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A child of catastrophe

It used to be the case that cities had a habit of catching fire and burning down. Toronto had the Great Fires of 1849 and 1904. Chicago had the Great Fire of 1871. And the same can be said about many other cities. In fact, you probably weren’t considered a real city until you had some sort of “Great Fire.” But as Derek Thompson points out in this recent Atlantic article about urban comebacks, disasters have a way of forcing positive change:

The 21st-century city is the child of catastrophe. The comforts and infrastructure we take for granted were born of age-old afflictions: fire, flood, pestilence. Our tall buildings, our subways, our subterranean conduits, our systems for bringing water in and taking it away, our building codes and public-health regulations—all were forged in the aftermath of urban disasters by civic leaders and citizen visionaries.

As Charles Dickens famously described, British cities in the early years of the Industrial Revolution were grim and pestilential. London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds—they didn’t suffer from individual epidemics so much as from overlapping, never-ending waves of disease: influenza, typhoid, typhus, tuberculosis.

It’s somewhat unfortunate, but oftentimes we need something to break before any action is taken. There’s a bias toward the status quo. Otherwise, it becomes a question of, “what did we do last time? Well that worked just fine. Let’s do it again.” But hopefully all of this makes you at least a little optimistic about the future. Because history has taught us that when faced with adversity, we don’t typically turn our back on our cities. Rather we turn around and make them better.

Photo by Tomek Baginski on Unsplash

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