Author(s): Angelo Verzoni, Jesse Roman. Published on November 22, 2021.

Ultra Urban

Around the world, a vast rural-to-urban migration is underway that will add billions of people to cities in developing nations over the next few decades. What can the safety community do to improve construction practices for millions of new buildings, and what innovations can it offer to protect the planet’s most vulnerable populations from fire and other disasters?


Listen to a related NFPA Podcast 

, an international aid and investment organization, published a 132-page report that offered an astonishing preview of an impending global building spree. “New urban development between 2015 and 2030 will exceed all previous urban development throughout history,” the report predicted. “Of the area expected to be urbanized by 2030, 60 percent remains to be built, primarily in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Fueling the surge, experts say, will be a mass human migration away from rural villages to burgeoning mega-cities as people seek jobs, housing, and medical care, and as they attempt to escape poverty and climate disasters. By 2050, the United Nations estimates that these cities will add 2.5 billion people—nearly the entire combined populations of present-day China and India—and will double in area. A staggering 90 percent of that growth will occur in Africa and Asia, mostly in countries that the World Bank now defines as low- and middle-income. As a result, cities in these generally impoverished regions are expected to grow magnitudes larger than any urban areas currently in existence. 


Read more about the World Bank Group’s Building Regulation for Resilience Program

Watch a video on the Building Regulation for Resilience Program

Read the World Bank’s “Urban Fire Regulatory Assessment & Mitigation Evaluation Diagnostic” report

Read the World Bank’s building regulatory capacity assessment for the African nation of Malawi

Read the report, “Population predictions for the world’s largest cities in the 21st century”

Read the UN report, “World Urbanization Prospects”

Watch a short film about a 2017 fire that destroyed thousands of homes in Imizamo Yethu, an informal settlement in Cape Town, South Africa

Listen to a podcast and read an NFPA Journal article about a project to install smoke alarms in an informal settlement in South Africa

Read an interview from NFPA Journal about pre-venting fires in informal settlements and refugee camps

Read the International Building Quality Center’s report, “Guidelines and Principals for the Development of Building Regulations in Low Income Countries”

The Nigerian city of Lagos, for example, already the eighth-largest metro area in the world, could number 85 to 100 million residents by 2100, according to a population model developed by researchers at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. African cities that today barely register to most Westerners—Kinshasa, Dar es Salaam, Khartoum, Niamey, Nairobi—could all have populations greater than 40 million by 2100, which would make them larger than today’s Tokyo, currently the world’s most populated city at about 37.3 million. Even sleepy cities like Lilongwe and Blantyre, both in the small African nation of Malawi, could grow from barely a million residents to the size of present-day New York (about 9 million) by 2075, according to the Canadian model. Meanwhile, the Asian cities of Dhaka, Karachi, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Delhi are each expected to surpass 30 million residents by 2030 and number 50 to 60 million by the end of the century. Under such a scenario, the UN predicts that the building stock in cities in low- and middle-income countries will double by 2050, further expanding and complicating an already-sprawling urban landscape.

For the global safety community concerned with fire and disaster risk, including NFPA, the scale and pace of this urbanization and accompanying development create a daunting challenge—but they also carry enormous potential. In its 2016 report, the World Bank Group described the present moment as a “window of opportunity” to ensure that future urban development is created with greater resilience to withstand environmental hazards such as sea-level rise and drought, as well as chronic disasters including fires and building collapses. The report also announced a new program designed to help governments adopt more robust regulation and enforcement strategies ahead of the anticipated building boom.

Meanwhile, various groups are now working to find viable solutions to adopt standards and bolster safety in notoriously disaster-prone informal settlements, including slums, which are now home to a quarter of the world’s urban population and will likely account for a much larger share by the next century. Multinational corporations and nonprofits have also banded together to try to improve safety for the millions of workers who toil in substandard factories prone to fire and collapse. As millions more people pour into cities looking for work, current problems like worker exploitation, overcrowding, and lax safety practices could grow worse if better rules and means of intervention are not in place.

