Catastrophe has long shaped cities. Calamities have come in many forms and for varying durations; they have inflicted great costs in lives, suffering, and wealth. Different sorts of urban disasters—terrorist attacks, floods, earthquakes, diseases—have elicited different responses, policy prescriptions, and behaviors.
Cities cannot be reduced to capital flows; they are more than built environment. “[T]hey are composed of people, social and political institutions, economic activities and infrastructure; they have histories and symbolic meanings,” observes sociologist and urban expert Diane Davis. Though Davis draws her observation from Mexico City’s 1985 earthquake, it remains true across decades. Amid disaster and the difficult task of rebuilding following the Halifax Explosion of 1917, Jacob Remes describes the emergence of “disaster citizenship,” a set of urban solidarities not based on “charity or sympathy” but rather “identity and empathy.” Even if it functions in contradictory and contested ways, disaster citizenship creates the possibility of political and social liberation. In the aftermath of the Halifax explosion, Presbyterian and Methodist communities overcame sectarian differences to construct and worship together in the United Memorial Church. “The unified church was a way of comprehending, memorializing, and living through the horror of the disaster,” writes Remes. Survivors in Mexico City would act similarly, driving social movements that brought real and substantive change.
While disasters might not necessarily be predictable, cities have long attempted to account for them in planning. Take the example of Philadelphia, the nation’s first “great planned city.” Its founder, William Penn, had lived through both plague and fire that had afflicted London in the 1660s. After a series of seventeenth-century urban conflagrations and epidemics, he sought to limit density in Philadelphia by establishing “unusually large original lots,” notes historian Thomas J. Campanella. Nineteenth-century Tokyo attempted to blunt its exposure to fire through the incorporation of firebreaks such as wider streets and canals. Catastrophic events—natural disaster, fire, disease, environmental collapse, or military conflict – have been and continue to be a throbbing existential reality for urban residents and government officials.
“The current pandemic is just the latest historical pivot to have pundits predicting the death of the city,” argued Campanella in Foreign Policy earlier this summer. If Campanella’s appeal to urban resiliency sounds familiar, perhaps it is because along with Lawrence J. Vale, he co-edited The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster: “Subjected to everything from earthquakes to smart bombs,” the two historians wrote in the edited volume’s introduction, “cities are humankind’s most durable artifacts.” Accounting for the durability of global metropolises, Vale and Campanella acknowledge that disaster still leaves trauma in its wake. If catastrophic events victimize urban dwellers, “it is also possible to regard cities themselves as traumatized.”
Darwinian competition, which disasters sometimes facilitate between metropolitan regions, only adds to such struggles. “Houston … might today be a suburb of Galveston if not for the epic hurricane and flood that destroyed the latter in 1900,” Mike Davis observed in Ecology of Fear. “Los Angeles and Oakland, likewise, gained population and capital at the expense of San Francisco following the great earthquake in 1906.”
Urban disaster does not exist in a vacuum: it interacts with the city on the terms upon which the city has been established. In the United States, struggles with Covid-19 have run headlong into metropolitan histories of redlining, occupational segregation, and voting rights violations. Disasters don’t create inequalities and injustices—they intertwine with and expose them.
“The [Covid-19] pandemic exists in history and is itself a historical process,” writes historian Andy Horowitz. “Its causes and consequences are not intrinsic to the virus itself; they are contingent on the world around it.” In the U.S. for example, the current the coronavirus has disproportionately victimized indigenous, Black, and brown communities.
For native communities in the United States, even the gathering of data by the government illustrates this tension. As a group of scholars for the Social Science Research Council noted “federal agencies utilized and manipulated tribal nations’ urgent need for resources to address the health, social, cultural, and economic impacts of Covid-19 to force them to provide data key to tribal self-determination and governance.”
Disaster can spur changes in the built environment—though who draws up the plans, how they are implemented, and to what extent residents accept them vary. Tokyo’s devastating fires and earthquakes spurred nineteenth-century planning reforms that, though not immediately enacted, led to the first Japanese Urban Planning Law in 1919 and created a template for pursuing future rebuilding efforts. “Fire prevention remained the main focus of Japanese urban planning but at a time of major political change, the government pursued any opportunity for the adaptation of Tokyo to modern needs,” writes historian Carola Hein.
