Natural Hazards Planning

Rebekah Paci-Green, Western Washington University
Western Washington University


This interdisciplinary course emphasizes creation of safer human settlements through application of hazard mitigation strategies in community planning, site selection and layout, infrastructure design, and building design. This course is intended to provide an overview of geological and meteorological natural hazards; the mandates and responsibilities of various levels of government; and the tools, techniques, and processes available to them for mitigation.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs.

Course Context:

This course forms one of four courses in a disaster risk reduction minor offered in the Environmental Studies department. It is a junior-level course with two prerequisite courses – an introduction to urban planning course and a physical geography or introductory geology course. The majority of students are majors in urban planning and sustainable development, where the course is a major requirement. However, some students from other majors such as geology and environmental studies, take the course as part of the disaster risk reduction minor. Students consistently note that the course is one of the most demanding courses they have taken, but they also find the material engaging and several students each term decide to enter the disaster risk reduction minor based upon what they learn in this course.

Course Content:

The course begins with a brief review of geological and meteorological hazards. Each hazard is examined in terms of their physical characteristics (magnitude, duration, spatial extent, temporal and spatial distribution, and seed of onset) and their primary impacts on human settlements. The course then delves into the mandates and responsibilities of the local, state and federal governments and the federal legal and policy frameworks under which natural hazards planning occurs. The course then returns to each natural hazard and surveys ways in which risks to these hazards can be mitigated through engineered projects, prevention, property and natural resource protection, and public information.

Course Goals:

  • Students will characterize and compare hazards and use these characterizations to assess and prioritize natural hazards within a defined geography.
  • Students will review state and local natural hazard mitigation plans within the context of federal Disaster Management Act of 2000.
  • Students will understand a range of non-structural and structural mitigation options for each natural hazard and costs and benefits associated with each.
  • Students will develop a hazard mitigation plan for a specific jurisdiction by identifying and prioritizing mitigation options that address the natural hazard exposure and vulnerability of the jurisdiction.

Course Features:

The course is a mixture of lectures and applications of these concepts to student-selected jurisdictions, including construction of a natural hazards profile for our local county, a critique of a state or local hazard mitigation plan using DMA 2000 federal evaluation criteria, and case studies of completed mitigation projects. The course culminates in a group project where students build a 15-year natural hazard mitigation strategy for a jurisdiction they select. They must first identify and rank hazards, identify mitigation options, evaluate and prioritize these options, and then develop a multi-year implementation strategy. When students have selected local jurisdictions they have invited local emergency planners to review their strategies.

Course Philosophy:

The course is designed as one of the sequence courses in the disaster risk reduction minor of the Environmental Studies Department. The sequence takes the natural hazard risk to be the product of both the natural hazard and society's vulnerability and exposure to that hazard. The two components of risk are covered somewhat separately in the sequence. This course focuses on the natural hazards and the way in which decisions about the built environment can create unsafe conditions, a component of vulnerability. The following course directly address differential social vulnerability created by unequal access to power and resources and the concept of resilience. The format, case studies and planning exercises are particularly designed to draw on the strengths of the urban planning students. These planning exercises are designed to help them see the relevance of planning for natural hazard exposure in ways that minimize risk and reduce safeguard community development, a necessary component of sustainability.


The students are assessed through exams, case studies and projects. The students take a mid-term exam on natural hazard characterization and impacts as well as shorter quizzes on natural hazard policy. Students complete three case studies of mitigation projects and present one of them to class. They review a state hazard mitigation plan and present it on a self-designed website. Working in groups of four, they also complete the culminating 15-year natural hazard mitigation strategy for a local jurisdiction.


References and Notes:

Hazard Mitigation and Preparedness by A. Schwab
White, G. F., Kates, R. W., & Burton, I. (2002). Knowing better and losing even more: the use of knowledge in hazards management, pp 81-92.

Tobin, G. A., Montz B. E. (1997). "Chapter 2: Physical Dimension of natural hazards." Natural hazards, explanation and integration. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, pp 48-127.

American Planning Association. (1998). Planning for post-disaster recovery and reconstruction; Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment. Washington, DC. APA Planning Advisory Service, pp 195-216.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (2003). Developing the mitigation plan; Identifying mitigation actions and implementation strategies. FEMA 386. Washington, DC.

Olshansky, R. B. (1998). Regulation of Hillside Development in the United States. Environmental Management, 22(3), pp 383-392.

Federal Emergency Management Agency. (1989). "Chapter 6: Landslide loss- reduction techniques." Landslide loss reduction: A guide for state and local government planning. FEMA 182. Washington, D.C., pp 30-33.

Godschalk, D. R., Brower, D. J., & Beatley, T. (1989). "Chapter 2: Alternative approaches to mitigating coastal storm hazards." Catastrophic coastal storms: hazard mitigation and development management. Durham: Duke University Press, pp 23-45.

Faber, S. (1996). On borrowed lands: Public policies for floodplains. Cambridge, MA. Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, pp 1-27.

Bernard, E., Mofjeld, H., Titov, V., Synolakis, C., & González, F. (2006). Tsunami: Scientific frontiers, mitigation, forecasting and policy implications. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 364(1845), pp 1989-2007.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (2002).Rapid visual screening of buildings for potential seismic hazards: A handbook. FEMA 154-2. Redwood City, CA; Applied Technology Council.