How robust are cities?

Can New Orleans take some small comfort in history?

Their [David Weinstein and Donald Davis] conclusions are based on a study of population growth in Japanese cities that suffered through earthquakes in 1923 and 1995 and bombing during World War II. Following these catastrophes, many Japanese cities suffered greater population and building losses than did New York on September 11. Yet, these cities rebounded not only to where they had been before the attacks, but actually saw their populations rise to levels that one would have predicted based on their prewar size and growth rates. Not only was there no discernable impact from bombing on city size 20 years after the end of the war, recovery from earthquakes seems, if anything, faster. Following the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo and the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, both cities recovered their pre-quake populations within five years.

Paul Krugman summarized this research.  Here is the paper.  Here is Davis’s home page, with related papers.

My doubts: Postwar Japan offered healthier institutions than what came before, so the motives for rebuilding cities were obvious.  Plus much of Japan was destroyed, so there was less reason to reallocate resources elsewhere in the country.  Post-1995 Kobe is the more relevant case for optimism, or try post-1905 San Francisco.  But New Orleans has, for a long time, had subpar urban government compared to the rest of the United States.  And the city has been declining in relative status for 150 years.  If we are starting urban decisions over again from scratch, why reinvest in a lower quality legal environment?  And did Johnstown ever recover its previous position, after its flood?  Will New Orleans see recurrent flooding, as did Johnstown?  What ever happened to Pompeii?

Here is a short essay on the natural geography of New Orleans.  Will the new city simply be support services for nearby oil and natural gas, or will the residents and tourists return in their previous numbers?  Will the unique position of its Mississippi port guarantee its future?  Or will the destruction of the Garden District herald the beginning of the end?

Addendum: Here is a Wall Street Journal article on said topic.


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