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Friday, April 24, 2015

SPECIAL LECTURE - Urban Fire Regimes: Past and Present

Monday 27 April 1.00pm
Seminar Room 3.01
Alexander Graham Bell Building
The King's Buildings  EH93JL

Professor of Modern History, University of Hull

As Stephen Pyne reminds us, the built environment is as much a fire environment as forest and field, and fire cares little whether it burns old growth slum or ancient spruce. Every city functions as a particular type of fire regime. Just as a forest fire regime characterizes the spatial patterns, temporal sequence and ecosystem impacts of fire on the landscape, so an urban fire regime characterises the historical nexus between the environment in its fullest sense (climate, topography, and natural resources) and the socio-economic and political systems that organize and sustain concentrated human settlements. Throughout most of urban history, these structures were mainly built of materials readily sourced from the surrounding environment, particularly wood. Even when a building was constructed from more substantial matter such as bricks or stone, much of the framework, floors and ceilings continued to be made from timber. In the past, these wooden cities burnt fiercely and with regularity either through accident or from intent. The emergence of bourgeois elites in European and neo-European cities in the nineteenth century who had a special interest in the public protection of private wealth helped catalyze developments in fireproofing, fire extinguishing and insurance. This “fire gap” has come to dominate the subsequent thinking on fire safety when the reality for most people, the billions who inhabit the burgeoning informal settlements that ring the world’s fastest growing cities, the reality is quite the opposite: they still inhabit flammable cities that burn with regularity. This paper examines urban fire regimes, past and present, to show how conflagration in the built environment is always as much a social construction as it is a physical one.

Over the last 20 years, I have published extensively on the historical dimension of how societies adapt to risk as well as engaged with contemporary civil defence and emergency management practices in Asia, Australasia and more recently in Europe. Since arriving in the UK seven years ago, I have been a member of the Independent Review Body examining the 2007 flooding in Hull as well as co-investigator on an ESRC project examining how the fragmentation of flood risk management practices in the UK created new governance challenges through the processes of privatization and the sub-contraction of services. Currently I am co-PI on a 5-year ESRC/NERC project to increase resilience to continental earthquakes in Kazakhstan, Nepal/India and China that brings together a group of earth scientists, social scientists and experienced practitioners in the communication of scientific knowledge to policy makers. Among my recent publications is a co-edited volume entitled Flammable Cities: Urban Fire and the Making of the Modern World (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011). I was also co-editor of the latest IFRC’s World Disaster Report 2014.

Pizza from 12.45pm

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