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OrganisationUniversity of Warwick


United Kingdom


13 Jan 2019


13 Jul 2019

Project Title

The cities rise again. Urban recovery and reconstruction in the age of catastrophe, 1900-1...


This project sets out to offer a comparative, historical, and interdisciplinary perspective on the urban experience of
war and catastrophes in the first half of the twentieth-century.

Urbanization is a defining feature of modernity and its history. Although the majority of the world population did not
live in towns and cities before 2008, the experience of urban life illuminates the making of the modern world. Centres
of political power, cultural influence, and economic activities, towns and cities have long played a critical role in
global history. As a result, urban disasters often threatened the long-term trajectories of cities and states alike as their
human and material toll reverberated for years and decades thereafter. From San Francisco in the 1900s to Beirut in
the late-twentieth century, the capacity of urban settlements to recover from environmental catastrophes, industrial
accidents, economic decline, and from the ravages of war revealed the strengths and the weaknesses of their social
fabric. In dramatic circumstances, urban reconstruction also brings to light many issues of great importance to modern
historians: the link between the built environment and local identity, the nature of social cohesion, the relationship
between state and civil society, the emergence of transnational solidarity, etc.
In the last two decades, events across the globe have underlined the vulnerability of the urban environment to natural
and man-made catastrophes and the challenges that reconstruction and urban recovery continue to issue to victims
and policymakers alike. In Japan, a country dramatically affected by the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995 and the
tsunami of March 2011, urban life is regularly punctuated by natural disasters.
Likewise, more than 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, the reconstruction of New Orleans continues to exercise
policymakers and activists as many residents still strive to rebuild their lives. Europe, of course, is not immune to such
natural devastation as attested by the earthquakes that destroyed L’Aquila in 2009 or Amatrice in 2016. In an
increasingly urbanized world, towns and cities regularly bear the brunt of ecological disasters. In Europe, however, like
in Japan or the Middle East, the devastation of urban communities is also indissociable from the man-made
catastrophes of the twentieth-century. To many, the names of Dresden or Coventry conjure up the memory of the
Second World War, while the fate of Warsaw illustrates the conflation of modern warfare and genocide. The dissolution
of Yugoslavia turned Sarajevo, Mostar, and many other cities into urban battlefields; a similar fate recently befell many
Syrian cities like Palmyra or Aleppo.

Entitled as a nod to Kipling’s poem, The Cities Rise Again, this project proposes to analyse the processes of urban
recovery and reconstruction in the age of catastrophe, 1900-1939. It comprises of two separate but closely related sub-

1- Rebuilding European Lives. The reconstitution of urban communities in inter-war Europe (1914-1939)
This project will investigate urban reconstruction in Western Europe after the First World War. Based on a study of four
cities destroyed by military operations in France and Belgium (Dinant, Lens, Reims, Ypres), it will produce an urban
history of the transition from war to peace.
A comparative and transnational endeavour, this project will approach inter-war Europe as a case-study in urban
resilience. It will demonstrate that the recovery of devastated cities was a profoundly unequal process. During and
after the conflict, urban resilience depended on each city’s capacity to leverage its symbolic, political, and economic
capital. Their recovery was also predicated on the mobilization of local, national, and transnational resources and
The history of the stabilization of Europe after the First World War has been mainly written from diplomatic, financial,
and economic perspectives. Although it entailed the reconstitution of the countryside and the rebuilding of cities, this
scholarship focuses on the role of states, financial institutions, and international organizations. The return and
resettlement of refugees and veterans in devastated cities has been largely overlooked as a result, by contrast to the
meticulous attention paid to rural reconstruction.
This original history of reconstruction is conceived as a case-study in urban resilience. Originally employed by
ecologists , resilience is now a contested but central concept for urbanists and social scientists concerned with
environmental and security risks. This project thus draws on current interdisciplinary reflections to study urban
recovery after 1918. It aims to explain a city’s capacity to withstand and recover from a shock as severe as industrial
warfare in 1914-18.

