Safety Vulnerability

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Vulnerability is a circumstance that given the realization of a threat could expedite harm to people or damage to objects. If the threat involves human intent, the vulnerability is a weakness that can be exploited by the perpetrator (for example weakly guarded entrances to an object).

In this context, vulnerabilities are related to safety-related threats as opposed to the security vulnerabilities. Since these safety vulnerabilities entail the risk of harm from sources that also reach beyond human intent, it can be seen as a concept that is more suitable for the use by urban planners whereas the security vulnerability is a concept more suitable for the use by security organisations (such as LEAs) or event planners.  

Social/community vulnerability

Improving general resilience levels also requires tackling and understanding vulnerability. While vulnerability in general is the susceptibility of a community to the impact of hazards, it should in particular “involve a predictive quality: it is supposedly a way of conceptualizing what may happen to an identifiable population under conditions of particular risk and hazards.” (Cannon et al. 2003: 4). “Social vulnerability is the complex set of characteristics that include a person’s: initial well-being (health, morale, etc.); self-protection (asset pattern, income, qualifications, etc.); social protection (hazard preparedness by society, building codes, shelters, etc.); social and political networks and institutions (social capital, institutional environment, etc.).” (Cannon et al. 2003: 5)[1]

Identification of vulnerabilities

By identifying potential vulnerabilities, urban planning can directly contribute to the strengthening of community resilience. From the social and cultural point of view, identification of vulnerability should be based on a comprehensive concept. At the same time, safety conscious urban planning should be aware that citizens always assess risks, threats and uncertainties on a subjective and individual basis. To a certain extent, gaps between felt and factual safety are normal phenomena; more important, therefore, than a mere gap analysis is an analysis of the distribution of gaps between felt and factual security across society.

Vulnerability and risk perception

Risk research, independent of the subject matter in question, sees citizens’ assessment of risks and threats considerably dependent on knowledge of precedents, frequency and extent of risk experience as well as perceived immediate effects on themselves (Proske 2004).[2]

Felt security has also been found to depend on personal control/efficacy beliefs: People usually accept considerably higher risk if they feel themselves in a position to decide about it; they are less prone to accept unconditional collective risk, e.g. as communicated by public authorities. At the same time, psychological analyses have found the effect of “overconfidence” (optimistic self-overestimation) (e.g. Oskamp 1965).[3] This effect describes a systematic cognitive error in assessing risks (namely assessing them too low) that are amenable to people’s own influence, such as car driving, mountaineering but also walking alone in the dark, a typical (street) crime-related public opinion poll indicator of felt security.

In risky contexts that are not amenable to intentional human influence, the risk tends to be ignored, as risk ignorance in earthquake-prone areas has shown from ancient Pompeii in the Roman Empire to Los Angeles and San Francisco. In the case of natural risks, or risks that citizens perceive as out of their ability to change, we can expect citizens to discount or even discharge risk by compensating social contexts, leading to a gap between felt and factual security (Parfit 1998).[4]==Footnotes and references==

  1. Cannon, T. et al. (2003): Social Vulnerability, Sustainable Livelihoods and Disasters. Report to DFID. Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance Department (CHAD) and Sustainable Livelihoods Office London.
  2. Proske, D. (2004): Katalog Risiken. Risiken und ihre Darstellung. 1. Auflage. Eigenverlag: Dresden. Online: (last access: 07.11.2011).
  3. Oskamp, S. (1965): Overconfidence in Case-study Judgements. In: The Journal of Consulting Psychology (American Psychological Association), Vol. 2, 261-265. Reprinted in Kahneman D./ Slovic, P./Tversky, A. (1982): Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge University Press, 287-293.
  4. Parfit, M. (1998): Living with Natural Hazards. In: National Geographic, Vol. 194, 1: 2-39. National Geographic Society.