To succeed, these efforts must overcome myriad entrenched problems that have thwarted previous attempts to enhance safety in developing cities. The single biggest obstacle is poverty, which experts say permeates every aspect of daily life and shapes the priorities of governments and residents.

“In so many of these cities, people are worried about shelter, clean water, and whether they’ll have enough food to get through the next day—frankly, fire safety isn’t at the top of the list for a lot of people,” said Brian Meacham, whose fire engineering firm, Meacham Associates, has consulted for the World Bank and governments around the globe. “And for governments, it’s the same issue—they don’t have the resources to address all the risks and hazards they face, so many things you or I might think are important, like fire safety, aren’t that high on the agenda. Sometimes even regulating building construction isn’t that high.”

As urban populations multiply, these challenges and others will only grow. And yet, the window of opportunity remains open, experts say, to influence the future development of thousands of square miles of still unbuilt cityscapes while also strengthening the existing built environment. As people live and work in greater densities than ever before, and with natural disasters including storms, droughts, and floods predicted to become stronger and more frequent in the coming decades, the choices made now will have serious consequences for billions of city-dwellers for generations to come.

Challenges in the formal built environment

Metropolises of the developing world contain universes unto themselves. Sprawling for sometimes hundreds of square miles, they are often a jumbled, chaotic mix of structures, where high-rise luxury hotels overlook vast shantytowns of ramshackle dwellings cobbled together from scraps of plywood and corrugated metal.

For underfunded local government agencies charged with overseeing this mass of structures, regulatory and enforcement challenges exist everywhere. While building in informal settlements happens generally beyond the oversight of government building departments, the construction of everything else—the so-called “formal” development, from high-rise offices and apartment blocks to multifamily homes, warehouses, and hotels—is, at least in theory, supposed to follow some form of government regulatory process. Like everything in these dynamic urban environments, however, nothing is quite so black and white.

Regulations that apply to the formal built environment can be wildly inconsistent and haphazard in the developing world. Whether a regulatory process happens at all, and to what extent, can depend on who is building what and on the resources and attention government officials have to spare on any given day, experts say. Corruption—a persistent problem worldwide, including in developed nations—can result in building officials signing off on permits or skipping regulatory steps altogether at the behest of deep-pocketed or well-connected development interests.

“Many of these countries go through great effort to have at least some regulations in place,” said Ana Campos Garcia, who has worked on regulatory issues with governments throughout Africa as a lead disaster risk management specialist at the World Bank’s Building Regulation for Resilience Program. “But most of the time there are financial challenges that limit their capacity [to properly enforce the regulations]. They don’t have enough people, such as regulators, because they don’t have enough budget.”

As a result, any step in the process that a building official from, say, California, might consider essential to a robust regulatory system could be missing. “You may lack some or all of the typical controls, including everything from the urban planning component to set separation distances between buildings,” said Meacham, who in addition to being a global consultant chairs the committee responsible for NFPA 551, Guide for the Evaluation of Fire Risk Assessments. “You might not have enough inspectors to review plans or to go to the construction site to make sure it’s all OK—and even if you did, you may also lack the enforcement part that follows.”

The uneven nature of enforcement in developing nations can mean that even formal structures, built by professional construction crews, might be something closer to “informal” when viewed through a Western lens. “It’s not necessarily an informal settlement, but it’s informal construction associated with the normal construction process,” Meacham explained. “If you lack resources on the regulatory side in the government to monitor the pace of construction, you get into this situation where you don’t necessarily have the control system that you need for formal construction.”

