graph shows the gap in undergraduate collegiate planning education in the United States related to hazards and climate change curriculum.

Source: Schwab (2015).

Planning Systems for Natural Hazard Risk ReductionClick to view larger

Figure 8. In the same analysis shown in Figure 2, this graph shows the gap in graduate-level planning education in the United States related to hazards and climate change curriculum.

Source: Schwab (2015).

U.S. Flood Insurance Reform

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) in the United States is not the only case of a governmentally managed insurance system for natural hazards available to property owners. New Zealand, for instance, has long provided insurance largely against geologic hazards through its national Earthquake Commission, whose efficacy was tested following the 2010–2011 earthquakes in Christchurch (Johnson & Olshansky, 2017). National programs tend to respond to market vacuums where private insurance finds the risk pool unsustainable, mostly because of self-selection by those with highest exposure to potential losses. For example, there is no coverage available in the United States for landslides precisely because no one in geologically stable locations needs or wants such insurance. However, flooding was a far bigger problem that prompted a response by the federal government, just as the hazardous landscape in New Zealand prompted the creation of the Earthquake Commission.

The special case of the NFIP, created in 1968, is that it is the largest such program in the world with the most elaborate system for mapping flood risks: This is primarily to support underwriting assessments for flood insurance rates. As of October 2016, the program included 5.1 million residential and commercial policies, providing coverage of $1.25 trillion, with annual premiums of $3.6 billion (FEMA, 2017a). Significantly, however, the mapping program also supports a land-use regulatory regime under NFIP supervision. As such, it is an inherent part of flood-risk reduction planning in the United States.

Planning Systems for Natural Hazard Risk ReductionClick to view larger

Figure 9. Flood damage to homes on Staten Island, New York City, from Hurricane Sandy.

Photo by Jim Schwab.

Because the NFIP, from its outset subsidized flood insurance rates for properties that existed before the FIRM was created for their location, it was always subject to potential deficits. Following Hurricane Katrina, paid losses exceeded $16.3 billion (FEMA, 2017b) and became a lingering concern in the U.S. Congress. The result, by 2012, was an attempt to rein in such costs by amending the act to phase in actuarially sound rates for those “grandfathered” (or legacy) polices, which in many older communities made up a substantial majority of existing development. For example, in New York City, 84% of the homes in areas flooded by Hurricane Sandy were built before FEMA produced the first FIRMs for the city in 1983 (Schwab, 2013). The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, passed that summer, prescribed such a solution just a few months before Hurricane Sandy devastated the Northeast, including much of New York and New Jersey. Sandy exacerbated concerns about the fiscal stability of the NFIP with paid losses exceeding $8.6 billion (FEMA, 2017b). Once the implications of the new Advisory Base Flood Elevations (in effect, provisional updates of the flood maps) for increased flood insurance premiums became clear, political backlash set in. By 2014, Congress passed yet another NFIP amendment, this time slowing some of the process of phasing out subsidized rates; this was in part based on concerns about flood insurance affordability for many homeowners, many of whom found themselves included in newly expanded 100-year floodplain boundaries (ASFPM, 2014).

All this led to further debates about the needed 2017 reauthorization of the NFIP, with discussion of introducing more private-market flood insurance. It is predictable, especially as impacts of climate change influence and exacerbate flood risks, that this debate will continue in future cycles of reauthorization and following more flooding disasters, such as those that accompanied Hurricanes Harvey (in Texas), Irma (in Florida), and Maria (in Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands) in the autumn of 2017. It is an important debate for other nations to watch largely because of the magnitude of the U.S. experiment in this realm and the economic and practical consequences of its success or failure.

Evolution of Planning Frameworks

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, targeting both the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York, forever changed the landscape of all-hazards planning in the United States. Among other impacts, FEMA became part of the newly created U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2003. That event and the subsequent impact of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 forced a great deal of reevaluation of the structure of natural hazards planning and its relationship to the larger framework of disaster management in the United States. The framework that has emerged is important partly because the success or failure of U.S. models often has an outsized influence on international research and practices in the field of natural hazard risk reduction. That said, research on the evolution of planning frameworks in other nations, and under other circumstances, is important but requires careful comparisons. Every nation must respond to its own challenges.

