Jeroen Warner, Helena de Jong, Elena López-Gunn, Manuel Bea, Marta Rica

A warm welcome to you, reader, practitioner, policymaker, researcher or interested browser.
To our knowledge, this is the first handbook of its kind covering urban disaster and culture.
Culture, we claim, is not only a hindrance and a source of misunderstandings, but also an asset that can bring creative solutions and save lives. Cultural networks, we find, have communication lines and repertoires of action that help them survive in and learn from disaster. Systems theory teaches us that there is strength in diversity. Socio-cultural diversity however is mighty puzzling. This is a guide for the intrigued and perplexed by disaster and culture. It is not a recipe book, but gives you the “what”, “why” and, where possible, “how” on working with cultural diversity and urban social networks when adversity strikes.
But culture is not so easily identified; you only notice culture when you trip over it. The present book aims to help you at four levels:

  • To recognise
  • To analyse
  • To instrumentalise
  • To act

In cross-cutting thematic sections local and specialist knowledge on urban disaster and culture converges. These sections relate the experiences, procedures and tools developed and collected by the participant EDUCEN city teams and experts. We thank the non-team colleagues inside EDUCEN as well as external experts who kindly contributed inputs. Apart from drawing liberally on the city manuals, the handbook relies on the State of the Art report developed for and with EDUCEN.
The final, sixth section outlines the methods we developed, adapted, tested and transferred on the ground, while a state of the art glossary that helps you get acquainted with our thinking and key concepts.
Many of our examples draw on our own experiences. In the two-year EDUCEN Coordination and Support Action, funded by the European Communion (, we exchanged, tested, adapted, and learned from each other in seven disaster-prone European cities and urban regions: L’Aquila, Dordrecht, Istanbul, Lorca, Milan, Umbria and Volos. This handbook provides local experiences and ‘manuals’ on the seven European pilot cities comprising EDUCEN – L’Aquila, Dordrecht, Istanbul, Lorca, Milan, Umbria, Volos. These manuals exemplify the EDUCEN approach (see below), and the development and implementation of the different approaches and tools developed.
“We” are a diverse group of European researchers and practitioners, many not trained and steeped in social sciences but stumbling on culture and finding ways of handing it in our daily work (qui link al consorzio).

The book has two main elements:

  • a substantive element (the ‘what’), in a series of Sections and thematic chapters on how to integrate culture into Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR);
  • a procedural element (the ‘how’), on tools, methods and steps to identify and include elements of culture in DRR.

A word of warning: it can get a bit complex in places. To help you along, we start with an easy-access part with some definitions and key starting points to orient you on the topic. From there you can move on to the trickier stuff: how to do social network analysis with mathematical modelling; the debates on whether there is such a thing as a ‘community’. Each section in the handbook consists of a practical and accessible ‘front end’ and a more in-depth ‘back end’. The front end starts with more general sub-sections, which are divided into a number of paragraphs (including boxes, photos, etc.), that resonate with the interests of disaster (risk) managers and city planners (see below for Detailed Index). In some cases, the sections are further divided into sub-topics. The back-end of the handbook provides users with the opportunity to gain more in-depth knowledge on theories, methods, discussions and experiences underlying the questions, tools and methods of the front end. This information is retrieved through ‘read more’ buttons throughout the handbook.
We also bring to the table practical tools – games, social network analysis, focus groups, exhibitions that may serve as points for professional reflection. We aim to provide decision-makers, planners and trainers with knowledge and tools on integrating culture in DRR and DRR in urban planning, throughout the stages of the Disaster Risk Life Cycle – prevention, mitigation, preparation, response and rehabilitation. While many of our tools and insights are “all-hazard”, our focus has mainly been limited to earthquakes and (pluvial and fluvial) floods.

Disaster and Culture literature

Disaster and culture had its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, with American scholars like Moore, Anderson and Wenger and Weller, but fell out of fashion, except for a great book by Hoffmann and Oliver Smith on Cultures and Catastrophe in the late 1990s.
The theme returned to the limelight when the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies made it its theme in the 2014 World Disasters Report and its companion volume, ‘Cultures and Disasters’ edited by Fred Krüger et al. We acknowledge and build on their excellent work, taking it to Europe and seeking to give it some practical ‘hands and feet’.
As none of these books pays a lot of attention to urban disaster or to Europe, we hope our handbook goes some way towards filling this gap.

