Increasingly urbanized populations and climate change have shifted the focus of decision makers from economic growth to the sustainability and resilience of urban infrastructure and communities, especially when communities face multiple hazards and need to recover from recurring disasters. Understanding human behavior and its interactions with built environments in disasters requires disciplinary crossover to explain its complexity, therefore we apply the lens of complex adaptive systems (CAS) to review disaster studies across disciplines. Disasters can be understood to consist of three interacting systems: (1) the physical system, consisting of geological, ecological, and human-built systems; (2) the social system, consisting of informal and formal human collective behavior; and (3) the individual actor system. Exploration of human behavior in these systems shows that CAS properties of heterogeneity, interacting subsystems, emergence, adaptation, and learning are integral, not just to cities, but to disaster studies and connecting them in the CAS framework provides us with a new lens to study disasters across disciplines. This paper explores the theories and models used in disaster studies, provides a framework to study and explain disasters, and discusses how complex adaptive systems can support theory building in disaster science for promoting more sustainable and resilient cities.
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