Rebuilding New York and New Orleans after Disasters

Why do some cities rebuild from disasters, better than before, while others decline? We are at the 8th anniversary of World Trade Center towers destruction and 4 years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. In fact, all cities experience disasters – floods, earthquakes, storms, terrorism. Some bounce back with renewed vigor while others leave gaping chasms as tragic reminders.

Post 9/11, New York fell into one trap after another, squandering financial resources and good will. At every step, the magnitude and significance of the work was critically underestimated. From the beginning, the scope was simply thoughtlessly conceived, the developer was blind to public exigencies and the government agencies treated it as a massive, complex project, not the heart and soul of the community.

Attempts at elevating the quality of design through a competition failed to ask a core question: What will New York be? Instead they used a developer’s and insurance bargain to establish the foundation for this legendary project. Sadly, the best outcome for New York so far is that none of these grand-scaled monuments have been built – yet.

Other cities have been re-invigorated by disasters. Chicago burned and rebuilt stronger than before. After an earthquake, San Francisco’s leaders
grabbed at the chance to remove the obstructive Embarcadero and reconnect downtown to the bay. With each rebuilding effort, cities learn how to renew themselves, redefine who they are and where they are going. They dig deep into who they are as a community and as a unique place, and find in themselves a more perfect expression of that self. They become experienced re-builders.

Both people and ideas make the difference. Engaged communities pair with compelling images of the future. New York and New Orleans each have a singularly strong sense of sense of place. They rebuilt time and again; I believe that these communities will find a way to make these cities greater than before.

Fred Polak (1961) said: “The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures.” These images are not merely extensions of the present; they transform the place and allow a rebirth. The city is built new for the future.

New York and New Orleans can each still find that miraculous rebirth.


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