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We invite you to try the EDUCEN method yourself. The EDUCEN approach is highly interactive – a multidisciplinary exchange of experiences, knowledge and tools based on two parallel loops, an upswing (specific local information and experiences spread to the platform as a whole) and a downward loop (general knowledge and experiences from elsewhere spread to the local contact point, who then disseminated it to the local network).
The EDUCEN approach is to engage with and see the benefits of cultural diversity, and the importance of treating people as social beings: people are not (only) rational individuals, but are social actors, embedded in (often multiple) networks, which they turn to for information and help in a crisis.

The 3 c’s: Cultures – Cities – Catastrophes

  • Why culture? Culture is not only a hindrance, but also a help in tackling risk. We can learn from diversity, not for the sake of diversity, but because different ways of being and knowing add to our repertoire of responses to disaster risk (cultural learning). Culture, in a phrase, can save lives.
  • Why cities? Cities are special places because of (among others) their density, diversity, dynamics, capacity for innovation, and because they are much more three-dimensional in view of their vertical expansion. Over half the population now live in cities, , many of whom lack ‘urban survival skills’ to sit out an extreme situation. Due to the connectedness and complexity of cities, natural events create more chaos. But cities are also spaces of invention and experimentation, with their own urban identities. Therefore we zoom in on the specifics of the urban (urban networks) in disaster.
  • Why catastrophes? Disaster is not when nature strikes, it is when we are overwhelmed by it. We can improve our resilience to disaster by mobilising our cultural intelligence, to help turn a calamitous event into a tolerable disruption.
    Our key precepts or building blocks:

  • People are not isolated individuals, but come into their own through their social relations. Rather than treat urban dwellers as individuals, we claim there is great merit in situating them in their identity and solidarity networks. Such networks really come into their own in times of emergency, and can make the difference between life and death. As one of our consortium’s members’ motto has it, ‘I’m only as good as the people around me’ (cultural networks).
  • Our (multiple) social networks are the socio-cultural infrastructure that makes the physical infrastructure function. These networks are more complex in urban contexts. Cities moreover bring together people from a wide variety of backgrounds. They may not even know their next-door neighbours, but usually they have networks of people coming from the same region, religion, or other affiliation.
  • Social mapping and network analysis is a way of working out who talks to whom when disaster strikes.
  • How can we really understand what the other person means to convey? Language is only one way to communicate an idea, and maybe not even the best way. According to Kenneth Boulding, the systems theorist, sound (music, noise), vision (symbols, artefacts), lived experience and even dreams are channels for conveying ideas and experiences. We experimented with serious games (social simulations) to make participants ‘feel’ and empathise (cultural empathy).
  • We really learned to respect and revive time-honed practices people draw in without even thinking about it. While sponsors tend to like radical innovations, they are often not so popular with the intended beneficiaries who may see them as alien to their cultural practice, to what they can identify with. Therefore we advise to mix the new with the old, building on established ideas (cultural memory) but update them to new challenges, from different angles.
  • We refrain from identifying particular group as ‘vulnerable’ as we found most ‘special target groups’ do not like to be identified as such, and to be lumped together with dissimilar target groups. Thus, while we have special contributions with lessons learned on disaster and people with disabilities, as well as gender relations, we do not assume or suggest these groups require special treatment.
  • This handbook cannot be a ‘how-to’ recipe book, but a collection of ideas, tools and experiences that come to life when used in specific settings. Likewise, in policy transfer there can be no ‘one size fits all’ and ‘cut and paste’; any new concept will have to be adapted to local conditions and preferences. Adaptable, modular tools are therefore preferred to off-the-shelf packages.

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Elena Lopez Gunn, Manuel Bea and Marta Rica
While developing and adapting the tools in this Handbook, we ensured that they are replicable, to facilitate the transfer of knowledge embedded in the tools and methods, and the lessons drawn from their application to real-life cases.
The method relies on the implementation of pilot activities in different contexts in a cycle of replication loops, aiming to achieve the transferability of methodologies and procedures developed for the adoption by other cities.
The methodology has three replication loops for each activity. The jump from one replication loop into the next involves a larger type of interaction, and the transferability of pilot activities undertaken within the EDUCEN cities.

EDUCEN has succeeded in replicating a number of tools and methods in different ways to take into account the correct adaptation to a different local context. A sequential approach has been adopted:

  • In the second internal replication loop, a single method previously tested in a frontrunner city (first loop) was replicated in another city (Lorca, Dordrecht and London).
  • In the third external replication loop, the approach was replicated as an integrated process in another city (Valladolid) external to the initial case studies.