Driven in large part by the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, the United States, mostly under the Obama administration, developed a National Preparedness Goal, released in 2011, that is supported by five frameworks addressing prevention, protection, response, disaster recovery, and mitigation. The National Mitigation Framework envelops federal responsibilities that are already embodied in the Disaster Mitigation Act and thus deal directly with planning for natural hazard risk reduction through the entire system of hazard mitigation plans. What is important about this from a comparative international perspective is the way in which, over time and in response to significant disasters both natural and man-made, the United States adopted a policy and administrative framework that fits hazard mitigation into a larger all-hazards scheme that includes all aspects of the emergency management cycle.

By comparison, Johnson and Olshansky (2017) showed that while many nations confronted with responding to and recovering from natural disasters have also adopted measures for managing those two aspects of the emergency management cycle, not all take the additional steps of developing a coherent and ongoing framework for sustaining a planning system for risk reduction, particularly through nationally consistent land-use approaches to hazard mitigation. They examined major disaster recovery experiences in China, Japan, Indonesia, India, and New Zealand, in addition to the United States. In much of the world, it appears that a systematic approach to pre-disaster risk reduction remains an undeveloped or underdeveloped frontier of professional and political activity.

Integration of Climate Change Into Local Hazard Planning

One area in which there is considerable ferment across the world concerns the ways in which communities seek to address the exacerbation of existing natural hazards resulting from climate change. This activity is known as climate change adaptation, as opposed to climate mitigation, which focuses on ways to forestall climate change by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Understandably, coastal communities were often the earliest to take an interest in adaptation because of the anticipated impacts of sea level rise, which have clear potential impacts on coastal land-use patterns. Nonetheless, changing patterns of precipitation, including more frequent high-precipitation storms and prolonged drought—with potential cascading impacts such as wildfire and mudslides—have risk-reduction implications for many inland communities as well.

Despite advances, U.S. researchers found that adaptation planning activities in coastal areas “generally occur in an ad hoc manner” dictated by local needs and adaptation drivers (Burkett & Davidson, 2012). Although a field of specialization in climate adaptation is emerging in the United States, it still faces significant challenges in achieving maturity as a profession, and its relationship to planning remained an evolving question as of 2018 (Moser, Coffee, & Seville, 2017). In short, this remained a rapidly changing area of activity. Moreover, despite the Trump administration’s withdrawal of the United States in June 2017 from the Paris Climate Accords, many cities continued to pursue their own climate initiatives independent of administration policy.

The Trump administration in August 2017 rescinded one initiative of the previous Obama presidency, established by Executive Order 13690, called the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS), which, among other objectives, established usable criteria regarding the incorporation of climate change data in assessing flood risk for federally supported projects. FFRMS had received strong support from hazards planning advocates including ASFPM. Despite its limitation to flood-related projects with federal involvement, it established criteria usable by other jurisdictions.

One of the most prominent examples of local integration of climate adaptation into the process of planning for risk reduction remains the Baltimore Disaster Preparedness and Planning Project (DP3), which combines climate adaptation planning with this Maryland coastal city’s 2013 local hazard mitigation plan (City of Baltimore, 2013). Other cities, such as New York, undertook activities both before and after Hurricane Sandy to integrate climate concerns and green infrastructure into routine planning. In New York, this included one major planning study for waterfront mitigation and adaptation (New York Department of City Planning, 2013b) and one addressing urban design in densely built areas subject to coastal flooding (New York Department of City Planning, 2013a). In southeastern Florida, four counties that include Miami and the Florida Keys banded together to form the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact (2012) to address the numerous threats posed by sea level rise and increased coastal storm intensity.

Overall, however, despite some movement within the Obama administration toward including climate-related concerns in natural hazard risk reduction planning—for example, through guidance for local hazard mitigation plans—such movement at the federal level essentially ceased with the arrival of the Trump presidency. For the foreseeable future in the United States, the initiative remains at the local level (and probably in an ad hoc manner) with the rare exception of state-level guidance. California is by far the most aggressive in this regard. The State of California requires an assessment of climate change in local comprehensive plans, accompanied by broad goals and policies connecting those findings to land use, infrastructure, and other facets of community development (California Department of Justice, 2018). However, these are primarily focused on greenhouse gas emissions rather than climate adaptation, but Cal-Adapt, a state agency, provides synthesized climate data that can assist with the latter task.

