[Paleopsych] CHE: The City Shall Rise Again: Urban Resilience in the Wake of Disaster

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The City Shall Rise Again: Urban Resilience in the Wake of Disaster
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.14


    On December 26 -- exactly one year after an earthquake crumbled the
    Iranian city of Bam and killed more than 30,000 people -- an
    earthquake-powered tsunami flattened the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh
    on Sumatra, and spread death and devastation across more than a dozen
    countries from Thailand to Somalia. Countless small villages face an
    uncertain future after such disasters. Paradoxically, perhaps, it is
    the larger urban areas that are almost certain to rebound, just as
    Lisbon did after the famous tsunami of 1755.
    Whoever penned the Latin maxim Sic transit Gloria mundi, or "thus
    passes the glory of the world," was probably not an urbanist. Although
    cities have been destroyed throughout history -- sacked, shaken,
    burned, bombed, flooded, starved, irradiated, and poisoned -- they
    have, in almost every case, risen again like the mythic phoenix.
    There have been some exceptions. In 1902 the eruption of Mount Pelée
    buried St. Pierre, Martinique -- once known as "the Paris of the
    Antilles" -- under pyroclastic lava flows. Nearly 30,000 residents and
    visitors perished; only one man survived, a prisoner in solitary
    Yet one is hard-pressed to think of other cities in recent centuries
    that have not recovered. Atlanta, Columbia, and Richmond all survived
    the devastation wrought by the American Civil War and remain state
    capitals today. Chicago emerged stronger than ever following the 1871
    fire, as did San Francisco from the earthquake and fires of 1906. We
    still have Hiroshima and Nagasaki, despite the horrors of nuclear
    attack. Warsaw lost 61 percent of its 1.3 million residents during
    World War II, yet surpassed its prewar population by 1967. Does anyone
    doubt that Kabul and Kandahar, or Baghdad and Basra, will also
    re-emerge once protracted fighting finally comes to a close -- or that
    even Bam and Banda Aceh will ultimately be revived?
    And while contemporary places rebuild following devastation, many of
    the places destroyed in more distant eras -- Roman cities like Pompeii
    or the pre-Columbian settlements of the Americas -- persist in a
    different mode. Such "lost cities" are recovered as sites for tourism,
    education, remembrance, or myth. Even St. Pierre survives as a town of
    5,000 persons, a tourable set of ruins, and a volcano museum. Cities
    are among humankind's most durable artifacts.
    Just why this should be so, especially as the mechanisms for
    destruction have multiplied, is not entirely obvious. Why do cities
    get rebuilt? How do modern cities recover from disaster?
    Urban disaster, like urban resilience, takes many forms, and can be
    categorized in many ways. First, there is the scale of destruction,
    which may range from a small single precinct to an entire city or an
    even larger area -- like the recent devastation, which affected
    countries from Southeast Asia all the way to East Africa. Second, such
    disasters can be viewed in terms of their human toll, as measured by
    deaths and disruption of lives. Third, these destructive acts can be
    evaluated according to their presumed cause. Some result from largely
    uncontrollable forces of nature, like earthquakes and tsunamis; others
    from combinations of natural forces and human action, like fires;
    still others result from deliberate human will, like the actions of a
    lone terrorist. Finally, there are economic disasters -- triggered by
    demographic change, a major accident, or an industrial or commercial
    crisis -- that may contribute to massive population flight,
    diminishing investment in infrastructure and buildings, and perhaps
    even large-scale abandonment.
    Although we have many case studies of post-disaster reconstruction in
    individual cities, until very recently few scholars have attempted
    cross-cultural comparisons, and even fewer have attempted to compare
    urban resilience in the face of natural disasters, for instance, with
    resilience following human-inflicted catastrophes. By studying
    historical examples, however, we can learn the pressing questions that
    have been asked in the past as cities and their residents struggled to
    One of the most important questions to consider is that of recovery.
    What does it mean for a city to recover? The broad cultural question
    of recovery is more than a problem of "disaster management," however
    daunting and important that may be. Are there common themes that can
    help us understand the processes of physical, political, social,
    economic, and cultural renewal and rebirth? What is urban resilience?
    Many disasters may follow a predictable pattern of rescue,
    restoration, rebuilding, and remembrance, yet we can only truly
    evaluate a recovery based on the specific circumstances. It matters,
    for instance, that the Chinese central government viewed the
    devastation of the earthquake in Tangshan in 1976 as a threat to
    national industrial development, and that the contending governments
    of postwar Berlin viewed the re-emergent city as an ideological
    battleground. Jerusalem, traumatized more than perhaps any other city
    in history, has undergone repeated cycles of destruction and renewal,
    but each time the process of reconstruction and remembrance has been
    carried out in profoundly different ways.
