Musings on Resiliency of Cities – More than Just Recovery to Ex Ante

I have just gotten back to the office after a day and a half conference on cities.  One topic discussed was resiliency.  A graphic used was similar to the one below:



The concept is that given a shock — a natural or manmade disaster, resilience is a property wherein the ex ante state can be re-attained.


But I have started to wonder whether we should explicitly acknowledge that in fact this type of resilience is settling for second best.  Perhaps a highly surpra-resilient system can take advantage of a shock to recover to an even better ex-post state. 

Perhaps the concept of chemical activation energy is more apt.



In this figure a low energy is considered more favorable.  But it is only the shock of a disruption that permits the system to attain a more favorable (lower energy) state due to the barrier.

So by looking merely to return to ex ante conditions, we are ignoring opportunities for improvement (e.g., more sustainability, more equity, etc.).


The Positive Effects of Disasters

Being in San Francisco for the Society for Risk Analysis in early December of 2012, having not been there since the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 (yes, I was actually IN the earthquake) gave me a realization that natural disasters can have a silver lining in terms of the footprint of cities. I was staying at the Hyatt one block away from the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero. In 1989, this was an elevated freeway which, like all too many cities (including my current venue of Philadelphia) served as a physical obstacle between people and the waterfront. As nicely documented in Roughly Drafted, the quake demolished the freeway and tipped the balance in favor of those who wanted it gone in the first place.

Years later, the freeway is gone, there is a nice linear walkway in San Fran, and the Ferry Building itself has been transformed into a gourmet mecca (Ferry Building Marketplace)


image from wikipedia – GNU License

Other cities have had major disasters turn into positive planning and development opportunities. The Great Chicago Fire in 1871 (Wikipedia) destroyed much of the city. However, its aftermath provided the opportunity to develop the unique lakefront park belt that we know today (

Are there other examples of spinoff benefits that have occurred in other cities?

What lessons can we learn from this in the reconstruction of shoreline following Superstorm Sandy?