The process starts with the identification of a series of “pilot” activities. These activities can be identified and developed in two ways:

  • as emerging from the city based on local identified needs to address the specific requirements coming from the community of stakeholders (bottom up), and thus developed by the city itself; or
  • matching local needs to the tools and methods developed to adopt culture as an asset – in EDUCEN: tools and methods to incorporate cultural aspects like cultural memory; cultural networks; mutual learning; hard and soft infrastructure; and cultural empathy- in the local cities Disaster Risk reduction policies (top down).

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This first loop develops pilot activities on tools and methods for culture as an asset in all cases requires a level of involvement by those responsible for DRR and eventually the local community of stakeholders, organised and monitored by an organisation acting as facilitators or (pilot) activity leaders.

In this first loop, the focus is self-learning about one’s own role, and mutual learning among the different actors and stakeholders in DRR such as responders, planners and vulnerable groups. In all cases the pilot activity leaders engaged directly with local stakeholders through meetings, workshops, interviews, as organized activities. A main outcome of this approach are the networks created as a result of these activities, which all had a different aspect of culture at the core – effectively a local Community of Practice around Culture in DRR.
The methods and approach are based on a participatory strategy led by a local actor or facilitator with the consent of key local actors, and stakeholders for the co-development of tools and methods for integrating culture into DRR.

First Replication Loop

The first loop focuses on the definition of pilot activities in case studies. Throughout this replication loop, the tools and methods are developed, tested and evaluated for their suitability on the basis on the information and needs provided by city itself. The aim therefore is to co-develop together with city partners and the pilot activity leaders a series of tools and procedures for integration of culture into DRR.

A necessary condition for this match of tools and methods to city needs (demand) has to be flexible, i.e. an “adapt to adopt approach”, which adjusts and tailors the methods to the specific needs and context of the city. The choice of pilot activities to be adopted from the Toolkit should lie with the city, which is best placed to identify the relevance of the tools and methods, and the added value and impact that each activity provides after its application. This element of evaluation of local relevance (a reflexive part) is key element for the adoption of tools and methods that can help a city integrate culture as an asset.

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In the second loop the focus is to transfer pilot activities to other cities after these activities have been tried and tested.
A “stand-alone” set of transferable tools and procedures or broader methodological approaches can be implemented in the third loop by other cities without much direct support are integrated into a Toolkit as a key element in this Digital Handbook. However tools and methods will always have to be adapted before they are adopted to suit the needs of the specific city since these tools and methods have to be culturally grounded.

“Adapt to Adopt”- the importance of context for successful replication of tools and methods
The “adapt to adopt” approach recognises the central importance of context: the specific conditions for which the pilot activities for one specific tool or method are carried out. Incorporating different contexts is to acknowledge that different contextual factors must be incorporated in the replication frame to be able to produce transferable outcomes. All methods will have to be adapted to take into account the specific context and conditions of the replicating city. An overarching lesson learnt is the necessary crucial involvement from stakeholders (particularly local authorities) in order to fine-tune the objectives and the elaboration – and if needed, adjustment – of the final materials to be replicated in the sequence: a) re-design, b) implementation, c) validation and d) lessons learnt/reflections. The differences in context have proven to be particularly dependent on the level of involvement from local authorities and stakeholders and also, different aims in terms of contributing to the elaboration of the final materials to be produced.

Transferability within the second replication loop is largely demand driven: it is the city itself that then chooses those tools and methods from the available palette that are more suitable to its particular needs, after adjustment and fine-tuning; we found the city itself often brings additional tools, methods or approaches the city wants to incorporate.

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The third replication loop is important because it offers the potential, not only adapt the tools and methods to the adopting city, but also to integrate different tools and methods in a synergistic blend that incorporates the tools and methods from the “replicating city”.

Learning loops in EDUCEN. First Loop: Identi cation per cultural theme of methods, tools, procedures and best practices. Second Loop: “Adapt to adopt” Transfer to City B. Third Loop: Matrushka integrated approach to Transfer tools and methods to cities.

The so called Matrushka (Russian doll) approach integrates and/or slots together the different tools and methods bringing a higher level of impact. Rather than adopting a single tool or method, two or three methods are adapted and adopted simultaneously, providing enough flexibility to include tools and procedures (pilot activities) suggested by the replicating city to make a synergistic blend that can have a much deeper impact. These tools and methods act as lenses that look at different, yet complementary aspects of integrating culture into DRR and developing a culture of safety and security based on the adoption, appropriation and modification of these tools and methods. We applied Social Network Analysis three times; first as a pilot activity in the first loop for the case of the L’Aquila earthquake of 2009, then in a second replication loop for the 2012 Lorca flood in Spain, and then in a third replication loop to the city of Valladolid.