As a result, many structures in developing cities are built without some of the basic fire mitigation components typically found in buildings in the United States or Europe. This includes buildings constructed with highly combustible materials, no fire compartmentation between rooms or apartments, and often no fire suppression systems—even in many high-rise buildings. Adding to those concerns is the reality that a typical home can contain many more sources of potential ignition than in the developed world. As cities grow larger, for example, the electrical infrastructure may not keep pace, leading residents to tap into power lines illegally so they can operate their appliances. As Meacham observed, “You’re just adding up the risk factors.”

Compounding that, the fire departments in many of these cities are woefully understaffed and may not have adequate water supplies, equipment, or other resources to do their jobs effectively. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated cities on the planet, fire departments literally have to go out on the street and push civilians out of the way to open the bay doors and get their trucks out of the station, said Don Bliss, who as NFPA’s former vice president of field operations visited fire stations around the world. “The traffic in Dhaka is so bad, it can take the fire department up to three hours to travel just a few miles to respond to a call.” —Jesse Roman

Social context and the growth of informal settlements

With few exceptions, the cities expected to grow the most vigorously over the next three decades also happen to be some of the world’s poorest. Most of the people relocating to these mega-cities will be unable to afford formally built housing, and many will end up living in slums or other informal settlements, which the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development defines as “unplanned settlements and areas where housing is not in compliance with current planning and building regulations.”

According to the World Bank Group, about 1 billion people—a quarter of the world’s urban population—currently live in informal settlements, from the favelas of Sao Paulo to the shantytowns of Cape Town to the sprawling slums of Mumbai. That figure could be closer to 3 billion by 2030, according to the UN, and would account for a quarter of all the people on the planet. That added concentration of impoverished newcomers will further stress a population already beset by overcrowding, disease, violence, and neglect.

While little comprehensive research has been done to examine the fire problem in informal settlements, smaller studies and an abundance of anecdotal evidence demonstrate that fire is one of the largest threats to life and property. In South Africa, studies have shown that as many as 15,000 fires a year occur in informal settlements. With structures improvised out of scraps of highly combustible wood and plastics, and with little or no official infrastructure such as water mains and fire hydrants, those blazes can start quickly and spread rapidly, routinely leaving hundreds or thousands homeless.

Experts agree that fires in informal settlements are a problem that will only get worse and that they warrant special attention from fire protection engineers, fire departments, city planners, and other government officials. “There’s an urgent need to plan for the growth of cities in a safe way while also considering the economic limitations of many of the people drawn to urban areas,” said Birgitte Messerschmidt, director of Research at NFPA. “It won’t help, for instance, to build a lot of expensive homes if people can’t afford them.”

In 2017, when a fire tore through Imizamo Yethu, a large informal settlement in Cape Town, South Africa, residents had little time to escape, let alone save any of the few belongings they had. The blaze was one of the most destructive ever to hit an informal settlement in the country, leaving four people dead and nearly 10,000 homeless. Photos and videos from the incident show firefighters and residents desperately struggling to contain the flames as they leap from one dwelling to the next, quickly swallowing the particle board, plastic tarps, and other scrap materials used to create much of the makeshift metropolis.

Although an exact cause of the fire was never determined, experts say the conditions that led to the rapid fire spread and destruction in Imizamo Yethu are present in some form in every informal settlement, from abundant fuel loads to numerous ignition sources, including heating and cooking equipment and poor or improvised electrical work.

“Everything you don’t want, from a fire safety perspective, is in one place,” said Richard Walls, a fire protection engineering professor at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, who has conducted extensive research on informal settlement fires. Compounding these issues, Walls said, are layouts that lack spacing between structures; alcohol and substance-abuse issues among residents that can lead to fires set accidentally; access challenges for the local fire service, which may also lack resources; and deficiencies in water supplies.

RELATED: Listen to Professor Richard Walls discuss informal settlement fires on a recent NFPA Podcast episode

Solutions are hampered mainly by the fundamental poverty that creates the need for such settlements in the first place. “If we created more space between dwellings to create firebreaks, that would mean removing dwellings and leaving families homeless,” said Messerschmidt. “If we pursued less-flammable building materials, we’d find they’re more costly and often out of reach for residents. Even if they could afford them, they may not want to invest in a property where they don’t have the right to the land they’re living on.”

