Urban Disaster And Recovery: An Overview And Bibliography Of The Resilient City

Historians in the News
tags: urban history, Disaster, bibliographies

Catastrophe has long shaped cities. Calamities have come in many forms and for varying durations; they have inflicted great costs in lives, suffering, and wealth. Different sorts of urban disasters—terrorist attacks, floods, earthquakes, diseases—have elicited different responses, policy prescriptions, and behaviors.

Cities cannot be reduced to capital flows; they are more than built environment. “[T]hey are composed of people, social and political institutions, economic activities and infrastructure; they have histories and symbolic meanings,” observes sociologist and urban expert Diane Davis.[1] Though Davis draws her observation from Mexico City’s 1985 earthquake, it remains true across decades. Amid disaster and the difficult task of rebuilding following the Halifax Explosion of 1917, Jacob Remes describes the emergence of “disaster citizenship,” a set of urban solidarities not based on “charity or sympathy” but rather “identity and empathy.”[2] Even if it functions in contradictory and contested ways, disaster citizenship creates the possibility of political and social liberation.[3] In the aftermath of the Halifax explosion, Presbyterian and Methodist communities overcame sectarian differences to construct and worship together in the United Memorial Church. “The unified church was a way of comprehending, memorializing, and living through the horror of the disaster,” writes Remes.[4] Survivors in Mexico City would act similarly, driving social movements that brought real and substantive change.

While disasters might not necessarily be predictable, cities have long attempted to account for them in planning. Take the example of Philadelphia, the nation’s first “great planned city.” Its founder, William Penn, had lived through both plague and fire that had afflicted London in the 1660s. After a series of seventeenth-century urban conflagrations and epidemics, he sought to limit density in Philadelphia by establishing “unusually large original lots,” notes historian Thomas J. Campanella. Nineteenth-century Tokyo attempted to blunt its exposure to fire through the incorporation of firebreaks such as wider streets and canals. Catastrophic events—natural disaster, fire, disease, environmental collapse, or military conflict – have been and continue to be a throbbing existential reality for urban residents and government officials.

“The current pandemic is just the latest historical pivot to have pundits predicting the death of the city,” argued Campanella in Foreign Policy earlier this summer. If Campanella’s appeal to urban resiliency sounds familiar, perhaps it is because along with Lawrence J. Vale, he co-edited The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster: “Subjected to everything from earthquakes to smart bombs,” the two historians wrote in the edited volume’s introduction, “cities are humankind’s most durable artifacts.”[5] Accounting for the durability of global metropolises, Vale and Campanella acknowledge that disaster still leaves trauma in its wake. If catastrophic events victimize urban dwellers, “it is also possible to regard cities themselves as traumatized.”[6]

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