A) Objectives
This comparative project rests on the study of four cities – Lens and Reims in France; Dinant and Ypres in Belgium. Our
case-studies allow for the careful analysis of the richness and volume of the extant source material, while giving
access to the full gamut of relevant experiences. These cities’ common experience of industrial warfare and their
respective symbolic significance underline their suitability to a transnational analysis.
This project challenges the narrative of reconstruction trumpeted by national governments from the mid-1920s
onwards, as a story of linear progress towards complete recovery. Urban reconstruction was an uneven, contested
process which revealed profound inequalities within and across nation-states. The resilience of each city was
determined by the unequal levels of political, financial, and symbolic capital they respectively enjoy. Their individual
trajectories of recovery were predicated on their capacity to mobilize national authorities, to rely on transnational
networks of urban experts, or to tap into the financial resources offered by philanthropic initiatives at the national
and international levels. The project pursues three specific objectives.

1. A social history of reconstruction
It sets out to explain how urban communities overcame the upheavals of war to re-establish social ties torn asunder by
the conflict. The material reconstruction and the reassertion of communal identities and relations were not merely
concomitant but entwined processes. Rebuilding infrastructures and restoring local economies were not just material
challenges, for they provided the framework for the reconstitution of social relations, of political life, and for the
reintegration of refugees and combatants. This project stresses the agency of urban populations, which were not
passive beneficiaries of national and international relief operations.

2. An urban history of the transition from war to peace
This project analyses the cultural and political demobilization which governed the transition to peace. Reconstruction,
remembrance, and renewal appear indissociable, as the experience of war violence and invasion, of exile and
occupation, determined visions of the post-war urban and national communities. The reconstruction of cities proved
all the more challenging than it took place when belligerent societies wished to discontinue wartime exertions. Yet, it
required maintaining and redirecting the momentum of mobilization. To do so, local, national and transnational efforts
drew on the wartime rhetoric of sacrifice and solidarity. Within and across Allied nations, remembrance and mourning
formed the problematic nexus of demobilization and reconstruction. The adoption of ruined cities by British towns was
but one example of the transnational covenant of remembrance sealed through reconstruction.

3. A history of urban resilience and recovery
A historical study of urban resilience, this project strives to reconcile the materiality and discursivity of the process of
reconstruction. It studies the rebuilding of urban structures as well as the socio-political and cultural dynamics
underpinning the recovery of urban communities. This innovative history of the urban aftermath of war pursues a
critical and sustained engagement with interdisciplinary approaches to urban resilience. It also places the activities of
architects, planners, and decision-makers into their national and international contexts and trace the intellectual
history of urban planning and policy-making back to the experience of war and exile. The project thus highlights the
critical role of transnational networks in the transformation of urban expertise in the interwar years.

B) Methodology
This comparative study of four cities combines the methods of transnational history with new perspectives in urban
history and urban studies. It reveals the long-underestimated circulation of representations, people and funds as well
as the international networks that shaped urban reconstruction after 1918. The project does indeed explore three
types of transnationalism : caritative, municipal, and urbanist. The “caritative transnationalism” corresponds to the
work of pre-existent or wartime organizations which continued their work after the Armistice. “Municipal
transnationalism” refers to the exchanges and cooperations established by local authorities across national boundaries.
Finally, the “urbanist transnationalism” – embodied by networks of urban planners and reformers – shaped the
intellectual and technical history of urban reconstruction.

The project mobilizes a wide range of primary sources, drawn from archives in Belgium, France, Switzerland, the USA,
and the UK. Administrative and institutional sources document the activities of local and national authorities and their
interactions with urban populations, civil society organizations, and urban and humanitarian experts. The press, as
well as private and associational archives document the contributions and responses to reconstruction of urban
communities. Public and private discourses will be scrutinized alongside iconographic representations to analyse the
symbolic significance of the reconstruction. Belgian, French, and British archives hold rich and voluminous material
illustrating the mobilization of national and transnational networks of expert urbanists. US-based archival collections
document the role of international relief operations, of US-based philanthropists, of key urban planners, and of
humanitarian organizations. Swiss collections document the role organizations linked to the international Red Cross
movement or to the League of Nations.

2- A global history of urban catastrophes and reconstruction in the early twentieth century (1900-1939)
I will position this study in a wider reflection on the global history of urban catastrophes and reconstruction in the
early twentieth century (1900-1939).