Even so, promising efforts are underway to address the problem. In 2020, Walls and other researchers published a guide, aimed at the safety community, to improve fire safety in informal settlements. The authors hope it will become a resource for cities bracing for informal settlement growth in the coming years. The 135-page document offers comprehensive guidance on everything from building relationships between the local fire service and informal settlement residents to teaching residents how to make the exterior of their dwellings more resistant to fire. Walls envisions future, updated editions of the document, similar to a code or standard.

A slum in Mumbai. The projected growth of such informal settlements in the coming decades will present public safety officials with an array of challenges, from disaster prepared- ness to fire safety.  PAL PILLAI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Key to the document’s guidance is acknowledging the socioeconomic limitations shared by these environments—and also understanding that solutions will bear little resemblance to what is considered fire-safe behavior in more developed nations. “Often, it’s simple and inexpensive interventions, such as increasing the number of water buckets available to residents, that provide a more reliable fire response method than fancy, proprietary suppression systems that require maintenance, are expensive, have a shelf-life, and may not be used correctly,” Walls said. Studies have shown that the faster informal settlement residents can take it upon themselves to drench a budding blaze with water, the better the outcome, since fire service response times can be long.

Experts realize this approach contrasts with what exists in countries like the United States, where residents are told to evacuate in the event of a fire and call 911. “As an outsider, it may be easy to critique the behavior [of residents of informal settlements], since evacuation away from these large outdoor fires is the best action in terms of immediate life safety, but people are at risk of losing everything in these fires,” said Danielle Antonellis, a fire protection engineer who last year founded Kindling, a nonprofit designed to address the fire problem in informal settlements. “Without insurance and other social protections, people can lose their homes, all their belongings, documentation, their jobs, and more. They may not even be allowed to rebuild after a fire. To many people who won’t be able to meet their basic needs after a fire, protecting property may even be considered a form of life safety.”

Understanding the socioeconomic factors that further complicate the fire problem in informal settlements has itself been the subject of recent research. By early 2022, Antonellis and other researchers hope to complete a study examining these factors; Kindling led the project, which was supported by the London-based Royal Academy of Engineering and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation under the Safer Complex Systems program. NFPA assisted in reviewing data for the project.

“Projects like this will help us learn a lot about the context of fires in informal settlements,” said Messerschmidt. “This research is critical for us to better understand how fire risk emerges in these areas. While it’s easy to point to substandard housing, open-flame cooking, or overcrowding as risk factors, these arise due to a social context we cannot ignore.” —Angelo Verzoni

In search of resilience in the world’s fastest-growing cities

In cities burdened with high rates of poverty and unemployment and that struggle to meet the basic needs of millions of residents, these regulatory issues can seem small and unimportant by comparison. But when a large storm, earthquake, or other disaster strikes, the cost of poorly designed buildings is often measured in thousands of lives.

Nature provided a tragic example in December 2003, when a pair of nearly identical 6.6-magnitide earthquakes struck just days apart—first in Paso Robles, California, and then in the small city of Bam, Iran. In California, which has enforced robust earthquake building codes since the 1930s, the quake caused a single pre-code building to collapse, killing two people inside. Other damage in the city was minor. In Bam, by contrast, “earthquake design codes were poorly implemented, and buildings were primarily unregulated, unreinforced masonry structures,” according to the World Bank. When the earthquake struck Bam on December 26, entire sections of the city crumbled in minutes. More than 30,000 people, a third of the city’s population, died in their homes and workplaces.

This same story plays out time and again in the developing world. According to the UN, low- and middle-income countries experienced roughly half of all global disasters over the past decade yet suffered a staggering 93 percent of disaster-related fatalities. The same is true of fire. Of the estimated 180,000 people worldwide who die from burns each year, 95 percent live in low- and middle-income countries, the World Health Organization estimates. The cause, the World Bank says, is clear: “The disproportionate impact [of these disasters] stems in large part from unsafe and unregulated urban development.”

