The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster
Edited by Lawrence J. Vale, SM ‘88, and
Thomas J. Campanella, PhD ‘98
Oxford University Press, 2005, $24.95
Lawrence Vale is always looking for ways to connect politics and the built environment. “There’s no more dramatic confluence of those two forces than when a place is attacked and rebuilt,” says Vale, SM ‘88, a MacVicar Fellow and head of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “A sudden disruption in the life of a city, whether by war or terrorism, quake or flood, and the subsequent process of recovery gives us a window into that society that has been affected.”
In the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, Vale and his like-minded colleagues sought to understand the economic, political, social, and cultural forces that enable devastated cities to rebuild and recover. In the spring of 2002, they convened a major colloquium on campus. Historians, architects, and urban-studies experts presented public lectures on diverse examples of urban resilience. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella, PhD ‘98, have edited those lectures and published them as The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster.
“Beyond the logistics of recovery, we were interested in the politics of reconstruction,” says Vale. “Who decides which pieces of the city to rebuild, in what priority, and for whose benefit?”
The assembled essays survey the ennobling aftermaths of cataclysms such as Chicago’s great fire of 1871; San Francisco’s earthquake and fires of 1906; the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War; later 20th-century earthquakes in Tangshan, China (1976), and Mexico City (1985); the ravagement of Beirut by civil war; and the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center.
“In an inspiring way, the stories of these places are not wholly depressing,” says Vale. “They’re tales of immense suffering tempered by new construction, hopeful symbolism, and powerful coping mechanisms.”
From these wide-ranging studies, Vale and Campanella extract common themes that shed light on how cities overcome trauma. Generally, the editors find that disasters call into question the reliability of government and reveal the true values, priorities, and resilience of leaders. Disaster survivors create narratives of resilience that interpret catastrophic events and point to a brighter future. Governments, the editors say, must foster these stories of uplift and progress to win the public’s confidence. On the national level, a city’s recovery is often equated with that of a country as a whole.
“Rebuilding a city physically and rebuilding a society in emotional and cultural ways are closely interrelated,” says Vale. Planners, urban designers, and politicians must therefore focus on more than disaster management. Vale hopes that by addressing the social, cultural, and political considerations of recovery, decision-makers will give urban recovery a fully human shape.
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