Urban Resilience in Disaster-Prone Areas

International Graduate Summer Course 5 – 27 June 2014

A farmer under the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption in 2010 continues to plow his field

A farmer under the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption in 2010 continues to plow his field


Iceland is a disaster prone country with extreme weather that causes floods, landslides, and avalanches as well as tragic accidents on sea and land.  Iceland is also the most seismically active region in Northern Europe and has a long historical catalogue of damaging earthquakes.  The country is also notorious for its volcanic activity: its latest volcanic eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 caused massive disruption to air travel across western and northern Europe.

Resilience is the ability of a community to weather and quickly recover from natural disasters.  Community resilience is a combination of hazard mitigation, disaster preparedness, disaster response, and recovery.  As a disaster prone country, Icelandic society has developed institutions and policies that create resilience in the face of disaster.  As a small country, Iceland is an excellent real-world laboratory for studying societal preparation for and response to natural disasters.

Glacial flooding during the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption. To save the bridge the road was cut to relieve the pressure of the advancing flood.

Glacial flooding during the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption. To save the bridge the road was cut to relieve the pressure of the advancing flood.

Course Description

This course continues the line of international summer courses held at the Earthquake Engineering Research Centre, University of Iceland, on natural hazards.   Although oriented to focus on the interaction between the social and natural worlds, this course focuses especially on the way in which decision-makers manage disaster risk and post-disaster recovery in order to strengthen their communities’ resilience.  The course is tailor-made for students who want to make crisis management, public governance and/or policy making as their profession whether they have background in technical or social sciences. Students from physical sciences are also welcomed to participate. Urban risk and disasters are multidimensional challenges demanding multidisciplinary approaches. The responses of communities that have been devastated by natural disasters are strongly influenced by social interactions. In efforts to prevent or prepare for disasters, communities have developed and implemented technical solutions along with risk management strategies.

Relevance of the Course

Current trends demonstrate an increase in the frequency and severity of disasters worldwide. As documented by EM-DAT, the International Disaster Database of the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (http://www.emdat.be/), the annual number of disasters around the world rose steadily from 1975 through the end of twentieth century as shown in Figure 2.1. And the costs of damage caused by natural hazards kept rising as well. Annually, disasters triggered by hydrological and geological hazards devastate entire communities, causing social disruption and requiring huge infusions of money and years of recovery. Smith, 2004; Perrow, 1999; Murphy, 2009). Such paradoxs of modern societies challenge science and scientific explanation of the reconfiguration of disasters. The longstanding idea of natural disasters as events driven by natural forces, where human influence is nothing more than casual, kept us from systematically recognizing the increasing influence of human agency on disaster configuration. In conditions of modernity, human action expanded through several facets of the biophysical world and nature became highly subordinated to human plans. Based on technological innovation, natural resources were systematically transformed and consumed in a frenetic pace. In addition to the exponential world demographic growth, societies have become highly urbanized. Cities, transformed into poles of attraction of populations, enlarged dramatically. They became huge built landscapes functioning as important basins of employment, services and economic activity.

Figure 1.




Figure 2.


This human expansion through every facet of the biophysical world transformed nature’s dynamics and the patterns of human vulnerability towards environmental extremes. Societies became deeply implicated both on disaster causation and the configuration of its impacts. Science has been slow to integrate the socially constructed side of the natural hazards and the idea of such events as externally caused is still dominant. A thorough advance on the development of an integrated scientific approach to such phenomenon implies:

  • A distinct and shared vision of the relationship between society and nature in modern times;
  • A distinct and shared conceptualization of disaster;
  • A distinct and shared vision of the modes of coping with natural hazards and build resilience.

This Course will be an opportunity for students to learn about human agency implied on disaster configuration. Such understanding will become essential if we want to clarify how modern societies and urban settings can build resilience toward environmental hazards.  For the accomplishment of such general purpose, the Course is structured to benefit from social science contribution and longstanding research tradition on the subject of environmental issues, risk, and disaster.


