Most cities throughout history share a remarkable resilience – the ability to spring back from disaster and move on. “Many awful things have happened to cities, whether from earthquakes, fires or floods, plagues or wars,” says Lawrence Vale, professor and head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, “yet almost all of these places are still with us.”

There are countless examples of great destruction in great urban areas. The 1666 fire of London, for example, destroyed 13,000 houses and most of the city’s civic and religious buildings, including St. Paul’s Cathedral. In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, thousands of buildings were lost, thousands of people were killed, and thousands more were left homeless. The 1941 German air and artillery attacks on Warsaw reduced the city to rubble. Yet, in all of these cases, the cities recovered, rebuilt and thrived.

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City, therefore, Vale and his colleagues wanted to understand what makes this resilience possible. “As a School of Architecture and Planning we were searching for a way to comprehend what Lower Manhattan was facing,” says Vale.

So last spring, MIT launched its Resilient Cities project, a series of lectures and seminars led by urban planners, writers and historians that deals with the history of urban trauma – what happened, how the cities recovered, how they moved on. “We wanted to see what history has to show us about how these cities rebuilt. We wanted to understand not only the engineering, but also the broader range of social, political and psychological processes that make recovery possible,” says Vale.

One of their most dramatic findings, says Vale, has been how quickly and how often people in the past have seen trauma as an opportunity to do better. The 1985 Mexico City earthquakes, for example, killed thousands and destroyed countless buildings. But by exposing the weaknesses in the city’s political and economic structures, it allowed the citizens to establish a more democratic and socially responsible urban government, build better housing, revitalize downtown, and restore the city’s cultural heritage.

It’s An Opportunity

“There was a sense of progress and opportunity in many of these places,” says Vale. “It’s the mentality that says, okay, the World Trade Center is gone, but now we can think about doing something better, like, for example, building better public transportation for Lower Manhattan.”

Understanding the differences among the disasters has been illuminating. “If you compare Oklahoma City with Lower Manhattan,” says Vale, “the fact that in the former there was very little real estate pressure on the Murrah Federal Building site, where the bombing took place, and that it was located in a less desirable part of downtown meant that it was easier to devote the whole site to a memorial. This isn’t the case with the World Trade Center site, however. For some people it is sacred ground, for others it is a real estate opportunity. Those are the extreme positions, but these are the struggles planners have to deal with.”

The project has been very useful, Vale explains, by revealing the importance of politics in deciding what gets rebuilt and for what purpose, many of these observations coming from graduate student research on resilient cities. “One student went to Tangshan, China, where in a few seconds an earthquake killed at least a quarter of a million people,” says Vale. “Within five to ten years, the Chinese government completely rebuilt the city, housing the population in five-story modernist housing blocks and restoring the city’s place in China’s industrial scheme.” Two students visited the Basque town of Guernica, memorialized by Picasso, which Hitler bombed with Franco’s blessing. “Franco blamed its destruction on the Communists and then took credit for rebuilding it himself,” says Vale. . “Here we have a complicated story of a city that is rebuilt by its destroyer.”

And the project also has shown, says Vale, the great advantage of listening to the genuine needs of those who will be affected by whatever gets built. “With Europe after World War II, a lot of what was rebuilt was regrettable – as were many urban renewal efforts here during the same period,” says Vale. “Much of what went up satisfied the needs of narrow constituencies, like those who wanted to encourage the use of the automobile. In many of these cases, planners had the power that they had longed for, but they failed quite miserably.

“Today,” says Vale, “it’s not so much about having a grand vision for what ought to be, but trying to broker a collective vision out of diverse and often contentious constituencies.”