Citing these statistics, as well as the massive growth expected in cities in developing nations, the World Bank set to work five years ago on a new program intended to change this equation by focusing on improving regulations in developing nations. The effort, called the Building Regulation for Resilience Program, involves safety experts painstakingly reviewing and assessing a government’s regulatory practices and capabilities to identify gaps and propose solutions. The purpose is “to see where we can improve the quality of the content of the codes and regulation itself as well as the capacity of the different stakeholders responsible for implementing those activities,” said Campos Garcia, who co-leads the program. “Any gaps in any of these different aspects will affect the final result of getting more resilient buildings, which is what we’re aiming for.”

The process is triggered when a government approaches the World Bank to ask for assistance. A team of lawyers, architects, engineers, code officials, and other experts from the Bank, along with outside consultants, reviews the government’s existing regulatory documents and conducts interviews with dozens of people, including government regulators, local builders, and even the academic institutions that train the local regulatory workforce. After several months of gathering information, the Bank collects its findings and a list of recommendations in a comprehensive report that it shares with the government.

“Sometimes it can be a long list of recommendations, sometimes it’s more focused, but in the end it’s the governments that prioritize what actions they take,” said Keiko Sakoda, who co-leads the program and is a disaster risk management specialist at the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery at the World Bank.

Following the assessment, the government and World Bank typically conduct a series of workshops with local stakeholders to discuss the findings, and the government then devises a plan of action. Generally, the Bank stays on to provide technical and sometimes financial assistance to help them follow through, but it's the governments that lead the way. “To generate change, there has to be ownership, and that’s why it’s very important that they decide what [actions] align with their priorities, their financial possibilities, and their development programs,” Campos Garcia said.

So far, 10 nations have gone through this process, and the Bank has generally found eager participants who have committed to a number of important regulatory improvements. This includes an effort in Malawi to create and implement a national building code; work in the Maldives to standardize and digitize its building-approval process; and an effort in India to better understand the challenges faced by private-sector engineers when they try to comply with the complex building standards required by local governments.

Last year, the World Bank began an expansion of the program to include more targeted assessments for specific threats, including fire. In October 2020, it published a detailed report, co-authored by Meacham as a consultant for the World Bank, titled the “Urban Fire Regulatory Assessment & Mitigation Evaluation Diagnostic.” The report contains a series of pointed questions for a variety of stakeholders, including government officials and building owners, designed to help them perform self-assessments of their current practices and regulations related to fire safety. Campos Garcia said the World Bank could also use the tool in the future to conduct smaller-scale, more focused assessments for governments and their approaches to fire hazards. “We don’t always have to do a very comprehensive regulatory capacity assessment,” she said. “We might have times that our government counterparts are only interested in fire safety or energy efficiency or accessibility. The intention is to have a set of tools.”

No one is under any illusions that an effort like the Building Regulation for Resilience Program is a cure for the chronic issues plaguing developing cities, but it’s a positive start, and efforts are underway to scale up the program’s capacity. As climate threats and urbanization continue to accelerate, it’s critical to lay this important groundwork now, Campos Garcia said. “This is a key step in a long-term engagement that requires time to see results,” she said—results that in 30, 40, or 50 years could mean densely built urban environments that are safer from fires, storms, and other hazards. —Jesse Roman

Embracing bottom-up approaches to regulation and enforcement

While ambitious top-down projects at the governmental level can potentially move the needle over a long period of time, experts say it’s only one of many strategies needed to tackle building and life safety issues in these burgeoning mega-cities. Some of those strategies push the boundaries of conventional life safety paradigms. Other approaches obliterate the boundaries altogether.