Critics have built on such observations to note how governments and others manage to impose their vision of a nation through crisis. Naomi Klein has argued that states use disasters to induce what she calls the “shock doctrine.” “The exploitation of crisis and shock has been very consciously been used by radical free marketers,” whose vision of a “radical privatized” world could only be achieved through crisis, real or imagined, Klein told The Nation in 2007.
While an array of terrible events have befallen cities across the world, earthquakes provide a particularly useful lens for exploring the effects of catastrophe on urban resilience due to their geographic variability and the prodigious amount of literature on the subject. Here are five illustrative examples that demonstrate how cities have—and have not—rebounded from disaster.
Chimbote, Peru, 1970
Chimobte, Peru boomed in the late 1960s as an ambitious port city, which could claim both the nation’s largest steel mill and the world’s largest fishing port. “The economic bonanza” produced by both industries resulted in the development of classic “boomtown culture,” leading to an overwhelmed and under-resourced infrastructure, shantytowns, and a reputation for “pollution, prostitutes, and poverty,” writes Nathan Clarke. The earthquake that struck on May 31, 1970 affected three million people and caused over $1 billion in damages. It would be the deadliest national disaster in the Western Hemisphere until Haiti’s earthquake in 2010. While it destroyed much of Chimbote, it also provided the revolutionary government in power at the time the opportunity to remake the city as a symbol of the Peruvian Revolution (1968-1975).
To Klein’s argument, in Chimbote and in subsequent examples, earthquakes and other disasters imbue in governments a “political legitimacy” they might not otherwise wield. “In the aftermath of disaster,” writes Clarke, “states have the ability to act with few (political) restrictions, and, like the cracked facades of the buildings, the society and the regime’s veneers often disintegrate and reveal the true nature and intentions of the government.”
Initially, the government prevented shantytown residents from reconstructing their homes, encouraging citizens to resettle in an area several kilometers to the south of the old city center which featured better environmental factors, safer soil, and served as the epicenter of development plans. A slow rebuilding process and resistance by homeowners forced the government’s hand. Unwilling to give up the homes they had constructed and the support networks they had cultivated, residents resisted, with many remaining around the old urban core despite the government’s efforts to push them to the south. Ultimately, the government retreated and granted titles to residents, which helped to settle land disputes and increased social and economic stability.
In 1973, the government issued an ambitious plan for the city’s redevelopment, but much of it never came to fruition, as the Peruvian Revolution foundered when a bloodless coup replaced the leftist government with a more conservative military junta in 1975. Economic decline, worsened by the 1973 oil crisis, hampered the state’s rebuilding efforts, forcing Peru to borrow from the International Monetary Fund, which enacted austerity measures. Even though land reforms stabilized the lives of residents to some extent, Chimbote never emerged as a symbol of “New Peru,” and its infrastructure remained anemic in the decades that followed.
Tangshan, China, 1976
The Tangshan Earthquake ravaged the city in January 1976. The Chinese government reported 250,000 fatalities, but some intelligence agencies estimated that upwards of 800,000 died. By the state’s own admission, it amounted to the worst earthquake in four hundred years of Chinese history. It also happened to coincide with the death of Chairman Mao just weeks after the earthquake—and, just as in Peru, the government sought to use the rebuilding of Tangshan as a model for a new China.
China eschewed foreign aid, choosing instead to deal with the trauma internally. The ensuing power struggle that followed the earthquake and Mao’s death resulted in the eventual emergence of Deng Xiaopeng. Tangshan, “the cradle of China’s modern industry,” differed from many other cities in China, as it had been “crafted in the image doctrinaire of Maoist industrialization,” rather than by “centuries of dynastic rule” such as Beijing, argues Beatrice Chen. Deng dictated that the city’s reconstruction proceed along the lines of modernization and efficiency. Tangshan would serve as a symbol of a more open and internationally-engaged China under Deng, while promoting the national goal of economic development.
Mao’s harsh rule dovetailed with rebuilding efforts under the more technocratic and less ideological Deng. “Mao had successfully shaped a population that was willing to ‘eat bitterness’ throughout the reconstruction period,” Chen points out. Dissent was muzzled and residents endured the long decade of rebuilding. The government celebrated their “heroic resilience” in narrative propaganda. But subsequent oral histories revealed the depth of suffering. “Alone in the tent at night, I forgot the misery of recovering the bodies under the scorching sun but only to be occupied by other concerns,” one resident remembered.
