How do we build resilient crowded places?

Author: Professor Paul Arbon, Director of the Torrens Resilience Institute, Flinders University

Crowded places have become a focus of national security and emergency management concern in recent times.

The term ‘crowded places’ is used in event management and security sectors to describe locations that are a focus for spontaneous or planned gatherings of people (crowds).

Crowded places includes, of course, the traditional sporting and other mass gathering events held in community venues and other public spaces such as shopping malls, outdoor recreation spaces in urban environments and mass transit systems. The day-to-day management of the consequences of mass gatherings has been a focus of emergency and security management and scientific literature for many years.

This discourse has included consideration of the potential impact(s) of these events, both within venues and in the surrounding community, and the strategies that could help to reduce risk and respond to public health and security concerns. Generally, it is agreed crowded places generate additional risk and result in increases in presentations for health care, increased workload for public safety agencies, and increased stress on community infrastructure such as public transport or increased traffic congestion.

There have been few reviews of the experience of planning for and responding to catastrophic events at mass gatherings.1 These reviews are retrospective in nature and have influenced planning guidance for future events (for example, the Purple Guide to Health Safety and Welfare at Events2 in the UK). However, our experience of severe impacts affecting mass gatherings is limited and plans built upon the experience of prior events do not necessarily assist in protecting crowded places from emerging new threats or the unexpected and often cascading consequences of severe disruptive events. These low likelihood and high consequence events are difficult to plan for and respond to. In some cases they may be “unthinkable” and therefore not considered in emergency planning – modern approaches to risk management may draw attention and resources toward risks with medium to high likelihood and with moderate to high consequence. It is naturally difficult to dedicate effort and resources to those events which are very unlikely (or even inconceivable) and yet potentially catastrophic.

The all hazards approach provides a foundation on which to plan for unexpected and potentially catastrophic events and/or events causing severe, widespread and diffuse impact(s). These include infrastructure failure (stand collapse), extreme weather (heat or severe storm events), violent protests (issue motivated groups), public health threats (novel infectious disease outbreaks such as Ebola or MERS) and deliberate events (terrorism including active shooter and other lone actor attacks and/or the use of improvised explosive devices).

Within the context of the increasingly inter-dependent and complex systems that protect crowded places, the emergence of resilience as an important concept in risk reduction provides an opportunity to apply resilience concepts to prevention and preparedness within the crowded places context and to develop strategies to build the resilience of these locations so that they are capable of withstanding, or at least limiting the impact, of catastrophic events.

The all hazards approach emphasises good risk management and the development of multi-agency plans, including shared and agreed tools such as communications, mapping, monitoring and surveillance, early warning systems and incident coordination and command systems, in order that the “system” is better able to respond effectively irrespective of the nature of the impact. This approach goes some way toward bolstering the resilience of a crowded place. However, tailored and focussed strategies can and should be developed for specific identified risks and for the management of the consequences of these potential events.

What other generic preparedness actions can help to build resilience into complex systems and reduce the risks associated with highly unlikely and potentially catastrophic events?

Among the lessons that can be drawn from experience, several proactive resilience actions include:

  • Responsible parties should move beyond day to day emergency management processes such as strengthening plans, developing response and recovery protocols;
  • Planners should adapt to a new paradigm that responds to complex systems interactions and potential cascading failures and focus on an all hazards approach to their preparedness;
  • Planners should act externally as well as addressing internal factors, consider shared responsibility and work with partners, including those who provide essential services;
  • Venue and event owners should take community, venue and client actions that are preventative and build support for the crowded place, its community, purpose and activities;
  • Managers should consider worst case scenarios and test systems against possible system failures;
  • Management should develop awareness and management approaches that support decision making at all levels of the management structure (for example, understand and use wisely the concept of constructive disobedience), encourage vigilance and noticing small signals, identify and protect what really matters (safety of public and staff and reputation), and work deliberately to engage with neighbours and the community of stakeholders.

Resilience works to reduce the extent of a possible impact and aids the rate of recovery. At times resilience may prevent catastrophe. At times it will simply mitigate what would otherwise have been a more severe impact.

In either case the relative contribution of resilience building actions is difficult to assess and resilience building work and the impact of resilience actions, may be unnoticed and unrewarded. For this reason investment in resilience building can be hard to sustain.

We know however that the costs associated with severe disruption of crowded places is rising and more communities and assets are being exposed to the potentially harmful consequences of these events.

We know that several of the threat categories typically considered are having greater impact, such as severe weather related events and extremist violence and novel or emerging infectious diseases.

Investment in crowded places resilience pays dividends both in terms of public safety and also, importantly, in terms of the sustainability and future acceptability of these public, commercial and recreational spaces and events.


  1. Soomaroo, L., & Murray, V. (2012). Disasters at mass gatherings: lessons from history. PLoS currents4, RRN1301. doi:10.1371/currents.RRN1301
  2. The Purple Guide on-line 30 October 2018




Author biography

Professor Arbon is a Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor, Director of the Torrens Resilience Institute and Professor of Nursing (Population Health). The Torrens Resilience Institute was established in 2009 to improve the capacity of organisations and societies to respond to disruptive challenges that have the potential to overwhelm local disaster management capabilities and plans. Current research and development is focused on community and organisational resilience, mass gathering management and health security. The Institute hosts the City Security and Resilience Networks for Australia and Asia, the International Council of Nurses (ICNP) Centre for Disaster Nursing and the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Mass Gatherings and Global Health Security

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