What are the members of Spatial Planning & Strategy up to? In this series of interviews we meet various members of the section and discuss their work, who they are, and have a look behind the scenes. Today, we meet Post-doc researcher Simbarashe ‘Simba’ Chereni, who has recently joined the Redesigning Deltas programme. His research focuses on risk governance and the public perception of the newest flood resilience plans. Grand new designs may be a superb idea in the eyes of planners and politicians, but what about the public?
For as long as he can remember, Simba has been interested in disaster management. And as prevention is the best cure, Simba’s academic journey naturally revolved around planning for disaster resilience. However, his academic journey was not as straight-forward as his passion. “I can probably give career-guidance!” he says smilingly. Simba has studied Rural and Urban planning at the University of Zimbabwe, Land and Agrarian studies (MPhil) at the University of the Western Cape, and Geo-information Science and Earth Observation for Urban Planning and Management (MSc) at TU Twente, where he also obtained his PhD last year, and he has worked as teacher and researcher already. “My advice to students: don’t necessarily follow the old paradigm of career choice, of career path. Sometimes, it’s good to follow your passion, but carefully: also try to be a bit flexible. Sometimes you’ll find something else that is really, really interesting and fulfilling.”
Researching public perceptions
For Simba, researching public perceptions is such an unexpected, yet interesting and fulfilling topic. He participated in a study concerned with Kampala flood designs with his department at TU Twente. “So, they finished this extensive flood risk management exercise, from a more engineering perspective: GIS-modelling of flooding. They gave recommendations: this city authority must do this and this and this. When I looked at it as a social scientist, I thought: these recommendations, how certain are they that the individuals will accept these recommendations; will the households accept these recommendations?” Simba decided to investigate this and the residents’ autonomous mitigation efforts within the context of change in the governance regime, resulting in a complete PhD-research. “So, I saw a niche to try and study the perceptions of the households in relation to those recommendations, and also, to what the government was doing. And how all these things would determine what they were doing on their properties.”
His research focused on different settlements – from informal to affluent ones. He recalls: “In Kampala you see the element of trust in government authorities. When the government is doing something, the residents trust what the government is doing, and they reduce what they did or have been doing on their properties, because they feel the government is doing much so the risk must be reduced.” This, Simba explains, is not a good strategy. “There’s no room for saying: ‘ah no, the government is doing something, so I’ll stop.’ No! Risk is risk. It doesn’t stop because there is a hard defence there.” His concluding advice was clear: “If you can do something on your property: do it!”
Shifting paradigms: redesigning deltas
Simba has now taken his expertise in public perceptions of flood resilience designs to the Redesigning Deltas project; a multiyear, interdisciplinary research programme on the scale of the entire Dutch delta region at TU Delft. And although the Kampala context is different, Simba sees some lines of commonality, especially regarding the public trust in government mitigation measures. However, this might all change, as a major paradigm shift is underway. “The idea here is to acknowledge that things are changing in terms of how we manage flood risk. Because of the ever changing climate conditions, which are going to result in much sea level rise in the future, our formerly well-trusted systems of grey infrastructure, hard defences and the like, are no longer going to be safe for a long time. Especially when you combine the threat of the climate change and the fact that they themselves are slowly ageing. All of which calls for a more integrated approach to managing flood risk, which doesn’t view development as coming after we put the hard protection measures, but as something that can just be done at the same time – integrated together.”
The new paradigm of integrated design is thus born out of the realization that the old flood protection measures might not be future-proof. “When you are planning against flooding using this approach, already you are having at the back of your mind that the hard defence is likely to fail. So already, you are putting designs there that will allow water to be integrated within the planning.” Sounds like a good idea, but Simba warns that “these new paradigms, can potentially be rejected, or cause negative consequences, such as reduction in property values in coastal areas.”
(Not to) suggest imminent disaster
Simba elaborates on these possible negative side-effects of the new paradigm: “Imagine you have a community with a hard defence structure for, let’s say, 40 years, and nothing has happened. This community has built their homes and businesses out of trust in government infrastructure. But then, you come with this new integrated paradigm where you say: ‘Oh this thing is likely to fail, so we are going to plan preventively like so and so.’ That in itself can set a perception on the side of residents of imminent disaster.” He recalls the urban design intervention in the Dutch port city of Vlissingen as concrete example. “Designers with the municipality did this integrated project. They designed it in a way that if there is a failure, maybe of the dyke, then the design can accommodate the water: they made the streets in a way that they can easily be converted into canals.” This may lead to residents panicking. “It set a perception: ‘Oh, so they are putting these streets to becoming canals… Maybe flood is really impending!’ ”
For Simba, this highlights the importance of perception studies. “We try to look where the perception of the individuals or the officers in government is different from what is happening on the ground. And we try to correct that perception, to make sure people are on the same page.” Moreover, he thinks designers can really benefit from engaging with public perceptions. “In the back of the people’s minds, there are things that cause them to perceive flood risk the way they do. If we try to integrate those things in our designs, we will be able to make much better, much more comprehensive designs.”
Information on the multiyear research programme Redesigning Deltas can be found on the programme’s website: https://www.redesigningdeltas.org/.
Simba’s PhD research on public perception to flood resilience plans in Kampala can be downloaded here: https://research.utwente.nl/en/publications/understanding-flood-risk-perceptions-and-motivations-for-damage-m.