Seeking Shelter: How Housing and Urban Exclusion Shape Exurban Disaster
Keywords:Affordable Housing, Urban Exclusion, Wildlands Urban Interface, Disaster, Sustainability
From extreme weather to infectious disease, disasters now arrive in ever more rapid succession, combining with and compounding one another with increasing complexity and potential for crisis. In this context I suggest a particularly important site for analysis and intervention: the chronic lack of affordable housing and broader processes of exclusion now prevalent in cities around the world. These dynamics, I argue, help drive increasing movement to and development in interface zones between urban, rural, and undeveloped areas. In so doing, they also are implicated in a range of “exurban disasters”, including wildfires and infectious disease, and in the broader crises these disasters generate for vulnerable populations. The article develops this relational argument across three moments. First, I posit contemporary dynamics of housing crisis and urban exclusion, which prevent people from finding adequate shelter in cities, as key drivers of displacement and settlement across various framings of urban interface zones — from the Wildlands Urban Interface [WUI] to the peri-urban fringe. I then explore how the increasingly forced settlement in these zones — themselves destabilized by prior processes of settler colonialism, neoliberal land-use planning, and climate change — contribute to both environmental and health related disasters. Here I focus on two contemporary cases: catastrophic wildfire in the WUI of California, and the emergence of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 in peri-urban regions of China. Finally, with a focus on California, I explore how, once health and environmental disasters land and combine within a single location, inadequate housing increases the likelihood of multiple forms of exposure and susceptibility — e.g. to toxic smoke, respiratory ailments, and COVID. In conclusion, I argue for increased focus on the role of housing crises and urban exclusion in both the origins and outcomes of disaster. More scholarly and political work is needed that bridges city and hinterland, linking disaster research to critical approaches in housing studies and urban political ecology, together with wildfire ecology, epidemiology, and environmental stewardship.
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