It is certainly clear that planning professional organizations have weighed in on the need to introduce climate change adaptation into community planning. In the United States, the American Planning Association’s Hazards Planning Center began in 2015 to work in partnership in with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on major projects to develop models and guidance in this field, partnering with ASFPM in one case to focus on planning for municipal capital improvements in coastal communities. The Canadian Institute of Planners (n.d.) has a Model Standard of Practice related to climate change that deals with both mitigation and adaptation. The United Kingdom’s Royal Town Planning Institute has a Statement of Commitments on Climate Change, and Planning Institute Australia (2015) has a policy statement on climate change that includes adaptation planning.

The European Union has a European Climate Adaptation Platform, with a series of national strategies for climate adaptation. France, for instance, adopted a National Adaptation Strategy (ONERC, 2007) that includes provisions for addressing the issue in regional and local plans. The United Kingdom provides guidance under its National Planning Policy Framework, through the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (2018) that lays out expectations for local plans regarding both mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. Local U.K. plans are reviewed for compliance with national policy. Under the Climate Change Act 2008 (most of which focuses on climate change mitigation), the British government produced a National Adaptation Programme (HM Government, 2013) that includes sections dealing with spatial planning and infrastructure. Germany has its own strategy (Federal Cabinet, 2008), though it does not mention applications to local plans. What often seems to be missing is a systematic approach to incorporating climate adaptation in a larger system of natural hazard risk reduction planning at subnational levels of government. Since the European Union is a compact among sovereign nations, there is at least as much variation in the application of planning concepts as one typically finds at the state level in the United States. Simply put, some nations have taken more aggressive steps toward risk reduction and climate adaptation than others.


Planning systems for natural hazard risk reduction involve a wide range of diverse activities, with considerable variation around the world. With the growth of concerns about climate change influencing both the nature and level of risk to communities, the level of complexity in this field is rising. Unsurprisingly, the field is far more advanced in developed than in developing nations, in large part because of much higher levels of governmental resources, even though serious environmental risks abound in many poorer parts of the world. Matching resources and political will with the scope of the problems being confronted is far from an easy task.

With that said, there are several areas of concern that involve varying combinations of strengths and weaknesses in this field, and questions that need further research and practical development.

How best to ensure adequate attention to risk reduction in regional and community planning. The extensive set of U.S. examples serves to illustrate an ongoing tension between standalone hazard mitigation plans and the need to integrate risk reduction into more routine aspects of community planning, including elements such as transportation and land use. There is no easy answer to this question, but there is an ongoing search for balance that takes different forms in different nations, depending on the statutory framework, if any, supporting such planning. It is safe to say that in most of the world, that framework is either entirely lacking or lax and unspecific. Still, there are ongoing experiments with raising the profile of risk reduction planning that offer models from which others can learn. It is also clear that the most advanced models have been driven by necessity, but necessity does not always guarantee a political response.

How best to adapt to new and exacerbated hazards resulting from climate change. International agreements such as the Paris Climate Accords have certainly brought the world’s attention to climate change but not necessarily to a full understanding of the level of adaptation required to respond to future threats from natural hazards. Fully assessing hazards induced by climate change over the coming half-century, the minimum time during which most new development and infrastructure must be expected to withstand future climate conditions, has not happened yet in most communities even in the most affluent nations. The Baltimore example of a combined climate adaptation and local hazard mitigation plan is a distinct exception, outlining the frontier of such planning, even in the United States. The ideas developed in national policies must filter down to local planning initiatives if this effort is to engender significant results in coming years.

Distinguishing land-use planning from emergency management. Risk reduction through hazard mitigation is fundamentally an activity for land-use and transportation planners. It is not well suited to the typical training for emergency managers. Shifting focus toward the land-use implications of most natural hazard threats, including requirements for stricter building codes to address seismic, wind, and some wildfire hazards, involves both changes of perception concerning professional responsibilities among the related fields of practice and a greater understanding of the long-term implications of many development decisions. It is not that one profession needs to squeeze out the other; it is a need for much greater collaboration in order to ensure a more comprehensive grasp of the underlying structural issues governing the endeavor.