Figure 2. The three loops approach in Educen

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Marta Rica, Elena Lopez Gunn and Manuel Bea
The Handbook specifically aims to reach those organizations and stakeholders with direct responsibilities in working on DRR. Handing the procedures and tools to integrate culture into DRR to specifically these groups will be likely to have greatest impact on decreasing vulnerability of citizens living in disaster-prone areas.

We have defined the following main operational users of the Handbook:

  • Policy makers
  • Local governments and local security agencies
  • Disaster responders
  • Urban planners
  • Trainers and exercise designers
  • Local gatekeepers (community leaders)

While we of course hope that, for example, urban planners will benefit from reading the forward thinking we offer on cities as complex systems, we also would like to encourage them to read the chapters on domains they may not be so familiar with. City planners are often focussed on buildings and infrastructure, but need an understanding of the social complexity and cultural characteristics of the people living in urban centers. Disaster Risk Managers on the other hand are by training focussed on saving people, but may want to increase their understanding of what kind of city they will work in and (sub)cultures they will work with and for. Community leaders may at times feel excluded by disaster planning and communication, and may use ideas from this handbook to engage responders with fresh, inclusive initiatives.

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Manuel Bea, Marta Rica and Elena Lopez Gunn
Communities of Practice (CoPs) – living networks of experts on cultures in disaster encompassing community members and practitioners – can provide a key element for mainstreaming culture as an asset to increase resilience in DRR. The EDUCEN case studies have generated examples and support material, where the combined result (e.g. this handbook) can be disseminated to other potentially interested cities for their replication. This material can support the creation of other Communities of Practice to integrate culture into DRR in interested cities. This will support disaster planners, trainers and responders to reflect on the cultural factor, developing procedures to document active and latent knowledge of practitioners and communities in relation to culture in disasters.
Communities of Practice reach both inwards (local( and outwards: as local CoPs and as transnational (sometimes thematic) CoPs that can incorporate different cities sharing common interests to strengthen the use of culture as an asset in DRR.
The collaborative procedure requires building the sorts of cross-cultural linkages necessary for the formation of inter-cultural Communities of Practice. Collaboration and cross-learning between these multiple urban stakeholders and the relevant institutional actors is therefore crucial. A key action is to help create, extend and strengthen CoPs such that these actors better integrate culture into DRR in each participating city. This offers the support for disaster planners, trainers and responders to reflect on the cultural factor, developing procedures to document active and latent knowledge of practitioners and communities in relation to culture in disasters. These CoPs are the result of encouraging and facilitating the formation of living networks of experts on cultures in disasters encompassing community members and practitioners, drawn together by a common interest in understanding the role culture plays, in mitigating the risks of and accelerating recovery from disasters – i.e. the role of “Communities of Practice is based on a well-developed theory for studying how people learn socially from their peers within communities of a certain practice”.

Communities of Practice: (extract from Barquet et al., 2016)

‘Community of Practice’ refers to how people learn socially from their peers within communities focused on a particular activity. Definitions vary depending on the particular goals and fields of interest, but Wenger (1998) offers a general point of departure for understanding their importance: “Communities of practice develop around things that matter to people. As a result, their practices reflect members’ own understanding of what is important.” The community’s mission generally includes fostering interaction, identifying and sharing best practices, creating new knowledge, and fostering learning. Within Disaster Risk Reduction, Communities of Practice have been defined as “temporary horizontal organization[s] with varying levels of formality whose primary mission is to identify and solve complex, institutionally cross-cutting problems and whose major characteristics are: (1) a task-focused existence, (2) flexible and evolving membership, (3) openness to a wide input array, (4) shifting loci of leadership, (5) democratic decision-making, and (6) autonomous funding, within a continuous learning environment” (Sarmiento et al. 2012, p.14).

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Active local CoPs can help a shift of understandings and practices in all actors involved. We invited policy makers, urban planners and risk management actors, NGOs and civil-society groups to facilitate collaboration and learning between these groups, approaching culture as an opportunity. This meant the incorporation of different values, assumptions, “language” and terminology the different communities of practice have, by incorporating empirical and tacit knowledge. The Box summarises the kind of target actors to be included:

Steps to facilitate the emergence of a local Community of Practice on culture and disasters
1. Map those organizations and stakeholders groups with direct responsibilities on DRR, or which could be further benefitted from successful involvement into a network to consider culture as an asset for DRR. Below we have listed the “typology of target groups” to be considered for inclusion in a local CoP.

2. “Learning by doing”, how these communities of practice emerge from an approach that is sensitive and open to use and/or develop and implement cultural sensitive strategies, specific measures and tools. Target:

  • the first responders with the objective of securing a higher impact by targeting operational users. The goal for this level is to promote involvement into culture as an asset Communities of Practice network. Civil Protection authorities, with competences in urban areas. River Basin Authorities, in cities which may be severely affected by floods are examples of this type of stakeholders.
  • other beneficiaries: urban communities and particularly vulnerable groups, researchers and generic policy makers or urban planners. Here, our focus is on increasing understanding and promoting a wider dialogue. Prioritise representatives of cities and municipalities with significant risk to natural catastrophes and with competences in DRR planning.
  • the general public, which may get informed about pilot activities, tools and methods in line with the aim of raising awareness around the potential of culture as a basis for a better disaster preparedness. Groups of stakeholders representing one sub-culture in cities in particular vulnerable groups (e.g. migrants, inclusively oriented DRR) at local, regional or even national scale, and NGOs/voluntary organizations involved in disaster preparedness and response.

experts like those active in museums, local universities, archives and the academic community of practice engaged on mainstreaming culture into DRR and research in this area, particularly from the perspective of the science-policy interface. Second, policy makers operating at different levels (including the European Commission Community of users on security: see and

In linking actors active in DRR previously not working together into de facto Communities of Practice. an important role is the identification of end users to help sustain dissemination, networking and learning beyond the project. The potential for co-development and testing of a series of tools and procedures for integrating of culture into DRR through a series of workshops built around policy exercises so that the products that make up the final multimedia Handbook are useful and relevant for the knowledge itself generated from the design and application of the tool the process itself which led to the creation of a CoP, an intangible result by itself.
Strong local Communities of Users at city level come with an important added value which became obvious once the city meetings and activities were underway: the different stakeholders and end users themselves can tap into their own networks thus helping to be “agents” or “diffusers” of EDUCEN´s tools and methods. These local CoPs together form a “Culture in Disasters” network that has helped in the preparation and delivery of the local case study manuals. These local CoPs together form a “Culture in Disasters” network supporting the preparation and delivery of the local digital manuals as well as this Handbook through testing the training modules, toolkit and methods, so that these can be adapted and adopted by other cities.

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Transnational CoPs are more difficult to set up, mainly due to language barriers and resource constraints, but offer great potential for speeding up social innovation and mutual learning. The workshops held during the EDUCEN project have been organised around specific themes such as volunteers, leaders/gatekeepers, climate security and DRR, or around disability inclusive disaster policies. We could see emerging CoUs around e.g. the volunteer groups attending, the media and the public authorities, as well as cross-learning with e.g. Swedish public authorities talking to Spanish digital volunteers or the Italian Red Cross engaging with the Spanish regional civil protection.

Another aspect has been upscaling local Communities of Practice. As Local Communities of Users gradually developed it was realised that this in effect is a network within other networks. Some of these local CoUs have started to open the door to upscaling and replicating methods to other scales. In the workshop held in Volos on July 2016, one of the main successes of the event was the capacity of the organiser to draw on not just local actors but also regional and national level stakeholders. Equally, in the case of Istanbul, although the application started with the megacity of Istanbul, the CS leader is a national organisation; the materials developed are intended to be adopted to be implemented at national scale.

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The navigation is very straightforward

At the top of each page, the following clickable buttons are found:

Home – from wherever in the book, this returns the reader to the home page
Welcome and How to Use – This explains the background and set up of the handbook
Sections – thematic introductions to key themes in urban disasters and cultures
Case Studies – lessons learned and ways forward in our seven EDUCEN cities/city regions
Links – to relevant sites and projects
Contacts – how to reach the EDUCEN consortium members and cities
Lower down, the reader can click to individual other chapters while in a particular chapter. The chapters in turn draw from relevant examples from the EDUCEN cities and refer to the EDUCEN methodologies tested or replicated there.

The Sections have the following topics:

  1. Culture and disaster
  2. Culture and risk: path dependencies
  3. Cities and disaster risk reduction
  4. Inclusion in disaster risk reduction: engaging with diverse disaster affected groups
  5. Actors, response, and interaction in disaster risk reduction
  6. Tools and methods

Throughout the handbook references are made to section 6 and to the case studies in order to provide a quick link to the tools, methods and steps, guiding questions that have been adopted to identify elements of culture and integrate them into DRR.
The Handbook has the option to download different sections. The includes a series of sections and sub-sections on key themes.

Intrigued? Want to know more? Please feel free to contact us for information and collaboration:;