Still, as in Peru, despite efforts by planners to shift the nexus of the city’s population, many residents settled in the old city center in much greater numbers than expected, while its new urbanized area never achieved its targeted population. Officials had underestimated the difficulty in moving residents and industry out of the traditional city center. As a result, Tangshan’s new layout resembled the “chaotic mixture of land use” that predated the catastrophe.
Mexico City, Mexico, 1985
Mexico City’s disastrous 1985 quake left over 10,000 dead and decimated its downtown, an area of the metropolis in which a disproportionate amount of its population and infrastructure were aggregated. As Diane Davis writes, “the earthquake affected almost every principal cultural, political, and economic institution in the city.” After the earthquake, residents grew increasingly disenchanted with the government’s approach to reconstruction, which focused more on shoring up its macroeconomic standing than it did on attending to the needs of citizens.
Disaster might sometimes grant governments legitimacy, but in Mexico City, patience ran thin in the face of incompetence and persistent corruption. The government deployed the local police and army to reinforce its power rather than to aid residents, a move that deepened citizens’ resistance and eventually led to electoral change. The municipality’s failures ultimately sparked a legitimacy crisis that in turn spurred social and political activism. The resulting housing-rights movement brought new housing to long-neglected parts of the city—arguably one of the city’s truly great achievements.
Leaders from these movements, having gained experience in the machinations of local government, soon won elected office. In ensuing years, both those elected officials and the activist movements from which they emerged were at the vanguard of democratic reform in Mexico City. “It may have been precisely the bullheaded resilience of the authoritarian PRI and its corrupt policing and administrative apparatus – as exposed by the earthquake – that led to the defeat of the ruling party in both the city and the nation several years later,” argues Davis.
Los Angeles, United States, 1992
The 1994 Northridge Earthquake, centered in California’s San Fernando Valley, left less than 60 dead, but incurred $35 billion in damages. More importantly, it demonstrated how after disasters, government polices shifted toward the kind of free-market principles highlighted by Klein.
Arriving in the midst of a recessions, and coming on the heels of lackluster federal responses by the Bush Administration to Hurricane Andrew in Florida and to the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, President Bill Clinton saw a Keynesian opportunity in the disaster. “[T]he Los Angeles earthquake has provided a politically salable reason for doing what it has sought to do for most of its first year in power: pump billions of dollars into Southern California’s ailing economy,” the Los Angeles Times reported. Initially, federal aid largely benefitted both rich and poor: funds flowed to big university hospitals, numerous county office buildings, the city’s sewer system, and even the L.A. Coliseum. Aid functioned as a “public works” program, paying for upgrades as well as simple repairs. Unsurprisingly, Clinton earned a landslide victory in California in the 1996 presidential election.
Yet for all its largesse, disaster relief for the Northridge quake also demonstrated the kind of institutional racism that bedevils disaster relief and the populations that most need it. State reforms placed greater responsibility on homeowners to cover their own damages with insurance, which in turn demanded more robust federal aid. However, conflict between the Clinton administration and the newly-ascendant GOP led by Newt Gingrich demanded that the final installment of Northridge aid be balanced by cuts in social spending such as reductions in low-income housing and environmental protections and the termination of funds for urban park and recreation programs. Essentially, argues Davis, Congress placed the interests of the urban poor and middle-class homeowners residing in “disaster prone” regions at odds.
The media’s attention soon turned toward “Rebuilding the Valley” and away from “Rebuild L.A.” The Crenshaw district, a majority African-American community heavily affected by the disaster, submitted 6,726 applications for relief, but two-thirds were denied due to insufficient savings for Small Business Administration loans (which are frequently used to cover private insurance deductibles). Often older and on fixed incomes, these Crenshaw residents waited over two years for relief—and only then received aid when they qualified for a “last-resort city program for low-income homeowners.” Landlords abandoned damaged properties, which further squeezed already depleted housing stocks and increased the inventory of derelict buildings.