Accounting adequately for interactive disaster threats. Complicating the foregoing issues is the need to anticipate and adequately mitigate cascading hazards (i.e., those events that are predictable or logical consequences of preceding disasters). Two contrasting examples will suffice to make the point. One is the Tohoku earthquake that struck northern Japan in 2011. Its intensity (9.0 on the Richter scale) spawned a tsunami that then struck the Japanese coast, causing massive damage in low-lying communities and, in turn, overwhelming the protective systems at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, triggering a radioactive disaster. The cumulative damages have been estimated at US$169 billion (¥16.9 trillion) (Johnson & Olshansky, 2017). Anticipating such a worst-case scenario is hard enough; planning for it in the face of disbelief (until it happens) is even tougher, and the massive sea walls and relocation necessary to assure safety pose serious challenges in marshaling needed resources. On a smaller scale, the U.S. state of Colorado, in the Rocky Mountains, experienced a mountain monsoon in September 2013 that produced devastating flash floods in communities along the Front Range. Some of the impact can be traced to the impact in prior years of prolonged drought and wildfires that scorched hillside vegetation, thus exacerbating the scouring impact of overflowing mountain streams and rivers. Again, linking these events in a sober assessment of the combined impacts of such a worst-case scenario, as a prelude to serious hazard mitigation proposals and preparation for future post-disaster recovery, requires a daunting but not impossible combination of imagination, persuasion, and political leadership.

Learning and sharing internationally. One of the most glaring aspects of any assessment of the state of the art of planning systems for natural hazard risk reduction is the huge disparity in skills, resources, and political will both within and among nations, ranging from the desperate situations of nations such as Haiti and parts of Africa and Asia to the growing academic and professional knowledge available in Japan, North America, and Europe. The growing ease of access to information via the Internet and the sharing of experiences by researchers and practitioners in international conferences is encouraging, but there is also an obvious race against time to disseminate and facilitate best practices and win the attention of the political leaders and policymakers whose support is critical to creating the bureaucratic infrastructure necessary to support widespread risk reduction planning for natural hazards at all levels of government.

Further Reading

Bullock, J. A., Haddow, G. D., & Haddow, K. S. (Eds.). (2009). Global warming, natural hazards, and emergency management. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.Find this resource:

Bullock, J. A., Haddow, G. D., Haddow, K. S., & Coppola, D. P. (Eds.). (2016). Living with climate change: How communities are surviving and thriving in a changing climate. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.Find this resource:

Burby, R. (Ed.). (1998). Cooperating with nature: Confronting natural hazards with land-use planning for sustainable communities. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press.Find this resource:

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). (2013). Integrating hazard mitigation into local planning: Case studies and tools for community officials. Washington, DC: FEMA.Find this resource:

Freitag, B., Bolton, S., Westerlund, F., & Clark, J. L. S. (2009). Floodplain management: A new approach for a new era. Washington, DC: Island Press.Find this resource:

Glavovic, B., Saunders, W. S. A., & Becker, J. S. (2010). Land-use planning for natural hazards in New Zealand: The setting, barriers, ‘burning issues’ and priority actions. Natural Hazards, 54, 679–706.Find this resource:

Glavovic, B., & Smith, G. P. (Eds.). (2014). Adapting to climate change: Lessons from natural hazards planning. New York, NY: Springer.Find this resource:

Masterson, J. (2014). Planning for community resilience: A handbook for reducing vulnerability to disasters. Washington, DC: Island Press.Find this resource:

National Academies. (2012). Disaster resilience: A national imperative. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.Find this resource:

National Institute of Building Sciences. (2017). Natural hazard mitigation saves: 2017 Interim Report. Washington, DC: National Institute of Building Sciences.Find this resource:

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). (2016). Community resilience planning guide for buildings and infrastructure systems (2 vols.). NIST Special Publication 1190. Gaithersburg, MD: NIST.Find this resource:

