Wed, Feb 05, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Disasters give cities chance to come back better

By Charles Anderson, Daniel Breece, Tom Dart, Rashmee Roshan Lal  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain people

When the Earth has stopped shaking and the waters have receded, when the wind has blown out and the bodies have been taken to the makeshift morgue (for natural disaster morgues are always makeshift), what then? Where does one start? How does one rebuild a city?

Do you rebuild at all, or start from scratch? Do you move the entire urban center? Can you? Do you knock up something quick — bearing in mind the urgent need — or something lasting, bearing in mind the mistakes of the past? Do you consider the catastrophic event that brought you to the brink, or chalk it up as a once-in-1,000-years event? Who decides what to reconstruct, where, when and in what order? A single top-down unit or myriad grassroots locals?

The past decade has witnessed a grim succession of cities brought to the brink by water, wind, earth and fire, or combinations of these. These writers have spent time in six of them — New Orleans in Louisiana, Japan’s Ishinomaki, Port-au-Prince in Haiti, Indonesia’s Banda Aceh, Christchurch in New Zealand and Galle, Sri Lanka — to investigate how cities are reinvented after disaster strikes.

Experts talk of “building back better,” of “resilience” and “sustainability,” of crisis being opportunity in the way that it was for the devastated cities of Germany and Japan in 1945.

However, as these writers have found out, the practice can be very different: piecemeal, dilatory, bureaucratic, venal even. It seems that urban planners never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, but just occasionally, they reimagine something really rather remarkable: a new idea of what cities should be in a century in which as many as three-quarters of the world’s population will become urban creatures.

Evan Smith, a resident of Christchurch whose house was basically written off by the 2011 earthquake, said that “one thing the earthquake taught us is that you can’t always rely on central services to survive. You have to rely on things within walking distance, without a car or a laptop. If you build with that in mind, you build in a lot of resilience. Very few have the opportunity to do that retrospectively. It’s the one shot and we have to get it right.”

BANDA ACEH

By Kate Lamb

In the center of this Indonesian city, the reconstruction has been so transformative it is hard to believe that the deadliest tsunami in history ripped through it nine years ago, killing 221,000 people in Aceh Province alone and leaving more than 500,000 displaced.

Yet in the neighborhood where the tsunami hit land, where each house built with aid money is a beige replica of the next, markers are more prevalent. In one street, a 2.5 tonne barge still rests atop the skeleton of two houses.

The reconstruction task was mammoth, underpinned by US$651 billion in aid and headed by Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, a well-respected figure in Indonesian politics. As the director of the Aceh-Nias Reconstruction Agency, Mangkusubroto delivered a plan in the first three months and coordinated more than 500 agencies from the cleanup to large-scale infrastructure projects.

Across Aceh Province, more than 140,000 houses, 1,700 schools, almost 1,000 government buildings, 36 airports and seaports and 3,700km of road were finished by the end of 2010 — a year after the agency’s mandate had finished.

The idea of “building back better” has been implemented and Banda Aceh is now far superior post-tsunami. Most noticeably, it has what many Indonesian cities lack: smooth, wide roads, waste bins on sidewalks, and modern waste management and drainage systems.

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