    Thus, it is no simple task to extract common messages, let alone
    lessons, from the wide-ranging stories of urban resilience. Yet
    several themes stand out:
    Narratives of resilience are a political necessity. The ubiquity of
    urban rebuilding after a disaster results from, among other things, a
    political need to demonstrate resilience. In that sense, resilience is
    primarily a rhetorical device intended to enhance or restore the
    legitimacy of whatever government was in charge at the time the
    disaster occurred. Regardless of its other effects, the destruction of
    a city usually reflects poorly on whomever is in power. If the chief
    function of government is to protect citizens from harm, the
    destruction of densely inhabited places presents the greatest possible
    challenge to its competence and authority.
    Cultivation of a sense of recovery and progress therefore remains a
    priority for governments. Of course, governments conduct rescue
    operations and channel emergency funds as humanitarian gestures first
    and foremost, but they also do so as a means of saving face and
    retaining public office.
    Disasters reveal the resilience of governments. In the aftermath of
    disaster, the very legitimacy of government is at stake. Citizens have
    the opportunity to observe how their leaders respond to an acute
    crisis and, if they are not satisfied, such events can be significant
    catalysts for political change. Even something as minor as a snowstorm
    can threaten or destroy the re-election chances of a mayor who is too
    slow in getting the plows out.
    After the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, residents saw that the
    existing bureaucracy lacked the flexibility and the will to place the
    needs of homeless citizens first. By criticizing the government's
    overriding interest in calming international financial markets,
    grass-roots social movements gained new primacy.
    At an equally basic level, a sudden disaster causes governments to
    exercise power quite directly. In postwar Warsaw, for instance, both
    the reconstruction of the Old Town and the creation of modernist
    housing estates in adjacent areas depended on the power and
    flexibility assumed by a strong central government. Rebuilding is
    often economically necessary to jump-start employment and spending,
    and thereby casts in bold relief the values and priorities of
    Narratives of resilience are always contested. The rhetoric of
    resilience is never free from politics, self-interest, or contention.
    Narratives focused on promises of progress are often bankrolled by
    those who control capital or the means of production and are
    manipulated by media pundits, politicians, and other voices that carry
    the greatest influence. There is never a single, monolithic vox populi
    that uniformly affirms the adopted resilience narrative in the wake of
    disaster. Instead, key figures in the dominant culture claim (or are
    accorded) authorship, while marginalized groups or peoples are often
    ignored. No one polled homeless people in Manhattan about how we
    should think about September 11.
    Local resilience is linked to national renewal. A major traumatic
    event in a particular city often projects itself into the national
    arena. Recovery becomes linked to questions of national prestige and
    to the need to re-establish standing in the community of nations. In
    that sense, resilience takes on a wider ideological significance that
    extends well beyond the boundaries of the affected city. A capital
    city or a city that is host to many national institutions is swiftly
    equated with the nation-state as a whole. When a Mexico City, a
    Beirut, a Warsaw, or a Tokyo suffers, all of Mexico, Lebanon, Poland,
    or Japan feels the consequences.
    Resilience is underwritten by outsiders. Increasingly, the resilience
    of cities depends on political and financial influences exercised from
    well outside the city limits. Usually, in a federal system, urban
    resilience depends on the emergency allocation of outside support from
    higher levels of government. In the United States, that holds true for
    every federally designated "disaster area" -- whether caused by a
    hurricane, snowstorm, heat wave, power outage, earthquake, flood, or
    terrorist act.
    Sometimes, where recovery is costly and local resources are meager,
    support comes from international-aid sources (often with strings
    attached, in the form of political agendas of one sort or another).
    Chinese leaders recognized this potential in 1976 and refused to let
    international-aid organizations get involved in the rebuilding of
    Tangshan -- a decision that may well have cost many lives. In
    contrast, the reconstruction of Europe after World War II under the
    Marshall Plan was generally well received. The global influx of
    humanitarian aid to assist the Iranian city of Bam after the 2003
    earthquake entailed far more than reconstruction of a vast mud-brick
    citadel; it also carried implications for rebuilding international
    relations with Iran.
    Urban rebuilding symbolizes human resilience. Whatever our politics,
    we rebuild cities to reassure ourselves about the future. The demands
    of major rebuilding efforts offer a kind of succor in that they
    provide productive distraction from loss and suffering and may help
    survivors to overcome trauma-induced depression. To shore up the
    scattered and shattered lives of survivors, post-disaster urbanism
    operates through a series of symbolic acts, emphasizing staged
    ceremonies -- like the removal of the last load of debris from Ground
    Zero -- and newly constructed edifices and memorials. Such symbols
    link the continuing psychological recovery process to tangible,
    visible signs of progress and momentum.
    In the past, many significant urban disasters went largely unmarked.
