Social vulnerability to flooding [ArcGIS]

The notion of social vulnerability is relatively recent. It emerged in 1976 with O’Keefe, Westgate and Wisner* , who transformed the field of environmental studies by insisting that natural disasters have a very strong socio-economic component. They demonstrated for instance that developing countries suffered much higher levels of casualties during catastrophes. This major idea has since then been refined and enriched through research in a variety of fields in the natural and social sciences. One of the most striking examples of social vulnerability to natural hazards remains Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, this cyclone disproportionately affected black communities in Louisiana, brutally revealing the geography of race, social class and risks in the US.

I was curious to explore the link between socio-economic conditions and exposure to flooding risks in London, or in other words: social vulnerability to flooding.

I used the Environment Agency’s Climate Just dataset that can be found on London Datastore. This is a UK-wide dataset based on research conducted mostly at Manchester University.

Social Vulnerability to Flooding in Inner London

For readability purposes, I decided to work on Inner London, at borough level. The charts represent 5 components of each borough population’s socio-economic conditions:

  • Sensitivity: This refers to some demographic characteristics, such as age and disease, that influence how much people could be affected by a flood
  • Ability to prepare: This is determined by income, tenure, insurance and access to information. For instance, homeowner allows for modifications of one’s living environment.
  • Ability to respond: Income, personal mobility, and a good access to services, information and infrastructure is key in enabling an effective disaster response.
  • Ability to recover:  There again, access to information, insurance, and sufficient mobility (including residential mobility) is essential for a neighbourhood to recover from natural disasters such as floods.
  • Enhanced exposure: Characteristics of the environment and housing will determine if a household is more susceptible than another to be affected by a flood


The other indicator present on this map summarizes the socio-economic vulnerabilities and physical exposure to flood risks. I used a white to red gradient. Whereas central London is not very vulnerable to floods, dark red areas such as the borough of Barking and Dagenham reveal a combination of difficult socio-economic conditions and physical hazard.

Unsurprisingly, this map reveals a stark contrast between the different boroughs, but we can also observe that certain places that are less exposed to flooding risks have a lesser ability to prepare, respond and recover from a potential disaster.

* O’Keefe, P., Westgate, K. and Wisner, B., 1976. Taking the naturalness out of natural disasters. Nature260, pp.566-567.

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