This is an outdated version published on 2021-05-26. Read the most recent version.

Seeking Shelter: How Housing and Urban Exclusion Shape Exurban Disaster


  • Miriam Greenberg University of California Santa Cruz, Department of Sociology



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.


Aalbers, M. (2016). The Financialization of Housing: A Political Economy Approach. London: Routledge.

Agyeman, J. (2013). Introducing Just Sustainabilities: Policy, Planning, and Practice. London: Zed Books.

Ahmed, S., Dávila, J.D, Allen, A., Haklay, M., Tacoli, C., & Fèvre, E.M. (2019). Does Urbanization Make Emergence of Zoonosis More Likely? Evidence, Myths and Gaps. Environment and Urbanization, 31(2), 443–460.

Aldana Cohen, D. (2017). The Other Low Carbon Protagonists: Poor People’s Movements and Climate Politics in Sao Paulo. In M. Greenberg & P. Lewis (Eds.), The City Is the Factory: New Solidarities and Spatial Strategies in an Urban Age(pp. 140–157). Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Alirol, E., Getaz, L., Stoll, B., Chappuis, F., Loutan, L. (2011). Urbanisation and Infectious Diseases in a Globalised World. Lancet Infectious Disease, 11(2), 131–141.

Allen, A. (2003). Environmental Planning and Management of the Peri-Urban Interface: Perspectives on an Emerging Field. Environment and Urbanization, 15(1), 135–148.

Anderson, M.K. (2006). The Use of Fire by Native Americans in California. In N.G. Sugihara, J.W. van Wagtendonk, & K.E. Shaffer (Eds.), Fire in California’s Ecosystems(pp. 417–430). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Angelo, H. (2016). From the City Lens toward Urbanisation as a Way of Seeing: Country/City Binaries on an Urbanising Planet.Urban Studies, 54(1), 158–178.

Anguelovski, I., Shi, L., Chu, E., Gallagher, D., Goh, K., Lamb, Z., Reeve, K., & Teicher, H. (2016). Equity Impacts of Urban Land Use Planning for Climate Adaptation: Critical Perspectives from the Global North and South. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 36(3), 333–348.

Anguiano, D. (2020). Trauma, Fear, Homelessness: Life after California’s Deadliest Fire Shows the Future of Climate Crisis. The Guardian, 9 September.

Barrington-Leigh, C. & Millard-Ball, A. (2015). A Century of Sprawl in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(27), 8244–8249.

Benfer, E.A. (2015). Health Justice: A Framework (and Call to Action) for the Elimination of Health Inequity and Social Injustice. American University Law Review, 65(2), 275–351. Available at:

Berube, A., Singer, A., Wilson, J.H., & Frey, W.H. (2006). Finding Exurbia: America’s Fast-Growing Communities at the Metropolitan Fringe. The Brookings Institution.

Best, L. (2020). The Ecological Roots of Pandemics. Council on Foreign Relations.

Biggs, D., Biggs, R., Dakos, V., Scholes, R.J., & Schoon, M. (2011). Are We Entering an Era of Concatenated Global Crises?. Ecology and Society, 16(2), 27.

Brenner, N. (2016). The Hinterland Urbanised?. Architectural Design, 86(4), 118–127.

Brenner, N. & Schmid, C. (2014). The “Urban Age” in Question. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38(3), 731–755.

Burke, M., Driscoll, A., Heft-Neal, S., Xue, J., Burney, J., & Wara, M. (2021). The Changing Risk and Burden of Wildfire in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 118

(2), e2011048118.

Cal Fire. (2020). Top 20 Most Destructive California Wildfires. Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Capps, K. (2017). In California, Landlords Threaten Immigrant Tenants with Deportations. Bloomberg CityLab

, 5 April.

Chapple, K. (2007). Transit-Oriented for All: The Case for Mixed-Income Transit-Oriented Communities in the Bay Area. Reconnecting America.

Checker, M. (2011). Wiped Out by the Green Wave: Environmental Gentrification and the Paradoxical Politics of Urban Sustainability. City & Society, 23(2), 201–229.

Connolly, C., Keil, R., & Harris Ali, S. (2021). Extended Urbanisation and the Spatialities of Infectious Disease: Demographic Change, Infrastructure and Governance. Urban Studies, 58(2), 245–263.

Cruz, I.C. (2021). The Inequities of COVID: Why Has South County Been Impacted So Disproportionately?. Lookout Local Santa Cruz.

Davis, M. (1995). The Case for Letting Malibu Burn. Environmental History Review, 19(2), 1–36.

Drexler, M. (2002). Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press.

Duminy, J., & Parnell, S. (2020). City Science: A Chaotic Concept. And an Enduring Imperative. Planning Theory & Practice, 21(4), 648–655.

