Making New Cities Out of Old

When catastrophic disaster hits a city – or even a small town –  people want to rebuild as soon as possible, so that they can return to their homes,  jobs, and schools.

Normalcy – it seems at once reasonable and compassionate as an objective. But it can conflict with another impulse triggered by the disaster, to rebuild in a way that will make future disasters less destructive.

Historical experience however tells us that the effort to reconstruct cities and city-regions devastated by a mega-disaster will likely fall far short of the high and noble aspirations that people have in the first hours and days.  Once the fires are put out, the rubble is cleared, and the flood waters recede, the process of reconstruction – of deciding what to rebuild and what to change – becomes a time-consuming exercise of mapping, legal claims, planning, building and environmental regulations, of allocating materials and labor that may be in short supply, etc.  Residents, politicians and business people get impatient and argue; the good will and high resolve to make the city better are quickly dissipated.

Relief and reconstruction are not sequential, but overlap. Relief  – especially for health problems – will go on for years; reconstruction begins the moment a disaster occurs because the relief effort itself often affects what can and cannot be rebuilt.

Americans are out of practice:

There are many problems which any society faces when looking beyond a disaster to the future, but one stands out now:  lack of experience in the art of urban reconstruction.

The skills needed to redesign and rebuild existing cities have been allowed to atrophy in America.  The last major phase of urban rebuilding in the United States occurred when the interstate highway system was constructed. As we have seen when government tried to invest billions in infrastructure during the Great Financial Crisis after 2008, the drawers of planning departments were quickly emptied.

Americans are better at building new cities on greenfield sites than at rebuilding existing ones. This was not always so. After fires in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago in the late 19th century, street layouts were changed, new regulations adopted; brick, concrete, and steel replaced wood; the risk of fire led to basic changes in the way American cities were built. Permanency became the norm.

On average, the amount of rebuilding in a city varies between 1% and 2% per year; at that rate it takes a generation to make significant change happen. The challenge is to find ways to make our cities adapt faster and more easily to ever-changing and better regulations and safety standards, to reassessments of risk and vulnerability, to deeper insights into economic and social resilience.

The challenge is to find ways to make our cities adapt faster and more easily to ever-changing and better regulations and safety standards, to reassessments of risk and vulnerability, to deeper insights into economic and social resilience.

Urban reconstruction calls for a new governance:

Since c.1990, there has been a dramatic increase in the frequency and cost of major industrial and natural disasters in urban and rural areas alike. And this period has coincided with a dramatic increase in inequality in the United States.

The process of reconstruction – which can lead to radical changes in what gets built, how, when, and where – is shaped by insurance, the overlapping jurisdictions of different state, local and federal agencies, banking, tax rules, in a word, the entire “business-as-usual” superstructure of city-building. In ordinary times it actually does not work all that well at matching supply and demand, or generating the stock of affordable housing that the country needs. Parallel to this is the challenge of restoring an adequate infrastructure for transport, water supply, waste management, etc.  It is unrealistic to expect this complex, bureaucratic machine generate radical changes in what gets built, how and where.

The experience in Florida after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 is telling: the region post-crisis became even more segregated by race and class, generating further problems. Those with better assets can relocate more easily to areas which look safer; their new investments are likely to appreciate in value. Others –the poor, often renters – are more likely to remain in districts exposed to property damage and risk to life.

Cities that rebuild more quickly, and make strategic changes, are those that had already undertaken an assessment of their needs, their strengths and shortcomings, and knew what to change and why.

Autocracies sometimes manage reconstruction better because they do not have to respect regulations and are not accountable, but there are good examples in democracies.  Kobe was destroyed by earthquake in 1995 with over 6000 dead and 300,000 homeless. The Japanese trained and deployed hundred of people to work with neighborhoods and communities, gathering input from residents and helping people adjust to changes which had to be made to make housing safer. A priority was to help families and single people, often elderly, to cope better should another disaster occur.  Because regular bureaucratic structures are not designed for reconstruction, some 300 neighborhood groups received expert assistance; a special Prime Ministerial task force brought different sectoral ministries together, further enhancing multi-level co-ordination.

Leadership, vision, talent have to be brought together. And sometimes this takes time  – time when people are relocated or living in temporary housing, and time when businesses cannot function.

Doing it better:

Cities that rebuild more quickly, and make strategic changes, are those that had already undertaken an assessment of their needs, their strengths and shortcomings, and knew what to change and why. This may be too late for some places devastated by Harvey and Irma, but not for many others.

People need to prepare for reconstruction just as they prepare for emergency relief.

Is it not time to start thinking about designing and building new cities|? How might the decision-making process be reformed to make urban reconstruction easier?

A start can be made now:

  • Capture the process of rethinking the future of the Gulf Coast, Caribbean islands, Florida wetlands, etc. Reconstruction should be a living enterprise, helping people remember what cannot be rebuilt, helping experts learn from experience, but also helping everyone understand what needs to be changed, or protected.
  • Remember that project is both a noun and a verb. Projects are just a way of projecting a vision of the future into concrete, visible forms. We seem better at managing projects than at generating the visions that lead to good projects.
  • Make what is built new, or rebuilt, easier to adapt to new standards and to innovations in the future.