Student Spotlight: Alexei Trundle

Informal Climate Resilience in Pacific Island Cities

Tell us about your research

My research is looking at the ways that informal settlements in Pacific island countries are coping with climate change. The Pacific region is one of the most vulnerable areas in the world to climate change impacts, and is already regularly affected by climate-related natural disasters such as tropical cyclones, drought and heavy rainfall. Many of these extreme events are getting worse due to global warming, which is also bringing new threats such as ocean acidification, changes to seasonal patterns, heatwaves and bushfires.

The Pacific isn't often thought of in terms of its cities, let alone informal settlements (which are also called slums, or squatter settlements, depending on their form and the type of land they are located on). However it is urbanising rapidly, and these cities provide critical adaptation pathways and cash-based livelihood alternatives for Pacific Islanders as climate change impacts accelerate.

"Climate resilience" is increasingly being used to frame international development agendas, with urban resilience programs being rolled out across a number of cities globally, and included in global frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda. However, resilience thinking and theory aren't well developed in terms of understanding conflicting values and agendas within socio-centric systems such as cities. For example, a municipal government may see the best way to strengthen their city's resilience to climate risks as being to remove housing from vulnerable areas such as floodplains and riverbanks. However, these areas are often occupied by informal settlers who have nowhere else to go, and have their own systems - outside of government - that allow them to cope with climate shocks and stresses.

So my research is looking at how the forms of resilience that are derived from within informal settlements - building on community networks, traditional knowledge and non-state structures - interact with these institutional efforts to build resilience in Pacific cities, and what that means for policy, practice and resilience theory.

What are the main challenges?

One of the hardest things about the research that I do in Pacific cities is building trust with informal communities, who are often skeptical of outsiders who 'fly-in, fly-out' doing surveys and workshops without the community seeing any real benefits, and often without being seen again. This was particularly the case in Port Vila, Vanuatu, one of my two case study cities, where there was a lot of 'consultation fatigue' following the high level of international focus on the city after Tropical Cyclone Pam hit in 2015. It helps to make sure that you are transparent about your goals, and to make sure that you are able to contribute to the community where you can. For instance, I was able to type up and print up multiple copies of one community's constitution, and access title documents from the Ministry of Lands that related to another. Although these aren't big things, it shows a level of reciprocity and a willingness to exchange, rather than just take, information.

A second challenge is in accessing data. Often urban areas are not well mapped or understood - Port Vila, for instance, has not had a zoning plan legislated since independence in 1980, while informal settlement areas haven't been mapped since 1997. Thankfully I have been able to work around these data gaps through my work with the United Nations Human Settlements Program UN-Habitat), which has allowed me to build up government contacts and access secondary data that can be hard to find remotely.

What have the highlights of your PhD been so far?

The biggest highlight has been to have the opportunity to hear the stories of so many of our Pacific island neighbours and learn about how they are coping with climate change, natural disasters and the day-to-day issues that they face living in the region's informal settlements. To be able to communicate these experiences to government, international donors, and the global academy is a privilege, but it also challenges so many assumptions about how cities and climate change work in countries like Australia. Being able to reflect on this has totally transformed my own personal understanding of the field of climate change adaptation and what that means for sustainable urban development both internationally and in my own city, Melbourne.

Taking part in the Habitat III Conference as part of a University of Melbourne delegation including fellow research students, early career researchers and more senior academic colleagues was fantastic. It's an event that only occurs once every 20 years, so it was pretty special being there and running training sessions with UN-Habitat for global urban practitioners and students from the host city Quito, Ecuador. I was also able to take part in the IPCC Cities and Climate Change Conference, which will feed into the first ever IPCC Cities Report in their next Assessment Cycle. Following on from my presentation at the event I was invited to lead a research paper for a special edition of the international journal Environmental & Urbanisation, which was a collaborative piece reflecting on my PhD research in relation to some more applied planning examples led by UN-Habitat.

I was also very grateful to receive the Dean's Prize for Published Research in 2018 for my book chapter Governance and agency beyond boundaries: climate resilience in Port Vila’s peri-urban settlements. I'll be using the award to go back to each of my case study communities once I've completed my PhD to talk to them further about the findings from my research, as well as the government and institutional representatives that I interviewed. It's great to be able to have the opportunity to be recognised for publishing while you do your PhD research, which is important but can also take up a significant amount of additional time in and around your studies.

What would you like to do after your PhD?

After I finish my PhD I hope to continue working within academia, looking at the impacts of climate change on informal settlements and cities more widely in our region. I'm particularly interested in expanding the research findings from my PhD to cities elsewhere, including within Australia, where issues such as Indigenous urban land rights, recognition and reconciliation face even bigger post-colonial challenges than in many of our Pacific island neighbours. There are also so many lessons to be learnt about how cities and urban environments can develop differently outside of Eurocentric planning approaches. For example, urban gardening and strong community structures are key strengths of Pacific cities that we are only now trying to re-integrate within our own urban planning processes in Australia.

You can find a list of Alexei's current publications here.

Alexei Trundle is a PhD student based at the Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne. Alexei is the coordinator of MSSI's Future Cities Research Cluster and his PhD supervisors are MSSI Director Professor Brendan Gleeson and Professor Lesley Head.

If you are interested in collaborating with Alexei, he can be emailed at