Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Whether they’ve been leveled by wars or earthquakes, cities don’t tend to stay wastelands forever.
This post is part of a CityLab series on wastelands, and what we squander, discard, and fritter away.
Earthquakes have rattled cities to rubble, fires have burned them to ashes, and wars have reduced mighty metropolises to utter ruins.
It’s easy to look at the aftermath of Syria’s civil war in Aleppo, once the heart of both commercial success and historic preservation, and wonder if the city can ever return to its glory days. Reports of the mounting costs of Kathmandu’s slow recovery after the 2015 quake in Nepal and of Japan’s continuing struggle to rebuild Tohoku after the 2011 tsunami certainly paint a grim, hopeless picture for the future.
But ruined cities don’t stay wastelands forever.
Each tragedy has its silver lining, however faint that may be. When a city is destroyed beyond recognition, the need to rebuild presents an opportunity—a blank slate—for the community to redraw the physical landscape, to make it stronger and grander than it was before.
To find examples of that resiliency, just look back to history. Some of the world’s greatest cities were once victims of events that turned them into nothing more than piles of wreckage. Yet even after the worst of destructions, like in Hiroshima where recovery seemed impossible, cities have bounced back, rebuilt from the ground up, and reborn as symbols of modernity and peace.
The Great Chicago Fire, 1871
When fire spread from a barn in the southwest side of Chicago to the heart of its business district, carried by fierce winds, it destroyed 17,500 buildings and more than 73 miles of streets. An estimated 300 people died, and some 90,000 residents were displaced. But the city was eager to rebuild, enacting new building requirements and beginning the reconstruction process even before architects and engineers completed their plans. Chicago underwent a period of “Great Rebuilding,” and despite some rough moments—a nationwide depression that halted construction, for example, and businesses skirting the new requirements—the city, in less than 20 years, not only built the world’s first skyscraper, but also became a major economic and transportation hub.
San Francisco’s Great Earthquake, 1906
The streetcars of San Francisco were running just weeks after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the coast of California. The plumbers had already been out fixing water pipes and sewers, while able-bodied residents got to work clearing the rubble. Within six weeks, banks were reopened, and a few months in, workers were laying railroad tracks.
Rebuilding came fast—almost too fast, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, which described the new city as a more modern and cleaner version of its past: “The old Victorian downtown was gone; the slums South of Market had been burned out,” reporter Carl Nolte wrote. “It was as if the board had been wiped clean. The push was to build steel-framed, Class A buildings.”
The Great Kanto Earthquake in Tokyo, 1923
Seeing the bright lights and towering skyscrapers of Tokyo today, you might never have guessed that the city suffered an earthquake and tsunami as devastating as what Tohoku saw in 2011. Just two minutes to midnight on September 1, 1923, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake brought on a 40-foot-tsunami that, in turn, sparked fires around the city. The flames burned through the wooden houses of the capital city and killed more than 100,000 people in their path.
The tragedy spawned an international relief effort that heavily involved the U.S. The recovery effort was anything but smooth; it was rife with violence, disagreement over what the new city should look like, and resentment between the Japanese and American troops who had come to help with relief efforts. Nevertheless, the earthquake and all the struggles that came with it marked a turning point in Japan. As Peter Duus, an emeritus professor of history at Stanford, told Smithsonian Magazine, the earthquake resulted in “the first systematic attempt at reshaping Tokyo as a modern city. It moved Tokyo into the ranks of world metropolises.”
The Bombing of Warsaw, 1944
Natural disasters weren’t the only things that brought cities to their knees. During World War II, Nazi Germany razed the old town of the Polish capital in retaliation for the famous Warsaw Uprising, during which the Polish resistance left some 20,000 Nazi troops dead. To rebuild, according to The Guardian, Warsaw made use of its ruins. The city turned bits and pieces of rubble into new bricks, and when those weren’t enough, they imported materials from other cities ravaged by the war. And to reconstruct the city to its former glory, they depended on the famous Venetian painter Bernardo Bellotto, who had accurately recorded the landscape of Warsaw inside his paintings for the King of Poland.
Dresden, Germany, after World War II, 1945
In World War II, the Allied powers had dropped 2,400 tons of high explosives and 1,500 tons of incendiary bombs on Dresden, bringing the temperatures up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Just clearing the rubbles would take years.
Urban planners wanted a new look for Dresden, deciding to rebuild only some of its historic buildings. (The Frauenkirche church, arguably the city’s centerpiece, didn’t get completely rebuilt until some 60 years after the war.) The rest of the city center and much of the suburbs were cleared for more modern architecture that reflected a Communist era, with prefabricated slabs, according to The Washington Post.
Civil War in Beirut, 1975-1990
In more modern history, Beirut was bombed to rubble during Lebanon’s civil war, which lasted 15 years. The city, as The Washington Post points out, serves a critical lesson for Aleppo—assuming that the fighting ever ceases—in how not to rebuild a devastated city.
Downtown Beirut today is a symbol of modernity and luxury, with architecture that attracted foreign investment and boosted its economic recovery. But having been rebuilt by a private company, it also became what the Post describes as a “city of exclusion.” Historic buildings were torn down not by war, but during the recovery, separating the city from its history. And the lack of political reconciliation and the thirst for profit mean the city still lacks basic infrastructure and services.
So yes, there are many ways that cities can be reborn from ashes—and each city does it differently. That in itself should instill some hope in the latest war-torn or distraught places, but how cities have rebuilt should also serve as lessons for a recovery that results in cities that no longer look and function like the wastelands they were reduced to.