POSI 4397, Article Review I: The Paradox of Urban Containment Policy

Raymond J. Burbury, Arthur C. Nelson, Dennis Parker & John Handmer (2001) Urban Containment Policy and Exposure to Natural Hazards: Is There a Connection?, Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 44:4, 475-490


Urban containment policies aim to create safer, more sustainable communities through limiting land available for development, preserving green spaces, and restricting the delivery of public goods and services within defined growth boundaries. However, a serious, unintended, consequence may have evolved from these policies. In Urban Containment Policy and Exposure to Natural Hazards: Is There a Connection?, Burbury, Nelson, Parker, & Handmer suggest that development into less-expensive, hazardous lands, outside the growth boundary lines, can lead to a higher loss of life and property in the event of a natural disaster. The authors explore this issue as a hypothesis by doing three specific things. First, the authors review urban containment policies and show how those policies have directly contributed to the increased development of hazardous areas. Next, the authors examine naturally contained urban areas and cite circumstantial evidence to support their claims regarding risks associated with development in known hazardous areas. And finally, while acknowledging that more research is needed to fully understand the big picture, they suggest that including hazard mitigation plans alongside containment policies will help reduce loss of life and property when nature strikes.

Urban Containment Policies & Hazardous Development Areas

With the rapid expansion of all major metropolitan areas in the 20th century, and the urban sprawl that goes along with it, urban containment policies were quickly adopted as way to manage growth and reduce sprawl. Through a variety of rules and incentives, urban containment policies aim to promote, and even restrict, residential and commercial development towards the central areas inside the growth boundary lines. In doing so, cities and counties are able to keep the bulk of jobs and tax revenues in the central city, which allows the city to deliver public goods and services to its residents in the most efficient and fiscally responsible manner. Additionally, by confining growth within boundary lines, cities can maintain dedicated green space, protect farmlands, and preserve natural resources. City governments were the first to start implementing urban containment strategies, and several states have developed enforceable land use and planning containment policies.

However, as successful as urban containment policies have been, the development of residential and commercial properties within hazardous land areas has emerged as an unintended, yet, direct outcome of these growth strategies. Containment policies limit land available for development which inevitably leads to higher land prices. Land development then naturally turns to lower-priced areas inside and outside of the containment boundaries. These areas can include hazardous lands purposefully left outside of original growth boundaries, or lands inside the growth boundary that were originally not zoned for commercial or residential development. Hazardous land areas can include anything from land near a river that swells every time it rains, an active fault line, a dense greenbelt that becomes a fire hazard, or a retired landfill that isn’t truly old enough for development (among other conditions).

Since this land is cheaper to build on, development in inevitably happens. If developers take steps to mitigate the hazardous conditions during development (slope-stabilization on hillsides, elevated foundations in flood plains, reduce brush in green spaces, etc.), then the associated risks might be greatly reduced, or even negated. However, without local governments requiring developers to take these precautions, developers will most likely not make these expensive land improvements before building and the risks remain. Furthermore, homeowners generally do not take measures to protect or prepare their properties from natural disaster, even if their home is zoned in a previously known hazardous area. Either they do not purchase enough insurance (unless required to do so), or they do not want to pay a developer for the extra work needed to insure a safe and sound home has been built. But the issues just aren’t with the developers and the home owners: homes built outside of the containment areas may not lie close enough to allow the city to respond to an emergency in an efficient and effective manner. If a city or county has not planned accordingly, they will not be able to support those citizens who live in the hazardous areas in the event of a natural disaster. Considering all the variables, development in hazardous areas can clearly result in a marked increase in the risk of loss of life or property, as compared to non-hazardous development areas, or in the event of a natural disaster, if the known risks are not mitigated by the developers or local city planners through hazard mitigation plans.

Natural Urban Containment and Hazard Mitigation

Next, the authors examine circumstantial evidence provided by New Orleans, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, in order to demonstrate associated risks with development in hazardous areas, and justify the need for hazardous mitigation plans. These densely populated regions are constrained by natural, physical barriers (vs. an arbitrary boundary line set by a planning board.) When examined through a “contained urban area” lens, these areas can provide planners ample information on how to reduce damages from natural disasters. While the authors recommend more research is needed, they argue that circumstantial evidence supports their claims regarding hazardous mitigation plans as a necessary tool to help in managing development and growth in and around areas affected by urban containment polices.