Elliott, R. (2021). Underwater: Loss, Flood Insurance, and the Moral Economy of Climate Change in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press.

Escobar, A. (2020). Pluriversal Politics: The Real and the Possible. Durham: Duke University Press.

Fan, Y., Zhao, K., Shi, Z., & Zhou, P. (2019). Bat Coronaviruses in China. Viruses, 11(3), 210.

Florida, R. (2020). The Geography of Coronavirus. Bloomberg CityLab, 3 April.

Frank, D. (2020). Wildfires Rage, COVID Spreads: In California, Life As We Knew It Has Disappeared. The Guardian, 3 September.

Freudenberg N., Galea, S., & Vlahov, D. (2005) Beyond Urban Penalty and Urban Sprawl: Back to Living Conditions as the Focus of Urban Health. Journal of Community Health, 30(1), 1–11.

Garrett, L. (1994). The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. London: Penguin.

Gotham, K.F., & Greenberg, M. (2014). Crisis Cities: Disaster and Redevelopment in New York and New Orleans. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Greenberg, M. (2017). Radical Ruptures: Crisis Organizing and the Spatial Politics of Uneven Redevelopment. In M. Greenberg & P. Lewis (Eds.), The City Is the Factory: New Solidarities and Spatial Strategies in an Urban Age. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Greenberg, M., Mckay, S., & Sirigotis, J. (2021). No Place like Home: The Affordable Housing Crisis in Santa Cruz County. UCSC Institute for Social Transformation.

Harris Ali, S., & Keil, R. (Eds.). (2008). Networked Disease: Emerging Infections in the Global City. Malden: Blackwell.

Hassell, J.M., Begon, M., Ward, M.J., & Fèvre, E.M. (2017). Urbanization and Disease Emergence: Dynamics at the Wildlife-Livestock-Human Interface. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 32(1), 55–67.

Healey, J. (2020). “2020 Can Go to Hell”: The Story Behind the Viral Fire Photo That Said It All. The New York Times, 26 August.

Henderson, S.B. (2020). The COVID-19 Pandemic and Wildfire Smoke: Potentially Concomitant Disasters. American Journal of Public Health, 110(8), 1140–1142.

Huifeng, H. (2020). Why Wuhan Is So Important to China’s Economy and the Potential Impact of the Coronavirus. South China Morning Post, 24 January.

Isaacs-Thomas, I. (2020). California’s Catastrophic Wildfires in 3 Charts. Pbs Newshour, 14 September.

Kaup, B.Z. (2018). The Making of Lyme Disease: A Political Ecology of Ticks and Tick-Borne Illness in Virginia. Environmental Sociology, 4(3), 381–391.

Kneebone, E., & Garr, E. (2010). The Suburbanization of Poverty: Trends in Metropolitan America, 2000 to 2008. Brookings Institution.

Kramer, H.A., Mockrin, M.H., Alexandre, P.M., & Radeloff, V.C. (2019). High Wildfire Damage in Interface Communities in California. International Journal of Wildland Fire, 28, 641-–650.

Lefebvre, H. (2003). The Urban Revolution(R. Bononno, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (Original work published 1970).

Madden, D. & Marcuse, P. (2016). In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis. London: Verso.

Marcuse, P. (1986). Abandonment, Gentrification and Displacement: The Linkages in New York City. In N. Smith & P. Williams (Eds.), Gentrification of the City(pp. 153–177). Crows Nest: Unwin Hyman.

Martinuzzi, S., Stewart, S.I., Helmers, D.P., Mockrin, M.H., Hammer, R.B., Radeloff, V.C. (2015). The 2010 Wildland-Urban Interface of the Conterminous United States. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station.

Mayer, J.D. (2000). Geography, Ecology and Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Social Science & Medicine, 50(7–-8), 937–952.

Modugno, S., Balzter, H., Cole, B., & Borrelli, P. (2016). Mapping Regional Patterns of Large Forest Fires in Wildland-Urban Interface Areas in Europe. Journal of Environmental Management, 172, 112–126.

Monroy, L. (2021). Disasters, Evacuations Don’t Slow Santa Cruz Mountains Housing Market. Good Times Santa Cruz, 16 February.

Phillips, C.A., Caldas, A., Cleetus, R., Dahl, K.A., Declet-Barreto, J., Licker, R., & Delta Merner, L. (2020). Compound Climate Risks in the COVID-19 Pandemic. Nature Climate Change, 10(7), 586–588.

Pollack, S., Bluestone, B., & Billingham, C. (2010). Maintaining Diversity in America’s Transit-Rich Neighborhoods: Tools for Equitable Neighborhood Change. Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.

