Applying History to Understanding Social Vulnerability

Submitting Institution

University of Hull

Unit of Assessment


Summary Impact Type


Research Subject Area(s)

Studies In Human Society: Human Geography, Policy and Administration

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Summary of the impact

Historical research into natural disasters has underpinned emergency planning and management in the UK and overseas. Undertaken by colleagues in Hull and other HEIs, the output of this research has contributed to the setting of industry standards, informed the development of modern technology, highlighted issues of social justice, prompted cultural comparisons of `best practice', assisted in reducing communities' vulnerability and linked reconstruction work to developmental issues. Non-academic beneficiaries of the research are communities and individuals in disaster-affected areas, and the governments and NGOs involved in managing disasters.

Underpinning research

Research findings published by Greg Bankoff since 2008 (for example, [A], [B], [C], [D], [E] in section 3) indicate conclusively that analyses of past catastrophic events can have a positive influence on knowledge and understanding of contemporary social vulnerability. In particular, the importance of cultural and traditional approaches to disasters, and responses to them, can make apparent a community's vulnerability and resilience before a disaster, as well as after it. It can be predictive. This long-term approach reveals the inherent, or background, social vulnerability that has built up sequentially over time. Some communities `share' a common cultural and historical exposure to higher background levels of risk than others, and this requires special consideration before any engagement with more specific factors of vulnerability. In raising awareness of the social and environmental relationships that precede disasters, the research has placed emergency planners and managers in a better position to predict where disasters are more likely to occur, where they will have a higher impact on the population when they do, and where higher levels of interventions might be required both before and after a disaster.

Understanding the social vulnerability of communities, both past and present, has derived from, and been applied to, various case studies in the Philippines, New Zealand and the UK over the period 2004-13. In the Philippines, research has focused on two broad societal benefits of a temporal perspective: first, how it can reduce people's vulnerability in the context of the built environment, which entails consideration of architecture, urban planning and housing policy; and, second, how it can augment community resilience through community-based disaster management strategies, notably `seismic engineering', urban fire regimes and flood control. With regards to New Zealand and the UK, research into the aftermath of floods in Manawatu (2004), Hull (2007) and Sheffield (2007) has identified the long-term roots of these disasters, which lie in the interaction of human and natural factors, and used such historical insight to inform policy and improve community preparedness.

At Hull, the principal investigators responsible for the research are Greg Bankoff (Professor of Modern History, 2006 to present), Tom Coulthard (Professor of Physical Geography, 2005 to present) and Graham Haughton (Professor of Human Geography, January 2000-May 2010). Research in the Philippines was carried out in collaboration with Dorothea Hilhorst (Chair of Disaster Studies, Wageningen University, Netherlands), while the research in New Zealand was carried out with Willie Smith (Associate Professor of Geography, University of Auckland) and Alec Mackay (Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Auckland).

References to the research

[A] Greg Bankoff, `Historical Concepts of Disasters and Risk' in Ben Wisner, Jean-Christophe Gaillard and Ilan Kelman (eds.) Handbook of Natural Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction, London and New York: Routledge, 2011, pp.31-41.

[B] Greg Bankoff, Uwe Luebken and Jordan Sand (eds.) Flammable Cities: Urban Fire and the Making of the Modern World, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.


[C] Greg Bankoff and Dorothea Hilhorst, `The Politics of Risk in the Philippines: Comparing State and NGO Perceptions of Disaster Management', Disasters, 33, 4, 2009, 686-704.


[D] Willie Smith, Christian Davies-Colley , Alec Mackay and Greg Bankoff, `The Social Impact of the 2004 Manawatu Floods and the "Hollowing-out" of Rural New Zealand', Disasters, 35, 3, 2011, pp.540-53.


[E] Greg Bankoff, `The "English Lowlands" and the North Sea Basin System: A History of Shared Risk', Environment and History, 19, 1, 2013, 3-37.


[F] Greg Bankoff, Georg Frerks and Thea Hilhorst (eds.), Mapping Vulnerability: Disasters, Development and People, London: Earthscan, 2004.


The rigour of the research, and the positive benefits of the impacts it generates, is indicated by the award (after peer review) of the following research grants:

2008-2010: £90,000, Economic and Social Research Council, `Sub-Contracting Risk: Neo-liberal Policy Agendas and the Changing Nature of Flood Risk Management', Graham Haughton, Tom Coulthard, Greg Bankoff.

2008-2013: £45,000, Economic and Social Research Council, CASE Studentship, `Rethinking the Spaces and Institutions for the Governance of Flood Management', Greg Bankoff, Graham Haughton, Tom Coulthard, Alexia Rogers-Wright (student), with Hull City Council.

2009-2014: £50,000, White Rose & Hull Doctoral Scholarship, `The Capacity of Medium and Small Enterprises to Manage Flood in Hull and Sheffield', Greg Bankoff, Martina McGuinness (Sheffield), Rebecca Messham (student).

