Re-building our cities after the Apocalypse

It is a topic that we have been yearning to discuss for some time, and with the recent revolutions and disasters which have played out across cities globally, (more recently Hurricane Sandy in New York) the timing seemed perfect. In his book, Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser is correct in stating that the “city has triumphed” and to a large extent is one of humankind’s greatest inventions, but the threat of wars, environmental disasters, and perhaps even capitalism, places our greatest invention at risk. Interrogating, and planning for a worst case scenario, has to be a key consideration, when planning for the future of our cities.

But even if the “worst case scenario” for a city is realized, citizens and city leaders need to band together and re-build, and recover what is left. Our recent #CityTalk discussion left us with an array of ideas, solutions, and case studies which show that with better, smarter planning (and pragmatism) cities can triumph once again.

Here are our favourites:

1. Re-build together with neighbours

The disaster which struck parts of New Zealand, and in particular the city of Christchurch, showed that even in the most dire circumstances, knowing your neighbours and having a sense of community is vital to responding quickly, and rebuilding together. Gehl architects have spent some time in Christchurch, contributing to the local debate on how to rebuild for the future, and open up possibilities for new spaces and new ways of building. Some reports suggest the that the earthquake has even brought local communities closer together, a positive step in building further resilience.


2. Build smarter The way we have been building our cities, begs the question if we have been building them with resilience in mind. Re-building, will need to take a new approach, and embrace innovation that integrates the risks faced by a city into the re-construction, of buildings, communities, spaces and other essential pieces of infrastructure.

3. Re-building from the ground upIn Iowa, a tornado which wiped out the southern third of Parkersburg required a massive rebuilding process. The majority of residents have rebuilt their homes and businesses. But evidence of the tornado’s destruction still lingers in empty lots. A mapping tool was developed which allowed for the breathtaking scope of the disaster to be put into context and which helps to build knowledge about the area and the progress of re-building. The mapping tool includes before and after photos, estimates of the damage, properties affected, and the progress of construction at various homes and sites.

4. Co-operative governance is essential

In a worst case scenario, any disaster management plan should include the potential disaster of an inter- and intra-governmental breakdown in relations. Who will do what and when, and do boundaries still matter? We have seen several cases globally, where national governments have been slow to respond.



5. Communicate in new ways
When infrastructure is damaged and destroyed; in particular IT and communications infrastructure, new media can play a critical role in various ways. In a report, “Social Media and Disasters: Current Uses, Future Options, and Policy Considerations,”  by Bruce R. Lindsay. The report argues that social media may be used in a “systematic” way as “an emergency management tool. Systematic usage might include:

  • “using the medium to conduct emergency communications and issue warnings”;
  • “using social media to receive victim requests for assistance”;
  • “monitoring user activities and postings to establish situational awareness”; and
  • “using uploaded images to create damage estimates, among others.”


6. Share knowledge and learn from “sister” cities.

You are not alone. Many coastal cities faces a similar risk i.e. rising ocean and sea levels, while cities located along fault lines can put their heads together around dealing with the aftermath of an earthquake. As an example, many cities like Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, have developed advanced disaster management centres (incl. traffic centres) which can act as a means of knowledge transfer with smaller cities and other cities in the developing world.


7. Re-build to disperse nodes and activity

It may be easier said than done, especially in cities where every part of the spatial experience e.g. buildings, and spaces, is “concentrated” and dense, but over reliance on a single node or hub always places a city at risk. The investment and development of multiple nodes (which not only eases congestion) that are connected but independent enough to keep the city moving, even if one hub is a no-go zone. The same messages may apply to the type of modes in which cities invest, and how these deal with additional capacity, when the other is not operating.

8. Re-build with the vulnerable in mind

Recovering, and re-building can be achieved with enough resources and will, but what is the impact of recovery felt by the most vulnerable in cities? Those with resources to help themselves, may initially find it easier to access services after a worst case scenario, while the poor remain devastated. This also points to the need for a social element to recovery, where those hardest hit do not just benefit from a reconstructed home but have the option to deal with the social impacts e.g. the trauma on their families.