One of those approaches is the possibility of developing building codes and standards tailored specifically for developing nations with regulations that are easier to follow and enforce in countries where resources are scarce. Standards developed in the West can be difficult for low-income nations to implement for many legitimate reasons, experts argue. Standards that are more targeted to the realities of the developing world, the argument goes, would provide at least a modicum of safety where none may exist.

The idea is explored in a recent paper, “Guidelines and Principles for the Development of Building Regulations in Low Income Countries,” published this year by the International Building Quality Center, a think tank based at the University of Canberra in Australia. “The IBQC Guidelines are meant to serve as a tool to help governments incrementally create building regulations that are appropriate to their conditions, integrate home-grown solutions, and embraced by citizens as tools that are understood to protect them and their investments,” Judy Zagreski, vice president of global services at the International Code Council, wrote in a recent blog about the paper.

While some think it’s a practical idea worth exploring, others argue that creating different tiers of safety requirements for different countries is unworkable as well as unethical. Proponents answer that it’s better to have a minimum standard that can be met rather than one that’s overly aspirational and is ultimately ignored, thereby putting more people at risk.

Those sides tend to agree that problems faced by rapidly growing cities in the developing world cannot be erased simply by transferring codes and systems of regulation that have proven successful in the West. Taking “a regulation or a standard from a developed country and trying to drop it into a country that doesn’t think or work in the same way” gets complicated, according to Meacham.

For one, developing countries generally do not have nearly enough skilled inspectors, designers, plan reviewers, or other safety professionals to keep up with demand—or big enough budgets to hire them if they did. Additionally, different nations tend to utilize different building materials, building techniques, and systems of measurement; even cultural priorities around the notion of safety can vary widely. Even if such codes were adopted and enforced, a contractor or civilian homebuilder may simply not be able to afford to buy imported materials or build a structure that could meet Western building codes.

“With that context, it can feel a little bit imperialistic to come in and dictate that you ‘shall’ do this because we know it works in our country,” Meacham said of applying developed-world codes and standards to the realities of the developing world. “What if you don’t have anything in place to actually make that regulation or code work in that same way?”

Other strategies beyond regulation and enforcement could have significant impacts on building and life safety, experts say. One idea is to develop improved methods for building cheaper and safer homes using locally available materials. A recent effort in Mexico, for example, used 3D printing technology to construct low-cost, 500-square-foot homes out of a fire-resistant material similar to concrete. The homes have already been shown to withstand 7.4-magnitude earthquakes, and each structure can be built in less than 24 hours.

Texas-based construction company ICON began 3D-printing homes in Mexico in 2019. Read more about 3D-printed construction in “Printing Buildings” (March/April 2020).  JOSHUA PEREZ/ICON 

Other innovations could one day lead to affordable alternatives to dangerous open-flame heating and cooking appliances, common in the developing world; the creation of a safer and more reliable electrical infrastructure; and, as a way to address the shortage of building safety officials, the creation of local programs to teach residents without technical backgrounds how to inspect a residential building or review a building plan.

Meacham, who considers himself an optimist, believes all of those scenarios are possible with enough investment and more attention. Small improvements like these, he said, could have profound impacts on an urban world poised for unprecedented growth.

“I choose to think of this challenge as an opportunity, but we need champions to help raise the banner and pull people along because it’s not just going to happen on its own,” he said. “We need the top-down activities at the World Bank, and we also need the private sector and NGOs working from the bottom up, looking at communities and asking, ‘What can we do in terms of helping communities help themselves?’ We need to put appropriate private-sector investment into the renovation of existing buildings, and work at the NGO level to help transition people from informal to formal construction. And then maybe, over a generation or two, we can actually make real progress. But that will only happen by addressing the issue, not having a doom-and-gloom attitude about how big this problem is.” —Jesse Roman

JESSE ROMAN is senior editor and ANGELO VERZONI is associate editor at NFPA Journal. 
Top photograph: GETTY IMAGES