Towns and cities illustrated and encapsulated the manifold and often ambiguous effects of modernization. Essential
nodes in the globalized network of trade routes, cities were critical sites of economic, political, and cultural activities.
It was also within their municipal boundaries that many innovations associated with the industrial age were often first
showcased, from the railway to the telegraph. Yet, cities were also prime targets for the means of modern warfare.
Indeed, the devastation visiting upon towns and cities between 1900 and 1939 suggest the period was, to paraphrase
Eric Hobsbawm, the true age of urban catastrophes.
This wider project, intended to be carried out by an interdisciplinary and international team of scholars, largely
derived from the course that I introduced a couple of years ago at the University of Warwick. It therefore
demonstrates that my pedagogical and scholarly endeavours are intimately linked and integrated. Entitled, “Urban
catastrophes. Disasters and urban reconstruction from 1906 to the present”, this 2nd-year module introduces students
to urban history by focussing on the most extreme examples of urban crises in the twentieth and twenty-first century.

The research project will explore how urban communities, as well as local and national authorities, responded to
devastation visited upon them by natural disasters, accidents, and military conflicts. It will consider how such
catastrophes mobilized urban planners, architects, and humanitarian organizations, and transformed their expertise
and practices in the process. This project will make a major contribution to urban history and to the interdisciplinary
field of disaster studies. This comparative and transnational analysis of urban catastrophes in Europe, the Americas,
and Japan, will shed new light on the process of social change and the nature of urban resilience.
This project will challenge the normative exceptionalism that underpins the scholarship on war and social change. Like
the history of war, the scholarship on urban disasters has long remained confined within national boundaries. It also
rarely considers how the urban experience of war may fit in the long history of urban catastrophes. Yet comparative
and transnational approaches highlight a significant circulation of personnel and expertise across affected regions of
the world, including former battlefields. Several officials of the American Red Cross operating in Europe between 1914
and 1920 had for instance been involved in the humanitarian response to the San Francisco earthquake and fire of
1906; and they often described the war as a disaster, in terms conventionally used in the context of urban
catastrophes. Japanese commentators and policymakers often evoked the unprecedented damages caused by the
Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 as akin only to those visited upon the devastated regions of the Western Front.
Indeed, Japanese urban planners and civil society organizations corresponded with their Belgian counterparts, in the
hope they could draw lessons from the urban reconstruction of Belgium. Historians of Argentina and Chile, for
instance, have recently highlighted the role of natural disasters in the process of state-building, in ways reminiscent of
the history of war. Finally, anthropologists have also underlined the totalizing logic of natural disasters in terms that
are now familiar to students of warfare.
Moreover, case-studies such as the Halifax explosion or the Salonica fire of 1917 would allow us to consider the
specificities of urban disasters linked to the war but not directly brought about by military operations. In other words,
this project would investigate the extent to which the experience of war is extraordinary but not exceptional when
considered in a wider reflection on urban disasters and social change. A global history of urban catastrophes between
1900 and 1939, this project will also enable us to explore the potential specificities of the European experience of war
and disasters.
This collective project will combine the history of French and Belgian towns and cities devastated as a result of the
First World War, with a particular focus on port-cities destroyed by other types or urban catastrophes. These include
San Francisco and Valparaiso in 1906, Messina in 1908, Halifax and Salonica in 1917, and Yokohama in 1923. The Chillan
earthquake of 1939 will allow us to plot the impact of urban catastrophes on the political and intellectual trajectory of

The history of urban catastrophes in the early twentieth century therefore seems a productive way to bring together
the history of war and disaster studies. Marked by a number of natural and man-made urban catastrophes, this period
also witnessed the emergence of the first social-scientific studies of natural disasters. To name but two celebrated
examples: Samuel Prince defended a doctoral dissertation on Catastrophe and Social Change at Columbia University in
1920; L.J. Carr published his “Disaster and the sequence-pattern concept of social change” in the American Journal of
Sociology in 1938. The project also offers an opportunity to engage in a critical and sustained manner with the
concepts elaborated by scholars and practitioners alike since the onset of the Cold War. Then, the study of disaster
management undeniably benefited from the attention and financial support of civilian and military authorities anxious
to mitigate the impact of a nuclear conflict. Subsequently, natural disasters become of particular interest to
development scholars, in a postcolonial world increasingly defined by the social and ecological vulnerability of the
global south. The recurrence of industrial accidents formed the backdrop of an interdisciplinary reflection on the
technological hazards constitutive of what Ulrich Beck called the Risk Society. Today, the combination of climate
change and terrorism have put the question of urban resilience at the centre of discussion about urban growth,
infrastructure, planning, and politics.

Expertise sought/offered

History of East-Central Europe, Latin America, Asia
Resilience and sustainability scholars
Urban planning, humanitarian practitioners

Tasks offered/requested

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