Rebuilding and 'The Resilient City'

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MIT professor Larry Vale describes cities that have survived volcanic destruction, nuclear annihilation and killer earthquakes. Vale is the author of The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster.


The devastation in cities along the Gulf Coast makes it tough to imagine a better future, but at least one scholar of urban design offers some reasons to take heart. Larry Vale, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, helped edit the book, "The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster." Vale says history shows that in the last 200 years there's been a pattern of rebuilding no matter how dramatic the destruction.

Professor LARRY VALE (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): In 1976, the Chinese city of Tangshan was leveled by an earthquake that killed somewhere between a quarter million and a half million people, largely in a few seconds. And the Chinese remarkably, first of all, tried to hide the fact of what had happened, and then seismology intervened, but then in the next 10 years restored the city to a million people, built entirely new housing and then put it right back where it was in the industrial economy of Northeast China.

STAMBERG: And you said it was within a period of 10 years.

Prof. VALE: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.

STAMBERG: Well, what did they throw at it in order to make that miracle happen?

Prof. VALE: Well, of course, there's not a lot of information revealed about the cost of spending, but it was a marshalling of resources from across the country. It's the sort of thing that could happen then in what was still a command economy and would be difficult to do in a democracy, I think.

STAMBERG: Can you give us another example of a successful attempt at rebuilding?

Prof. VALE: Well, I think many people are just amazed to think that Hiroshima is back on the map, a city that was completely vaporized with a 100,000 or so dead and, after the bomb, looks like a thriving Japanese industrial city today and looks very much like any other Japanese city. And those cities across Japan recovered not only from the Second World War, but several of them from the 1923 earthquake in and around Tokyo, not to mention the 1995 earthquake in Kobe.

STAMBERG: I understand there is one exception, at least, to this rule of rebuilding and it's on the island of Martinique.

Prof. VALE: There was a place called Saint-Pierre that was known as the Paris of the Antilles until 1902, when Mount Pele dumped pyroclastic lava flows on top of it. And out of 30,000 residents there was one survivor...


Prof. VALE: ...and that person was a prisoner in a stone building who was later then taken on to the Barnum and Bailey Circus to work in a remarkable way of making him into something of a freak.

STAMBERG: Oh, good heavens. Well given what you know about the history of such efforts, what are you keeping in mind these days in terms of New Orleans?

Prof. VALE: The most pressing question for me is not the one of will New Orleans rebuilt, but the question of which New Orleans will be rebuilt or, more precisely, whose New Orleans will be rebuilt. The nation and the world has seen who really lives in a proud but troubled American city just now. And the question is: How are we going to respond to that? Will the funds for rebuilding be targeted at some of the neediest of the residents who have suffered the most?

STAMBERG: MIT Urban Design Professor Lawrence Vale. With Thomas Campanella he co-edited the book, "The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster."

Thank you, sir.

Prof. VALE: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: This is NPR News.

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