Anthony, O. (2004) Theorizing vulnerability in a globalized world: a political ecological perspective. In   Mapping         vulnerability: disasters, development & people, ed. Bankoff, G. Frerks G., and Hilhorst, D. VA: Sterling.
Perrow, C. (1999) Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies. New Jersey:  Princeton University Press.                                                                                                                                                                                          Colleen, M. (2009). “Capabilities-based Approach to Measuring the Societal Impacts of Natural and Man-made Hazards in Risk Analysis.” Natural Hazards Review 10.2



The Course aims at providing knowledge to students around the following subjects:

  • The interdependency of society, culture and nature in the configuration of vulnerability and disaster;
  • The most common disruptive consequences of natural hazards highlighting why disaster damages are growing so large in contemporary societies (particular attention to urban settings
  • How societies deal with natural hazards and how public policy and risk management can be oriented in order to promote community resilience.


Course Duration

The course begins Thursday 5 June and ends 27 June 2014. Students should aim to b in Selfoss no later than Wednesday 4 June


Course Structure and Contents

The Course is structured in three modules (M): Societal Risk Management, Society and Nature, and Disaster Recovery. Each module comprehends a set of themes.

M1 – Societal Risk Governance

  • Risk perception
  • Risk reduction
  • Risk communication
  • Public policy and risk management
  • Ethics and risk management
  • Resiliency planning, risk management tools

M2 – Society, Vulnerability and Planning

  • Social vulnerability assessment
  • Mitigation of seismic risk through land-use planning
  • Urban modeling for seismic prone areas – case study
  • Natural disasters in urban settings – case studies

M3 – Disaster Recovery

  • Recovery planning
  • Adaptatation and Change



A unique aspect of the course (and well appreciated by our former students) is the “classroom-on-wheels”, where we make the most out of being situated in South Iceland, a region of seismic and volcanic activity. This learning opportunity involves the course participants and instructors interacting during field-trips. The course is also supported by local communities in the South Lowland that can share the challenging experience of local governance in communities located in a disaster-prone area. Detailed plan for the field trips will be sent to students in May.

Assignments and Evaluation Method 

Students’ performance will be evaluated based on assignments and participation in class exercises and discussions. They will be asked to write two short papers reflecting on the readings and discussion in class. Students will also be asked to “become” consultants to local authorities by applying the course content to formulation of their recommendations. In their third paper they will report on their analysis and recommendation.




  • Short papers


  • Report


  • Participation in Class






Key practical information

Students in the classroom at the Earthquake Engineering Research Centre in Selfoss, during the summer course in 2012

  • This is an official 7.5 ECTS course of the University of Iceland, School of Engineering and Natural Sciences, Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and is fully accredited.
  • The “Earthquake Engineering Research Center” (Rannsóknarmiðstöð í jarðskjálftaverkfræði) will supervise the overall program and is responsible for the course content and academic requirements
  • Taking advantage of Iceland´s unique natural field laboratories, the course is taught in intensive mode on location at the Earthquake Engineering Research Centre in the town of Selfoss, in the South Iceland Seismic Zone (SISZ, see figure at right)
  • This is a paid course. The course fee is 1690 euros per student. The course fee covers
    • registration to the University of Iceland
    • tuition
    • course material
    • wireless internet
    • access to required software

    • accommodation in Selfoss, South Iceland, provided by the EERC
  • The course is taught in English and students must be able to demonstrate English proficiency, both written and verbal.
  • A limited number of students (10-15) will be accepted to the course. Each student’s application will be considered and evaluated before a decision is made on acceptance to the course. All applications are evaluated on the basis of academic qualifications and expected fit to the subject, and without regard to race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age, etc
  • This is a graduate course. Thus an undergraduate university degree (B.S., B.Sc., B.A. etc) is a minimum requirement.
  • Students will receive a grade for the course upon completion. The grade will be constructed from the evaluation of students’ assignments and class participation.
  • Students are expected to bring a personal computer (laptop) for use during the course.

Aftershock locations in Ölfus after the M6.3 Ölfus earthquake of 29 May 2008, which occurred on the two parallel faults (red lines) in between the towns of Hveragerði and Selfoss, in the South Iceland Seismic Zone (SISZ). The earthquake is to date the most expensive natural disaster in Iceland.

Figure note: Aftershock locations in Ölfus after the M6.3 Ölfus earthquake of 29 May 2008, which occurred on the two parallel faults (red lines) in between the towns of Hveragerði and Selfoss, in the South Iceland Seismic Zone (SISZ). The earthquake is to date the most expensive natural disaster in Iceland.