Schwab, J. C. (Ed.). (2010). Hazard mitigation: Integrating best practices into planning. Planning Advisory Service Report 560. Chicago, IL: American Planning Association.Find this resource:

Thaler, T., & Hartmann, T. (2016). Justice and flood risk management: Reflecting on different approaches to distribute and allocate flood risk management in Europe. Natural Hazards, 83, 129–147.Find this resource:

Uitto, J. I., & Shaw, R. (Eds.). (2016). Sustainable development and disaster risk reduction: Methods, approaches, and practices. Tokyo, Japan: Springer.Find this resource:


Amdahl, G. (2001). Disaster response: GIS for public safety. Redlands, CA: ESRI Press.Find this resource:

Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM). (2003). No adverse impact: A toolkit for common sense floodplain management. Madison, WI: ASFPM.Find this resource:

Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM). (2014). ASFPM analysis of the Homeowners Flood Insurance Affordability Act.

Bay of Plenty Regional Council. (n.d.). Natural hazard risk assessment user guide: Regional policy statement for the Bay of Plenty.

Blakely, E. J., & Carbonell, A. (Eds.). (2012). Resilient coastal city regions: Planning for climate change in the United States and Australia. Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.Find this resource:

Bullard, R. D., & Wright, B. (Eds.). (2009). Race, place, and environmental justice after Hurricane Katrina. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.Find this resource:

Burkett, V., & Davidson, M. (2012). Coastal impacts, adaptation, and vulnerabilities: A technical input to the 2013 National Climate Assessment. Washington, DC: Island Press.Find this resource:

State of California Department of Justice. (2018). CEQA and General Planning. Oakland: State of California Department of Justice.Find this resource:

Campanella, R. (2002). Time and place in New Orleans: Past geographies in the present day. Gretna, LA: Pelican.Find this resource:

Canadian Institute of Planners. (n.d.). Model standard of practice for climate change planning. Ottawa: Canadian Institute of Planners.Find this resource:

Chrisman, N. (2006). Charting the unknown: How computer mapping at Harvard became GIS. Redlands, CA: ESRI Press.Find this resource:

City of Baltimore. (2013). Disaster preparedness and planning project: A combined all hazards mitigation and climate adaptation plan. Baltimore, MD: Baltimore Sustainability.Find this resource:

Council of Australian Governments. (2011). National strategy for disaster resilience. Canberra, Australia: Council of Australian Governments.Find this resource:

Cutter, S., Boruff, B. J., & Shirley, W. L. (2003). Social vulnerability to environmental hazards. Social Science Quarterly, 84(2), 242–261.Find this resource:

Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000. (2000). Public Law 106–390. Washington, DC: FEMA.Find this resource:

Federal Cabinet, Federal Republic of Germany. (2008). German strategy for adaptation to climate change. Berlin: Federal Republic of Germany.Find this resource:

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). (2013). Integrating hazard mitigation into local planning: Case studies and tools for community officials. Washington, DC: FEMA.Find this resource:

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). (2017a). National Flood Insurance Program community rating system coordinator’s manual. FIA-15/2017. Washington, DC: FEMA.Find this resource:

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). (2017b). Significant flood events. Washington, DC: FEMA.Find this resource:

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). (2018a). Hazard mitigation plan status. Washington, DC: FEMA.Find this resource:

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). (2018b). Hazus. Washington, DC: FEMA.Find this resource:

FEMA, Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration. (2017). Fact sheet: Community rating system. Washington, DC: FEMA.Find this resource:

Fekete, A. (2009). Validation of a social vulnerability index in context to river-floods in Germany. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, 9, 393–403.Find this resource:

Freitag, B., Bolton, S., Westerlund, F., & Clark, J. L. S. (2009). Floodplain management: A new approach for a new era. Washington, DC: Island Press.Find this resource:

Gilbert, S. W., Butry, D. T., Helgeson, J. F., & Chapman, R. E. (2015). Community resilience economic decision guide for buildings and infrastructure systems. NIST Special Publication 1197. Washington, DC: National Institute of Standards and Technology, U.S. Department of Commerce.Find this resource:

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