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The city will survive coronavirus

In a recent essay, New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman asked “Can City Life Survive Coronavirus?” It seems an apt question in this extraordinary time of mandated retreat from public life.  City streets and spaces normally teeming with people are nearly deserted now, evoking scenes from a Terry Gilliam film.  In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 we have shut down the sites where the rituals of daily urban life unfold, “third places” like cafes and bars and community centers.  We are increasingly isolated in our homes, turning even Manhattan into something akin to a suburban cul-de-sac.

“Pandemics are anti-urban,” writes Kimmelman, “preying on our human desire for connection.”  This is true, of course, in the sense that social distancing and de-densification (surely a candidate for word of the year) are among the only effective measures to keep a contagion from spreading.  We have little choice but to isolate ourselves from one another if we are to stop this disease, despite the rolling economic train wreck it has triggered.

But to fear that urban life might not survive the current pandemic flies in the face of history.  Cities have been destroyed throughout history—infested, infected, sacked, shaken, burned, bombed, flooded, starved, irradiated, poisoned—and yet in nearly every case have risen again like the mythic phoenix.  Even in the ancient world, cities were rarely abandoned in the wake of a catastrophic event.  There was, of course, Pompeii, buried forever by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius; Monte Albán, near Oaxaca in modern Mexico, was crushed for good by the Spaniards; and in the Xingu region of the Brazilian Amazon, a vast network of quasi-urban settlements that flourished 1,500 years ago mysteriously vanished and was quickly reclaimed by jungle.  Jared Diamond describes the early settlements on Easter Island and Norse Greenland that lost resilience, declined, and eventually died out.  The mythic city of Atlantis has yet to be found, let alone lost.

But these are history’s exceptions, not the rule.  Even the storied destruction of Carthage by the Romans after the Third Punic War was not permanent.  The Centurions may have leveled the city and rendered it barren.  But the Romans themselves resurrected the city during the reign of Augustus, eventually making Carthage the administrative hub of their African colonies.In more recent times, too, rare is the city that has not bounced back from trauma.  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.  Banda Aceh has regained the position it held prior to its devastation during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Does anyone doubt that Kabul and Kandahar, or Baghdad and Basra, will also persist once protracted fighting finally comes to a close?   Or, Kimmelman’s fears aside, that New York will not soon again be teeming with residents and tourists alike?

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. 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 and pandemics; 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 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 rebuild.

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 counts as urban resilience? Whose resilience matters?

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 and can help us ask better questions during and after the current pandemic:

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.

How will the management, or mismanagement, of a pandemic impact the re-electability of leaders?

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.

“Mexico City Earthquake, September 19, 1985. Eight-story frame structure with brick infill walls broken in two” by US Geological Survery. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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 government.

What will the varying degrees of aggressiveness in curtailing urban movement tell us about the relative advantages of democracy and autocratic decree-making during a pandemic?

Narratives of resilience are always contestedThe 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.

How will those least likely to have capacity to safely self-isolate react to the spatial privileges of the wealthy and powerful?

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.

“Tokyo, 1945” by Ishikawa Kouyou. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

What will the globality of a pandemic mean for the usual impulse to view disasters through the lens of nationalism?

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.

Will a global pandemic–in which “national emergencies” are near-ubiquitous and far-flung—still offer opportunities for selective interventions by outsiders?

Urban rebuilding symbolizes human resilienceWhatever 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.

How, in the aftermath of a pandemic where the death toll is high but physical damage to places may be negligible, will dramatic loss be marked?

Resilience benefits from the inertia of prior investmentIn 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, architects–including Christopher Wren, John Evelyn, and others–proposed 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 involved scores of powerful players in state and local government as well as community and professional organizations. The large number of “chiefs” led to a contentious planning and design process. It needed 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.

How will the locus of investment differ in the post-pandemic city?

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.

As the impact of a pandemic wanes and urban life returns, which kinds of temporarily-lost places will warrant the most ardent forms of renewed affection?

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.

“Grand Pacific Hotel after the Great Chicago Fire” by Unknown. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.  

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, rebuilding Ground Zero in New York sought to improve 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.

How will the aftermath of the pandemic affect larger patterns of metropolitan residential preferences?

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.

“Ruins of the Reichstag in Berlin, 3 June 1945” by No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Hewitt (Sgt). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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 challenge.

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.

What lessons will a pandemic—with its hotspots and its less-impacted areas—carry for the way we think about our social networks and the differential capacities of our infrastructure?

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 well over a million people since 1950, yet even much-battered cities have gained from resilient citizens, ambitious developers, and a dogged insistence that recovery will still take place.

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.

Will post-pandemic cities also rapidly return to their pre-pandemic growth trajectories?

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. 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 less frequently house those with the lowest incomes–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.  Disasters, including pandemics, ultimately provide renewed reminders of this value. 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 other.

“Central Park Bridges” by Jet Lowe. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Featured Image Credit: “Four-segment panorama of Lower Manhattan, New York City, as viewed from Exchange Place, Jersey City, New Jersey” by King of Hearts. CC BY SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. José Pérez

    Present pandemic does not mean city destruction directly as we all know, but forces its redesign under new parameters. Less surface needed in the future offices and administrative buildings as a result of the experienced result of teleworking is an aspect. Air pollution abatement planned already for the coming decades of decarbonization joins the need for new concepts in architectural design. But probably the newest element arosen directly from present pandemic is the need of social distancing and air purification in city buildings. They may remain tall due to cost and energy optimization but physical presence meetings, queuing, exchanging papers and a lot of other previous uses will need to be reduced or disappear in the future. Share breathing by means of ambient air dispersion with most AC ducts placed in the ceilings blowing and sucking from there thus helping aerosols float in half of the stances need redesign completely creating an air flow downwards to help particles to land fast or be collected from the floor and blown into high efficiency -half micron- filters. Summarizing, it is not Pompeya, but the future is no what it used to be.

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