Living through the current pandemic highlights many of these issues, but on an even larger scale, since the coronavirus is not localized but rather a national and international presence. Whatever solutions are presented, it’s worth remembering how we got here and what exactly needs to be addressed. “No one is talking about what [American] cities will look like when half the workers don’t have jobs, where a majority of small businesses have failed, and where homelessness increases by 45 percent. Yet that’s the reality we are facing,” Alissa Walker, Curbed’s urbanism editor, noted in May. For Walker, the current crisis did not create these problems but simply exacerbated them. “Until we can fully engage with the erasure of communities, structural racism, and unequal distribution of wealth that got us here, our cities will not crawl out from under this crisis.” That will require a constant and persistent vigilance, but perhaps with the solidarity of disaster citizenship and the resilience of cities we might get there.
Our overview only hopes to pique your interest and raise attention to the countless issues and complexities that arise from catastrophe and the difficulties in accounting for them equitably in recovery. As always the bibliography provided below is only a starting point and not remotely comprehensive. We welcome additional suggestions in the comments.
Alexander, Anna Rosa. City on Fire: Technology, Social Change, and the Hazards of Progress in Mexico City, 1860-1910. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.
Aberth. John. Plagues in World History. New York: Rowman and Little Field, 2011.
Archer, Seth. Sharks Upon the Land: Colonialism, Indigenous Health and Culture in Hawai’i, 1778-1885. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Aronson, Jay. Who Owns the Dead? The Science and Politics of Death at Ground Zero. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.
Bankoff, Greg. Cultures of Disaster: Society and Natural Hazards in the Philippines. London: Routledge Curzon, 2003.
Brown, Kate. Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
Caoili, Manuel A. The Origins of Metropolitan Manila: A Political and Social Analysis. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1999. .
Clarke, Nathan. “Revolutionizing the Tragic City: Rebuilding Chimbote, Peru, after the 1970 Earthquake.” Journal of Urban History 4.1 (2015): 93-115.
Crosby, Alfred W. America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Davis, Mike. Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.
Dills, Randall. “Cracks in the Granite: Paternal Care, the Imperial Façade, and the Limits of Authority in the 1824 St. Petersburg Flood.” Journal of Urban History 40.3 (2014): 479-496.
Dobbie, Meredith, Ruth Morgan, and Lionel Frost. “Overcoming Abundance: Social Capital and Managing Floods in Inner Melbourne during the Nineteenth Century.” Journal of Urban History 46.1 (2020): 33-49.
Echenberg, Myron. Plague Ports: The Global Urban Impact of Bubonic Plague, 1894-1901. New York: New York University Press, 2007.
Flammable Cities: Urban Conflagration and the Making of the Modern World. Eds. Bankoff, Greg, Uew Lübken, and Jordan Sands. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.
Fox, Kevin, Gotham and Miriam Greenburg. Crisis Cities: Disaster and Redevelopment in New York and New Orleans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Gamble, Vanessa Northington. “’There Wasn’t a Lot of Comforts in Those Days’: African Americans, Public Health, and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic,” Public Health Reports Vol. 125, No. 3 (April 2010).
Horowitz, Andy. Katrina: A History, 1915-2015. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020.
Hurricane Katrina in Transatlantic Perspective. Eds. Romain Huret and Randy J. Sparks, Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press 2015.
Jackson, Jeffrey H. “Envisioning Disaster in the 1910 Paris Flood.” Journal of Urban History 37.3 (2011): 176-207.
Johnson, Cedric. The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
Jones, Marian Moser. “The American Red Cross and Local Response to the 1918 Influenza Pandemic: A Four City Study,” Public Health Reports Vol. 125 No. 3 (April 2010): 92-104.
Kelman, Ari. “Even Paranoids Have Enemies: Rumors of Levee Sabotage in New Orleans’s Lower 9th Ward. Journal of Urban History 35.5 (2009): 627-639.
Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Picador, 2008.
Klinenberg, Eric. Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Klopfer, Anja Nadine. “’Choosing to Stay’: Hurricane Katrina Narratives and the History of Claiming place Knowledge in New Orleans.” Journal of Urban History 43.1 (2017): 115-139.
Knowles, Scott Gabriel. The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.
Kusoishi, Izumi. “Study of Prewar and Twenty-First-Century Tsunami Recovery Planning in the Northern Part of Japan.” Journal of Urban History, November 13, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144219884319
McNeill, J.R. Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2000.
McNeill, William H. Plagues and People. New York: Doubleday, 1977.
