Storm-torn cities can come back more dynamic than ever

Storm-torn cities can come back more dynamic than ever
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This hurricane season is already brutal. As Harvey and Irma rolled across the Gulf Coast, reports of urban devastation piled up. In part, the constant attention to smashed cities is an expected consequence of cities being where the people are and, perhaps more important, where TV stations are most likely to be found.

Moreover, cities — as the largest and arguably most complex product of human enterprise — are those places most likely to lose a concentrated battle with Mother Nature. As cities are made by humans, they necessarily are imperfect.

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Such faultiness calls for modesty in thinking about how we go about rebuilding once hurricane season has passed. Could Houston, Miami, Jacksonville and Tampa have been better planned and built? Of course. As cities are complex, humans invariably struggle to bring the totality of urban reality into a single vision.

 

We tend to isolate those aspects of urban life which give us pause, approaching the urban condition with singular solutions and agendas intended to “fix” a particular urban challenge.

This piecemeal approach tends to distract us from the larger objective of nurturing cities as holistic places of promise. As we rebuild our great coastal cities, we should never lose sight of a task larger than securing communities against the ravages of nature — although such a goal is necessary for any further success.

Instead, we should always think of cities as places that nurture human creativity. This has never been more the case than in such cities as Houston and Miami.

According to former Houston mayoral candidate Bill King, 1990s Houston Mayor Bob Lanier used to say that "Houston is one place where nobody cares who your daddy is." Houston’s genius has been found in its ability to welcome the unwelcome and encourage unbridled creativity. The same can be said about much of South Florida as well.

Americans should appreciate such places because our most "American" metropolis — Chicago — was just such an ungainly city of the future a century ago.

City leaders managed in the course of one or two lifetimes to leverage the Native American portage across the Americas’ lowest continental divide to create one of the globe’s industrial, transportation and financial powerhouses.

No shortage of folks showed up to partake in this success, so that the city’s population exploded from 500,000 to 3.5 million over the half century beginning in 1870.

Chicago certainly became an emporium for all of the evils and accomplishments of the early capitalist industrialization era. Daily life on Chicago’s streets could squeeze the spirit out of a soul. In response, the city nurtured an awe-inspiring social inventiveness that nurtured many of the ideas and individuals that would give life to Roosevelt’s New Deal decades later.

We should remain mindful that unvarnished laissez-faire capitalism did not work out so well for Chicago the first time around. Ignoring nature's laws governing fire, large swaths of the city burned to the ground in 1871.  

When the city rebuilt, city leaders gave greater care to effective fire codes and their enforcement. Chicago began to develop a planning structure with Chicagoan David Burnham becoming a spokesperson for making big plans.  

The "Great Fire" opened the door for the sustainable growth that exploded in the decades ahead. Indeed, 21st-century Chicago has emerged as a global leader in making cities “green.”

Cities smashed during this hurricane season should not repeat the mistakes of their pasts. No city, no matter how dynamic, can flaunt the laws of hydrodynamics forever. The challenges ahead for all coastal cities are real.

Nonetheless, in rebuilding we should remain mindful of the importance of encouraging freedom to innovate and to create beyond the bounds of formal regulation. Building appropriate infrastructure is but a first step to recovery.

Urban guru Jane Jacobs once wrote that “societies and civilizations in which the cities stagnate don’t develop and flourish further. They deteriorate.” Fortunately for Houston, Miami and other Gulf Coast communities — as Chicago demonstrated a century ago — those cities in which people don’t care who your daddy is can always find new ways to be dynamic.

Blair A. Ruble is vice president for programs at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center and author of "Second Metropolis."


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.