    Survivors of the great fires of London (1666), Boston (1872), Seattle
    (1889), Baltimore (1904), and Toronto (1904) devoted little or no land
    to memorials, although each fire significantly altered the
    architectural fabric of its city. Hiroshima, on the other hand, built
    its Peace Park memorial -- an island of open space in what quickly
    became again a dense industrial city -- with the full support of the
    American occupation forces.
    Resilience benefits from the inertia of prior investment. In most
    cases, even substantial devastation of urban areas has not led to
    visionary new city plans aimed at correcting long-endured deficiencies
    or limiting the risk of future destruction in the event of a
    recurrence. After London's Great Fire of 1666, architectsincluding
    Christopher Wren, John Evelyn, and othersproposed bold new plans for
    the city's street network. Yet, as the urban planner and author Kevin
    Lynch has written, the most ambitious plans were thwarted by
    entrenched property interests and "a complicated system of freeholds,
    leases, and subleases with many intermixed ownerships."
    In New York City, reconstruction of the World Trade Center has
    involved scores of powerful players in state and local government as
    well as community and professional organizations. The large number of
    "chiefs" has resulted in a contentious planning and design process.
    Whatever ultimately gets built will need to accommodate public demands
    for open space and memorials as well as private demands to restore
    huge amounts of office space and retail facilities -- demands driven
    as much by insurance provisions as by market conditions.
    Resilience exploits the power of place. Mere cost accounting, however,
    fails to calculate the most vital social and psychological losses
    -- and the resultant political engagement -- that are so often tied to
    the reclamation of particular places. No place better illustrates this
    than Jerusalem. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, there is simply no
    replacing Jerusalem: "Men always pray at the same sites," the religion
    scholar Ernest Renan observed of the city. "Only the rationale for
    their sanctity changes from generation to generation and from one
    faith to another."
    Rebuilding cities fundamentally entails reconnecting severed familial,
    social, and religious networks of survivors. Urban recovery occurs
    network by network, district by district, not just building by
    building; it is about reconstructing the myriad social relations
    embedded in schools, workplaces, childcare arrangements, shops, places
    of worship, and places of play and recreation.
    Surely that is at the heart of the reclaiming of downtown Mexico City
    after the earthquake, the struggles over Martyrs' Square in postwar
    Beirut, and the hard-fought campaign to retain Washington, D.C., as
    the national capital after its destruction in 1814. The selective
    reconstruction of Warsaw's Old Town also perfectly captures the twin
    impulses of nostalgia and opportunism; its planners found a way to
    recall past glories and also reduce traffic congestion by building an
    underground highway tunnel.
    Resilience casts opportunism as opportunity. A fine line runs between
    capitalizing on an unexpected traumatic disruption as an opportunity
    to pursue some much-needed improvements and the more dubious practice
    of using devastation as a cover for more opportunistic agendas
    yielding less obvious public benefits. The dual reconstruction of
    Chicago after the 1871 Great Fire illustrates the problem perfectly:
    The razed city was rebuilt once in a shoddy form and then, in reaction
    to that, rebuilt again with the grand and innovative skyscrapers that
    gave the resurrected city a bold new image and lasting fame.
    The annals of urban recovery are replete with such examples where
    rebuilding yielded improvements over the pre-disaster built
    environment. San Francisco officials exploited the damage done to the
    Embarcadero Freeway by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake as the
    opportunity to demolish this eyesore and enhance the public amenities
    of 1.5 miles of downtown waterfront by creating a music pavilion, a
    new plaza, an extended trolley line, a revitalized historic ferry
    building and farmers' market, and enhanced ferry service.
    Shortly after a massive IRA bomb devastated parts of the city center
    in Manchester, England, in 1996, government officials established a
    public-private task force charged not only with the immediate recovery
    but also with longer-term regeneration. The redevelopment included new
    office, retail, and entertainment facilities, as well as a multilevel
    pedestrian plaza and a new museum highlighting urban life around the
    world. Most recently, debate about how to rebuild Ground Zero in New
    York has focused in part on improving the area as a regional
    transportation hub.
    Of course, disaster-triggered opportunism can just as easily work
    against the best interests of the affected city. Following the
    September 11 attacks, many downtown firms either fled New York City or
    established secondary operations in the suburbs -- a process of
    decentralization that brought new growth to a number of communities at
    the city's expense.
    Resilience, like disaster, is site-specific. When speaking of
    traumatized cities, there is an understandable temptation to speak as
    if the city as a whole were a victim. September 11 was an "attack on
    New York"; the truck bomb that destroyed the Murrah Building was the
    "Oklahoma City bombing"; all of London faced the Blitz. Yet all
    disasters, not only earthquakes, have epicenters. Those who are
    victimized by traumatic episodes experience resilience differently,
    based on their distances from those epicenters.