Mohr, James C. The Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning of Chinatown. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Molina, Natalie. Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Moote, A.L. and D.C. Moote. The Great Plague: The Story of London’s Most Deadly Year. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
Natural Disaster and Nuclear Crisis in Japan: Response and Recovery after Japan’s 3/11. Ed. Jeff Kingston. London: Routledge, 2012.
Nazarenko, Kirill B. and Maria A. Smirnova. “St. Petersburg Port through Disasters: Challenges and Resilience.” Journal of Urban History, December 12, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144219877864.
Orsi, Jared. Hazardous Metropolis: Flooding and Urban Ecology in Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
Pante, Michael. A Capital City at the Margins: Quezon City and Urbanization in the Twentieth-Century Philippines. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2019.
Peckham, Robert. Epidemics in Modern Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Pressures of Urbanization: Flood Control and Drainage in Metro Manila. Eds. Leonardo Liongson, Guillermo Tabios III, and Peter Castro. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2000.
Remes, Jacob A.C. Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2016.
Reynolds, Nancy. A City Consumed: Urban Commence, the Cairo Fire, and the Politics of Decolonization in Egypt. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2012.
Schneider, Aaron. Renew Orleans? Globalized Development and Worker Resistance after Katrina. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, (2018).
Shah, Nayan. Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Shepherdson-Scott, Kari, “Toward an ‘Unburnable City’: Reimagining the Urban Landscape in 1930s Japanese Media.” Journal of Urban History 42.3 (2016): 582-603.
Skilton, Liz. Tempest: Hurricane Naming and American Culture. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2019.
Solnit, Rebecca. A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.
Strupp, Christoph. “The Port of Hamburg in the 1940s and 1950s: Physical Reconstruction and Political Restructuring in the Aftermath of World War II.” Journal of Urban History, September 30, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144219877853.
Swanson, Maynard. The Sanitation Syndrome: Bubonic Plague and Urban Native Policy in the Cape Colony, 1900-1909. Journal of African History 18.3 (July 1977): 387-410, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0021853700027328
Tobin, Kathleen A. “Population Density and Housing in Port-au-Prince: Historical Construction of Vulnerability.” Journal of Urban History 39.6 (2013): 1045-1061.
The “Katrina Effect”: On the Nature of Catastrophe. Eds. William M. Taylor, Michael P. Levine, Oenone Rooksby and Joely-Kym Sobott. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.
The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster. Eds. Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Vann, Michael. The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empire, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Weisenfeld, Gennifer. Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.
Featured image (at top): San Francisco earthquake, Arnold Genthe, 1906, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
 Diane Davis, “Reverberations: Mexico City’s 1985 Earthquake and the Transformation of the Capital,” The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, eds. Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 261.
 Jacob Remes, Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2016) 3, 11.
 Remes, Disaster Citizenship, 196.
 Remes, Disaster Citizenship, 153.
 Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella, “Introduction: The Cities Rise Again,” in The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, eds. Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 5.
 Vale and Campanella, 8.
 Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 39.
 Carola Hein, “Resilient Tokyo: Disaster and Transformation in the Japanese City,” in The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, eds. Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 218.
 See also, Naomi Klein, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2008)
 Nathan Clarke, “Revolutionizing the Tragic City: Rebuilding Chimbote, Peru, after the 1970 Earthquake,” Journal of Urban History 4.1 (2015): 93-95.
 Davis, Ecology of Fear, 52.
 Beatrice Chen, “Resist the Earthquake and Rescue Ourselves: The Reconstruction of Tangshan after the 1976 Earthquake,” in The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, eds. Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 237-238.
 Chen, “Resist the Earthquake and Rescue Ourselves,” 243.
 Beatrice Chen, “Resist the Earthquake and Rescue Ourselves: The Reconstruction of Tangshan after the 1976 Earthquake,” in The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, eds. Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 246, 248.
 Davis, “Reverberations,” 274.
 Davis, Ecology of Fear, 48.
 Davis, Ecology of Fear, 49.
 Rebuild L.A. was the troubled program established to bring investment and development to affected parts of Los Angeles following the 1992 uprising. For more on Rebuild L.A. see William Fulton, “After the Unrest: Ten Years of Rebuilding Los Angeles following the Trauma of 1992,” in The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, eds. Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 299-312.
 Davis, Ecology of Fear, 51-52.