2012-2017: £3 million, Natural Environment Research Council and Economic and Social Research Council, `Earthquakes Without Frontiers', Consortium comprising Cambridge, Oxford, Durham, Leeds, Northumbria and Hull universities (Greg Bankoff).

Details of the impact

The historical approach adopted and developed by Professors Bankoff, Coultard and Haughton, and their collaborators in other HEIs, has had its clearest impact through three forms of dissemination:

(1) Advisory Reports: the research yielded two reports commissioned by local and national governments. Firstly, a contract report of flooding was prepared for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in the case of the 2004 event in the North Island of New Zealand ([i] in section 5). This contract report examined the social impact and community response to the floods, particularly evaluating the farm community's `vulnerability' and `resilience' in the face of the worst flood to hit New Zealand in 20 years. Secondly, Hull City Council commissioned Bankoff and colleagues to form an Independent Review Body (IRB) to compile an Independent Report on the June 2007 inundation [ii]. An Ofwat statement on this event noted how this Report was critical of Yorkshire Water and the way the Humbercare scheme (an investment in Yorkshire Water's piped drainage system and terminal pumping stations) had been implemented, and how Ofwat's own report was `committed to review the issues that the Hull Independent Review Body (IRB) report raised, including the changes made to Hull's drainage arrangements in 2001 and more recent years and how the system operated during the June 2007 floods'.

(2) Mass Media Coverage: A series of newspaper articles popularised many of the ideas about the need for taking a long-term approach to understanding social vulnerability in the Philippines [iii-ix]. Most of the articles appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the most widely read and circulated daily newspaper in the Philippines with over 2.7m readers nationwide and over 50 per cent of market share [source: - accessed 24 Aug 2012]. In particular, influential articles devoted to `learning to live with disasters' and `building resilience and adaptation' drew directly on Bankoff's research, as disseminated in his lecture tour in the Cordillera region of the Philippines in 2008. Other opinions and commentaries appeared in the Philippine Star and Manila Standard, further extending the reach of the research findings.

Similarly, studies of flooding in Manila have informed various newspaper accounts, thereby raising public awareness of the benefits of utilising historical analysis to mitigate social vulnerability in the face of natural disasters. In one case, Manuel L. Quezon III, currently Undersecretary of the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO), credited Bankoff's research with correctly forecasting the areas of the city inundated in the wake of Typhoon Ondoy in 2009 based on historical analysis. In another article on the imperative of climate change, Nereus Acosta, three-term Congressman for Bukidnon and Presidential Advisor for Environmental Protection drew upon Bankoff's research on the need to understand the interplay of `hazards and history' and to avoid being trapped by `a culture of disaster' [x].

In November 2013, Bankoff contributed expert analysis to radio programmes concerning the preparedness of the Philippines for natural disasters in general, and Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) in particular [xi].

(3) NGO Fora: The historical approach to understanding social vulnerability has informed the work of NGOs in the Philippines, especially those focused on disasters. For example, Bankoff was a keynote speaker at the `Forum on Opportunities and Challenges for Disaster' held on 8 August 2008 at the College of Social Work and Community Development UP Diliman, which was attended by more than 80 participants drawn from various NGOs, together with students and teachers from different colleges and people's organizations, UNICEF and other institutions [xii].

Sources to corroborate the impact

[i] Willie Smith, Alec Mackay and Greg Bankoff, Community Resilience and Response in the Aftermath of the 2004 Manawatu Floods, Contract Report for the New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, January 2007.

[ii] Tom Coulthard, Lynne Frostick, Harold Hardcastle, Kath Jones, Dave Rodgers, Malcolm Scott, Greg Bankoff, The June 2007 Floods in Hull: Final Report by the Independent Review Body 21 November 2007, Independent Report Commissioned by Hull City Council, November 2007.

[iii] Vincent Cabreza, `Learning to Live with Disasters', Philippine Daily Inquirer, 22 July 2008

[iv] Babe Romualdez, `What Have We Done to Deserve This', Philippine Star, 4 October 2009

[v] Manuel L. Quezon III, `The Long View: Ignoring Plans has a Price', Philippine Daily Inquirer. 10 August 2009

[vi] Raul Kamantigue Suarez, `Philippine Deforestation: A National Spolarium', Philippine Star, 3 December 2009

[vii] Vincent Cabreza, `Calamities Shape "Bayanihan" Culture"', Philippine Daily Inquirer, 6 October 2009

[viii] Karl Allan Barlaan and Christian Cardiente, `So We Would all be Informed: Dissecting the Flood Problem in Metro Manila', Manila Standard Today, 6-7 August 2011

[ix] J.R. Nereus Acosta, `Building Resilience and Adaptation: Philippine Climate-Change Imperative', Philippine Daily Inquirer, 31 December 2011

[x] The original text can be can be found at:,2

[xi] Radio Monocle 24, The Monocle Daily, 8 November 2013
Radio Monocle 24, `The Globalist: Asia', 11 November 2013

[xii] `Forum on Opportunities and Challenges for Disaster' Progress Report
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