Chapter 1: Blessing in disguise: long-run benefits of urban disasters
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Since time immemorial, humanity has been affected by unanticipated disasters and external shocks of various kind (e.g., natural catastrophes, wars and so on). In many cases these disasters and external shocks are devastating for the human and geographic systems concerned. However, though initially severe shocks may seemingly create a desperate situation, it appears from human history that often disasters may create challenges or threats which may be turned into new opportunities. This ‘challenge and response’ mechanism of human societies (advocated in Toynbee’s 1934–61 A Study of History) represents an unprecedented degree of learning and adaptation behaviour which may lead to relatively stable social and spatial systems in the long run. Such systems apparently comprise an abundance of responsive or creative talent which makes these systems highly resilient and adaptive. This also holds for cities as complex adaptive systems in the geography of our world. Despite the worldwide urbanization mega-trend, not all cities exhibit the same development pace; some may show an unprecedented growth rate, while others may temporarily even show a decline. Urban growth and urban shrinkage are often taking place in tandem. Worldwide, urban areas are usually showing a life cycle pattern with time-varying upturns and downturns, sometimes similar to business life cycles in industry. In contrast to a regular life cycle pattern of urban agglomerations caused by endogenous forces of a city or urban system, this chapter aims to focus attention on the external shocks that impact the urban system as a whole and that lead to disequilibrating forces, without any prior guarantee of a stable outcome or a return to the original position. The main focus in this chapter is on the long-range response and recovery mechanism of the city. The main proposition put forward and tested in the present study is whether, how and why a city – as an organized type of dynamic spatial system –, once it is dramatically affected by an external shock or disaster, is able to recover. Can human response (e.g., adaptation, abatement measures) lead to a more favourable long-run outcome, and if so, under which conditions? The authors analyse this question by employing a long-run database on the occurrence of shocks in spatial systems in order to trace the evolution of cities in our world. This means a painstaking examination of heterogeneous information on disasters from different places on earth. Data mining from this information base is realized on the basis of the Emergency Events Database, EM-DAT, while the outcomes are evaluated inter alia through a correlation analysis among types of disaster, level of economic adaptation, and a broader set of factors such as risk-reducing infrastructure and services, catastrophe insurance and so on. In the chapter, the authors distinguish economic impacts of disasters from other consequences of disasters, like death tolls, and other social and cultural impacts. The authors’ findings seem to confirm their proposition on the long-term auto-organizing capability of cities to ensure a resilient development. The comprehensive approach to risk assessment, identification and management proposed in the chapter serves to depict a desirable urban resilience pattern after an external shock.

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