Pyne, S.J. (2019). Fire: A Brief History(2nd ed.). Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Radeloff, V.C., Helmers, D.P., Anu Kramer, H., Mockrin, M.H., Alexandre, P.M., Massada, A.B., & Butsic, V. (2018). Rapid Growth of the Us Wildland-Urban Interface Raises Wildfire Risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(13), 3314–3319.

Reyes, R., Ahn, R., Thurber, K., & Burke, T.F. (2013). Urbanization and Infectious Diseases: General Principles, Historical Perspectives, and Contemporary Challenges. In I.W. Fong (Ed.), Challenges in Infectious Diseases: Emerging Infectious Diseases of the 21st Century(pp. 123–146). Berlin/Heidelberg: Springer.

Rolnik, R. (2019). Urban Warfare: Housing Under the Empire of Finance. London: Verso.

Rothstein, R. (2017). The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright.

Roy, A. (2019). Racial Banishment. In Antipode Editorial Collective, T. Jazeel, A. Kent, K. McKittrick, N. Theodore, S. Chari, P. Chatterton, V. Gidwani, N. Heynen, W. Larner, J. Peck, J. Pickerill, M. Werner, & M.W. Wright (Eds.), Keywords in Radical Geography: Antipode at 50(pp. 227–230).

Samara, T. (2014). Rise of the Renter Nation: Solutions to the Housing Affordability Crisis. Homes for All Campaign of the Right to the City Alliance.

Schafran, A. (2018). The Road to Resegregation: Northern California and the Failure of Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Schneider, A., & Woodcock, C.E. (2008). Compact, Dispersed, Fragmented, Extensive? A Comparison of Urban Growth in Twenty-Five Global Cities Using Remotely Sensed Data, Pattern Metrics and Census Information. Urban Studies,

45(3), 659–692.

Schwartz, A.F. (2014). Housing Policy in the United States(3rd ed.). London: Routledge.

Sengupta, S., & Popovich, N. (2020). Wildfire Smoke Is Poisoning California’s Kids. Some Pay a Higher Price. The New York Times, 27 November.

Shih, M.I. (2017). Rethinking Displacement in Peri-Urban Transformation in China. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 49(2), 389–406.

Singer, M., Bulled, N., Ostrach, B., & Mendenhall, E. (2017). Syndemics and the Biosocial Conception of Health. The Lancet, 389(10072), 941–950.

Smolinski, M.S., Hamburg, M.A., & Lederberg, J. (Eds.). (2003). Microbial Threats to Health: Emergence, Detection, and Response. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Stewart, S.I, Radeloff, V.C., Hammer, R.B., & Hawbaker, T.J. (2007). Defining the Wildland-Urban Interface. Journal of Forestry, 105(4), 201–207.

Syphard, A.D., & Keeley, J.E. (2015). Location, Timing and Extent of Wildfire Vary by Cause of Ignition. International Journal of Wildland Fire, 24(1), 37–47.

Syphard, A.D., & Keeley, J.E. (2020). Why Are So Many Structures Burning in California? Fremontia, 47(2), 28–35.

Syphard, A.D., Radeloff, V.C., Keeley, J.E., Hawbaker, T.J., Clayton, M.K., Stewart, S.I., & Hammer, R.B. (2007). Human Influence on California Fire Regimes. Ecological Applications, 17(5), 1388–1402.

Taiwo, O. (2020). Who Gets to Feel Secure?. Aeon.

Taylor, K.-Y. (2019). Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. Durham: University of North Carolina Press.

Taylor, L. (2011). No Boundaries: Exurbia and the Study of Contemporary Urban Dispersion. Geojournal,

76(4), 323–339.

Urban Displacement Project. (2019). Rising Housing Costs and Re-Segregation in the San Francisco Bay Area. Urban Displacement Project.

Wald, P. (2008). Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Durham: Duke University Press.

Wandl, A., & Magoni, M. (2019). Sustainable Planning of Peri-Urban Areas: Introduction to the Special Issue. Planning Practice & Research, 32(1), 1–3.

Williams, R. (1973). The Country and the City. London: Chatto.

Wilson, B., & Chakraborty, A. (2013). The Environmental Impacts of Sprawl: Emergent Themes from the past Decade of Planning Research. Sustainability, 5(8), 3302–3327.

Yiftachel, O. (2020). From Displacement to Displaceability: A Southeastern Perspective on the New Metropolis. City, 24(1--2), 151–165.





How to Cite

Greenberg, M. (2021). Seeking Shelter: How Housing and Urban Exclusion Shape Exurban Disaster . Sociologica, 15(1), 67–89.



Special Feature