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Residents’ Changing Perspectives on Disaster Resettlement

Climate change is increasing the frequency of disasters, prompting communities to consider relocation as a means to anticipate future catastrophic events and reduce loss of life.

However, the long-term aspects of planning and implementing relocation after disasters remain underexplored. Disaster recovery and resettlement are multi-year processes with no definitive end point. Residents' attitudes toward risk and resettlement change, as do their adaptation strategies. To evaluate the effectiveness of resettlement processes and outcomes, policymakers and planners must understand residents' dynamic experiences.

In "Adaptability of Low-Income Communities in Postdisaster Relocation" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 90, No. 1), Kanako Iuchi spent six years studying the changing perspectives and experiences of relocated residents as well as government and non-governmental actors in post-disaster Philippines.

Through interviews, observation, and long-term engagement, Iuchi examined the large-scale relocation of an informal coastal community in Tacloban City, Philippines. The long-term study illustrates how residents' strategies and perceptions of relocation interact with the changing physical and social environment of the new resettlement neighborhoods.

Relocation and Changing Minds

Informal development along the coast of Tacloban City was severely affected by the November 2013 Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda). In alignment with the national reconstruction policy, the Tacloban City government devised a two-step resettlement process involving transitional sheltering and the construction of permanent housing sites. While the Philippines has a history of government-led collective community relocation, the scale of this project was unprecedented.

The city promptly implemented a 40-meter no-dwelling zone along the shoreline and offered permanent relocation to 14,400 households in coastal neighborhoods. The designated receiving area, known as the North and situated 10 miles north of downtown, accommodated both transitional shelters and ongoing construction of permanent housing. Due to insufficient transitional shelters during construction, many displaced residents resorted to improvised housing, primarily rebuilding their original coastal neighborhoods in defiance of the no-dwelling zone.

In October 2015, residents in transitional housing reported challenges with accessing water, electricity, transportation, and employment. Most interviewees residing in improvised and transitional housing expressed negative perceptions toward relocation.

Iuchi's study finds that residents who moved back restored their lifestyle faster than those in transitional shelters in the North. By August 2017, water and permanent housing development remained unfinished nearly three years after Haiyan. More than 90 percent of interviewees planned to move to the North but remained attached to their old neighborhood. They were reluctant to move due to the poor conditions in the receiving zone, the cost of transportation to downtown, and limited economic opportunities.

Almost all interviewees claimed to have already re-established their livelihoods in the old neighborhood, maintaining similar occupations as before. Many expressed mixed feelings about relocating, but the appeal of living in a sturdy building remained strong.

Figure 1: Housing of Tacloban City.

Figure 1: Housing of Tacloban City.

Transitioning Residents Adapt to Relocation

In December 2017, approximately 40 percent of interviewed residents in permanent housing in the North owned two homes. Maintaining a second home in the coastal area allowed them to leverage their pre-typhoon social and economic networks to generate income. Proximity to downtown was crucial for residents' survival, prompting many to retain their second home while utilizing both transitional and permanent housing.

Over the following year, attitudes and strategies evolved. New schools and a healthcare center were constructed, while work commenced on a water distribution system. Residents also began launching businesses, such as transportation services.

By November 2018, relocated residents were adapting well to permanent housing in the North, with 75 percent content to relinquish their coastal homes. The main reasons for their satisfaction included sturdy housing, access to education and healthcare, and reliable water supply. As the city moved to demolish all structures in the coastal no-dwelling zone in 2019, little resistance was observed in interviews. By 2020, 70 percent of the permanent housing units in the resettled sites were occupied.

Iuchi's findings illustrate how residents' life concerns and perspectives evolve depending on the conditions and location of temporary and permanent housing. The research demonstrates that pre-typhoon economic and social networks persist during relocation but adapt over time in response to communicated policies and on-the-ground realities.

The progress of new site development and residents' prospects for livelihood in relocation areas played pivotal roles in shaping their perceptions, which evolved alongside changing conditions. This six-year study unveiled an intricate process of interdependent decision-making involving government, non-governmental actors, and residents.

Planning-Centered Model of Community Relocation

The article proposes recommendations for a planning-centered model of community relocation that addresses residents' evolving perspectives and needs. These recommendations include:

  • Prioritize holistic restoration: Focus on comprehensively re-establishing residents' lives alongside physical housing development.
  • Empower community engagement: Actively empower and leverage residents' capabilities to foster community-led improvement and adaptation throughout the relocation process.
  • Strategic site development: Establish new sites near original neighborhoods or secure temporary access. Maintaining social and economic ties aids residents in reducing stress and successfully rebuilding their lives.
  • Information transparency and support: Provide transparent information and robust support systems to instill a sense of security. Clear communication regarding progress enables residents to perceive relocation positively and plan effectively while dispelling rumors that can foster negative perceptions.
  • Flexible and inclusive participation: Embrace deliberate, iterative, and inclusive approaches to participation. Recognize that relocation is a nonlinear process, and residents may change their perspectives and needs as circumstances evolve.

The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted digital subscription for $36/year.

Top image: iStock / Getty Images Plus - DFID - UK Department for International Development

Grant Holub-Moorman is a master's in city and regional planning student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

March 14, 2024

By Grant Holub-Moorman