    Even in the largest experiences with devastation -- like the Tangshan
    earthquake -- it was significant that the quake leveled vast
    residential and commercial areas but spared some industrial
    facilities, as this forced the government to consider vast new schemes
    for housing workers. In Berlin, especially once the postwar city was
    divided into zones of occupation, it mattered mightily which parts of
    the city had been destroyed and which regime thereby inherited the
    debate over how to proceed with each particular reconstruction
    The site-specificity of resilience will increasingly follow a
    different trajectory, given the global flow of electronic data and
    information, which can all too easily be obstructed by a disruption at
    some key point in the network. When such a node is destroyed -- as in
    the case of the Mexico City telephone and electrical substations
    during the 1985 earthquake -- an entire country may suffer the
    consequences. Alternatively, the very nature of an electronic network
    provides redundancies and "work-arounds" that guard against a
    catastrophic breakdown of the system. The digital era offers tempting
    new targets for mayhem but also affords new possibilities for
    Resilience entails more than rebuilding. The process of rebuilding is
    a necessary but, by itself, insufficient condition for enabling
    recovery and resilience. We can see this most acutely in Gernika,
    where the trauma inflicted on the Basque town and its people by
    Hitler's bombers -- and Franco's will -- remained painful for decades,
    even after the town was physically rebuilt. Only with a regime change
    40 years after the attack did citizens feel free to express the full
    measure of their emotional sorrow, or attempt to re-establish the
    Basque cultural symbols that had been so ruthlessly destroyed.
    In addition, American cities have experienced major population and
    housing losses, sustained over a period of decades, that are
    comparable with the declines usually associated with some sudden
    disaster. Once vibrant North Carolina cities like Durham and
    Burlington have suffered mightily as their major industries -- textile
    manufacturing, railroads, and tobacco processing -- went into decline.
    Industrial Detroit has lost nearly a million people since 1950.
    But we are not willing to let cities disappear, even if their economic
    relevance has been seriously questioned. National governments provide
    special programs like urban renewal or empowerment zones to assist
    particular cities, refusing to let them sink on their own. Although
    the effectiveness of such programs is often questioned, the will to
    rescue cities and spur additional economic development remains real.
    In Durham and Detroit, most growth has been at the regional scale
    -- in the burgeoning suburbs -- while the cities themselves have
    struggled for decades. Yet recently repopulation and rebuilding have
    commenced in earnest. In Durham, sprawling old tobacco warehouses are
    being transformed into chic condo complexes, while in Detroit new
    lower-density subdivisions, suburban in image, have risen on the bone
    piles of old, dense row housing. Clearly, even those much-battered
    cities have gained from resilient citizens, ambitious developers, and
    a dogged insistence that recovery will still take place.
    The various axioms that we've described can hardly cover every facet
    of urban resilience. We have said relatively little, for instance,
    about efforts to plan in advance for the possibility of disasters.
    Nearly every city and country makes some attempt at pre-disaster
    planning; civil-defense agencies prepare plans to protect civilians
    from floods, nuclear fallout, the effects of chemical or biological
    weapons, and many other circumstances. Inevitably, many such plans
    prove to be of limited value and have often been subject to ridicule.
    Basement bomb shelters, lined with cans of Campbell's soup, or the
    infamous "duck-and-cover" films of the cold war era are still
    routinely parodied, and the more-recent national run on duct tape and
    plastic sheeting prompted by ill-considered advice from the Department
    of Homeland Security fueled a legion of jokes on late-night
    Whatever the merits, pre-disaster planning often exposes official
    priorities to provide disproportionate assistance to certain kinds of
    people and places, and is very revealing about the relationship
    between the government and the governed. Flood-control projects often
    pass the problem downriver; dictators often provide bomb shelters for
    "essential personnel" but not for average civilians; costly
    "earthquake-proof" buildings are normally not used for low-income
    housing -- and the list goes on. Despite the shortcomings, however,
    any full measure of urban resilience must take account of such efforts
    to mitigate disaster.
    Ultimately, the resilient city is a constructed phenomenon, not just
    in the literal sense that cities get reconstructed brick by brick, but
    in a broader cultural sense. Urban resilience is an interpretive
    framework that local and national leaders propose and shape and
    citizens accept in the wake of disaster. However equitable or unjust,
    efficient, or untenable, that framework serves as the foundation upon
    which the society builds anew.
    "The cities rise again," wrote Kipling, not due to a mysterious
    spontaneous force, but because people believe in them. Cities are not
    only the places in which we live and work and play, but also a
    demonstration of our ultimate faith in the human project, and in each

    Lawrence J. Vale is a professor of urban studies and planning at the
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Thomas J. Campanella is an
    assistant professor of city and regional planning at the University of
    North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They are the editors of The Resilient
    City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, published this month by
    Oxford University Press and from which this essay is adapted.

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