New Orleans, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are three regions in which a dense city center is surrounded by naturally occurring “containment” boundary line. New Orleans is bound by the “…Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, and extensive coastal marshes and is one of the most contained urban areas in the USA.” (Burby, 2010) San Francisco is bordered by the water and hills. Los Angeles lies in between the Pacific Ocean and a mountain range. All three geographic areas must manage their growth within a tightly contained region. All three are very densely populated. All three are susceptible to one or more natural disasters: floods, fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes. The authors highlight the costs associated with disasters in these areas. A category 5 hurricane could cost New Orleans an estimated $30 billion+. A massive earthquake in San Francisco could cost upwards of $120 billion just in damaged buildings. And if another major flood, massive earthquake, or roaring fire hits Los Angeles, the losses would soar well beyond anything they’ve managed before, well into the $100 billion range. Again, this information is provided to show how development of residential and commercial properties in hazardous regions poses an increased risk of loss of life and property in the event of a natural disaster. The authors are not suggesting that development not occur in those areas; but rather, if they must occur, that the development plans should include hazard mitigation plans so that if the worst case scenario unfolds, loss of life and property will not be as extensive.

Hazard Mitigation Plans & Urban Containment Planning

Finally, hazard mitigation plans require careful consideration in order for planners to fully understand all costs associated with containment policies – good and bad. A solid hazard mitigation plan can let a city planner know if the proposed containment policy is affordable and sustainable. This information is invaluable in the early stages of city and development planning and because the costs associated with implementation of a hazard mitigation plan after development would be considerably higher it is imperative that the hazard mitigation plan be completed alongside, or even before, the development plans kick off.

The authors provide applicable information on how to develop comprehensive hazard mitigation plans and explain why they should be created right alongside any urban containment plan development with the following six different types policies and action plans:

  1. Preventative Policies: Seeks to limit new development in hazardous areas.
  2. Property Protection Policies: Affords financial support to retrofit old properties, relocate structures, or obtain insurance.
  3. Structural Protection Policies: Normally used in flood-prone zones, these policies require both cities and builders to invest in and proper flood control measures such as drainage ditches, levees, dams, etc.
  4. Emergency Services Policies: Aims to reduce the severity of a natural disaster after it strikes by providing efficient and effective emergency response teams and provisions.
  5. Natural Resource Protection Policies: Protecting spaces that are prone to natural disasters as a preemptive measure to reduce hazardous development.
  6. Public Information Policies: Building awareness by educating home owners on their options, and developers on their duties, is a major part of any hazard mitigation plan.

Because every region is different, every hazard mitigation plan will be different, and these six policies above are not the full extent of what kinds of policies and action plans will be required to properly mitigate every hazardous area. It will be important for the hazard mitigation plan to adequately and appropriately apply to the specific region or development area for which is being planned. For example, an area prone to hurricanes and flooding will want to focus on property protection, structure protection, and emergency services policies. However, an area prone to fires and earthquakes may want to adopt some preventative policies, natural resource protection policies, and emergency services policies. Each different type of hazard mitigation policy is equally important – it all depends on the area in question.


The authors conclude by stating that this article is simply an examination of an issue they have identified within the urban containment planning and policies. While they are adamant that hazard mitigation plans will help reduce the loss of life and property, in the event of a natural disaster, they admit that this is an hypothesis that needs more fleshing out. Never the less, they hold firm their stance that planners have a duty to produce a thoughtful, comprehensive, and thorough hazard mitigation plan.

Additionally, they offer two other questions which they say deserve more research. First, they want to know if urban containment actually does increase development in hazardous areas. The authors have suggested that this is the case, but admit there is no hardcore evidence to support their claim. Secondly, they want to know what extent have other “…areas pursuing urban containment adopted appropriate hazard mitigation plans…” in order to answer the nagging suspicion that without state mandates, planners will continue to ignore the need for hazard mitigation planning.

This article is interesting in light of issues faced by development in far outlying areas known as “fringe cities.” Fringe cities can mitigate their risks in the event of a natural disaster by developing a hazardous mitigation plan at the same time containment plans are being developed. While these remote communities may not initially have resources to plan for natural disasters, as fringe cities adopt containment policies, it would be prudent to produce a comprehensive hazardous mitigation plan. Not only will this plan be of vital importance in the event of a natural disaster, it could shield the city from any negligence suits, as well as help the city prepare for its own future sprawl.