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The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster

Author(s):Vale, Lawrence J.
Campanella, Thomas J.
Reviewer(s):Frey, Donald E.

Published by EH.NET (November 2006)


Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella, editors, The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. xiv + 376 pp. $25 (paperback), ISBN: 0-19-517583-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Donald E. Frey, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

This volume presents a set of fourteen case studies (plus introduction and conclusion) of urban recovery following major disasters, which range from earthquakes and fires to military and terrorist traumas. The editors, Vale and Campanella are affiliated with MIT and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, respectively. This volume appeared too soon to have a chapter on the post-Katrina recovery of New Orleans. Despite the sub-title, parts of several chapters deal with pre-modern urban disasters. None of the authors is identified as an economist; but urban designers, planners, architects, journalists, and historians are represented.

Though most urban economics texts say surprisingly little about urban disaster and recovery, an economic approach to the topic would probably emphasize certain stylized facts: 1) that death and damage in modern cities are far less for comparable disasters than in third-world cities, due to standards of construction and technologies that poor countries cannot afford; 2) that recovery of key functions often starts quickly due to redundancy in urban infrastructure, substitution possibilities, and excess capacity; 3) that needed resources can potentially flow very quickly from the untouched larger society into the stricken area, provided, 4), that financial resources (insurance, grants, loans and savings) are readily available; 5), that a city becomes increasingly disaster-resistant as revised building codes, new technologies, etc., affect successive rebuilding efforts; finally, 6) that cities remain in disaster-prone locations because the modern city is typically so highly productive compared to the cost of rebuilding.

The Resilient City does not take such “stylized facts” at face value and work from them. Rather, without doing so explicitly, it reveals that such economic “givens” may actually be dependent on a host of deeper factors. For example, the availability of massive financing (and thus resources) must, in fact, occur in successful recoveries; however, political leadership, legal frameworks, cultural attitudes, traditions, and social goals may significantly affect whether, in what form, and at what rate, financing of redevelopment actually occurs.

The essays are partitioned into three sections. The first part (three chapters) deals with the dominant public “narratives” that emerge around disasters in order to interpret them and give them a public meaning. A narrative “grid over the bewildering mayhem” provides direction and hope. Such semi-official narratives may well have abetted the decision-making that allowed rapid reconstruction after the Chicago fire and the San Francisco earthquake; both were interpreted publicly as blessings in disguise, allowing for new futures that were grander projections of the cities’ pasts.

Part two deals with the symbolic dimensions of urban recovery, particularly of cities devastated by war. Again, while economists would note the aggregate importance of financing and resources needed to rebuild, the authors of these studies are more interested in particular purposes to which resources are devoted, and why. One essay is a case study of the post-war rebuilding of East and West Berlin by the competing Soviet and Western powers. The ideological competition no doubt sped the recovery, but it also shaped the recovery in the two sectors. Though occurring virtually side-by-side, the design, functional, and architectural choices were significantly different. A similar statement can be made for the post-war reconstruction of Warsaw. Though the Soviets and the local communist government had no Western competition, communist ideology competed with indigenous Polish nationalism as major planning decisions were made.

Finally, part three deals with the “conflict-riddled nature of resilience.” Perhaps the occupying powers of Berlin and Warsaw had a relatively free hand. However, the story was very different in Los Angles after the riots of 1992. The deep divisions among the population groups of L.A. that led to the riots in the first place hindered rebuilding. The area remained unattractive to large retailers, the NIMBY syndrome worked against proposals for redevelopment, and efforts to work with existing minority power-structures fell afoul of long-standing factional divisions among those very minorities. Instead, the riot area recovered despite itself as an influx of Latin immigrants, and the institutions they brought in their wake, created a sort of vitality amidst vacant lots and buildings.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina could have added another chapter to this volume. It is clear that the productivity of New Orleans as an entertainment venue and as an international port has been great enough to spur a rapid influx of capital, and some population, to restore those sectors. It is also clear that the political divisions among national, state and local leaders, which were vastly heightened during the first traumatic days, have impeded the restoration of public infrastructure of the city. For its part, residential housing has thus far depended on private financing such as insurance, personal resources, and loans; and the result seems to be that lower income areas of the city have yet to see much recovery. Several of the pieces in The Resilient City note that disasters only sometimes have been used as opportunities to take account of new realities. There appears so far to have been little high-level thought devoted to whether rebuilding a sinking city that is already below sea-level, located along an eroding coastline, is economically rational. At present, the decision may be made by default as many citizens simply fail to return and rebuild.

Donald E. Frey has recently completed a book manuscript titled America’s Economic Moralists. He has taught urban economics for many years and has written about the use and abuse of the economic multiplier when evaluating the benefits of local economic development projects.


Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII