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close this bookManaging Natural Disasters and the Environment (World Bank, 1991, 232 p.)
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View the documentCase study: housing reconstruction in Mexico City
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View the documentThe link between reconstruction and development

The link between reconstruction and development

Jelena Pantelic

Reconstruction after an earthquake should improve the residents’ standard of living. Local social and cultural values and resources should be incorporated into reconstruction and development efforts.

It is a fallacy that disasters do not choose their victims, but strike all people alike. Quite the opposite seems to be true. Disasters often particularly affect the most vulnerable segments of the population, people who can afford to occupy only the dangerous flood-prone valleys or the edges of ravines and landslide areas, or who live in substandard homes or work in unsafe buildings. Poverty lies at the root of disaster vulnerability just as it lies at the root of most problems developing societies face today. So efforts to reduce disaster vulnerability are inseparable from general development efforts - especially after a disaster, when reconstruction becomes a primary medium of development policy.

This view of the link between reconstruction and development has been gaining ground, replacing the old notion of competition for resources - in which recovery was seen as diverting funds from development efforts. Reconstruction after disaster is viewed today as a process that can effectively unify development and recovery goals - by improving the disaster resistance of physical structures, improving the standard of living, generating new jobs and creating new skills, and integrating them with the community’s social and cultural values and resources.

Rebuilding physical structures

To rebuild damaged or destroyed physical structures has always been the main goal of communities affected by earthquakes. Rather than simply restore buildings to pre-earthquake conditions that may have contributed to their vulnerability in the first place, reconstruction should improve a structure’s quality, especially its earthquake-resistance. Reconstruction of physical structures after earthquakes should both reduce seismic hazards and upgrade the standard of living.


To allow development to continue after future disasters, the first step is to improve structural performance during an earthquake. This usually begins with regulation - adopting new or revising existing building codes. Mexico City’s Emergency Building Code, for example, was in place just five weeks after Mexico’s 1985 earthquake (Esteva, forthcoming). But rigorous regulations on design and practice mean little without proper enforcement, which is one of the weak links in improving earthquake-resistance in physical structures. Inadequate implementation of the building codes, rather than their absence, was one of the principal causes of deadly building failures in the 1988 earthquake in Armenia.

Throughout history reconstruction after earthquakes has inspired new construction technologies. The famous wooden frame called gaiola became a standard component of masonry construction in Lisbon after the catastrophic earthquake of 1755 (Tobriner 1980). More recently, reconstruction programs in Guatemala successfully promoted the use of lamina (light-weight aluminum sheeting) as roofing material instead of the traditional heavy ceramic tiles that had proved lethal in the 1976 earthquake (Bates 1979).

Construction techniques and materials are important but so is the location of a building and the quality of soil on which a structure is built. Land-use planning should regulate development in vulnerable sites. Relocating entire settlements to safer sites is one of the oldest, most radical land-use measures, but in the long term it rarely succeeds. The residents of Antigua, Guatemala, for example, reluctantly abandoned their city after Spanish authorities officially relocated it in 1779 - only to return several years later (Tobriner 1980). Similarly, the town of Gediz in Turkey, which was ruined in the 1970 earthquake and rebuilt on another site, exists 12 years later in two thriving neighboring locations, Old and New Gediz (Aysan and Oliver 1987). Yugoslav authorities seriously considered relocating Skopje after a 1963 earthquake, but opted instead for a restrictive land-use strategy by rezoning the seismically hazardous Vardar valley as open space (Davis 1978).

Introducing new building regulations and technologies requires a well-organized education and training program if earthquake mitigation measures are to be effective. Training technical personnel and the population at large in earthquake-resistant construction has become more common in the past 20 years. In Guatemala after the 1976 earthquake, for example, some programs trained residents how to distinguish between safe and vulnerable locations for their homes and how to improve the traditional building process, rather than providing them with complete houses (Davis 1978, Cuny 1983). Similarly, in Nepal, which is now recovering from the effects of the 1988 earthquake, several dozen demonstration houses have been built in strategic locations to show safe building practices to people from remote areas (Fujiwara and others 1989, Kreimer 1989). In the last decade, earthquake education courses for professional architects, engineers, and planners have proliferated in the United States - and the public at large has not been neglected. Specialized earthquake preparedness projects in California disseminate information about the threat of earthquakes and provide guidelines for self-help improvement of the earthquake performance of homes (BAREPP 1990).


Substandard physical structures, especially in low-income residential areas, are common in developing countries. Dwellings often lack kitchens, bathrooms, and water, as well as access to sewers, electric power, paved roads, and health and education facilities. More often than not these residential quarters are overcrowded and poorly maintained and are rarely owner-occupied. This makes them particularly susceptible to earthquake damage, as was shown in earthquakes in Mexico City in 1985, the Italian countryside in 1980, and the medieval cities on the southern coast of Yugoslavia in 1979. So physically upgrading structures after earthquakes to improve the occupants’ standard of living has become an important goal of reconstruction. In Mexico City, for example - in a remarkably successful large-scale attempt to reconstruct residential buildings - both the buildings’ earthquake-resistance and the occupants’ standard of living were improved. Before the earthquake, the average size of an apartment was 22.25 square meters, shared by an average 4.37 occupants, with 63 percent of households sharing bathrooms and 30 percent sharing kitchens with other families. The rebuilt dwellings were an average 40 square meters and contained two bedrooms, a living and dining area, a bathroom, kitchenette, and washing area (Puertos 1987, Stolarski 1987, RHP 1987).

Increasing the size and quality of dwelling units alone will not improve the occupants’ standard of living, if that is done at the expense of more vital necessities. Kreimer (1980), for example, shows that access to jobs and services is more important to the low-income population in developing countries than the quality of the structure they occupy. In Managua, after the 1972 earthquake, long journeys to work reduced the attractiveness of the low-income residents’ new, well-equipped housing units built on the city’s outskirts (Bolton 1988). By contrast, residential neighborhoods in Mexico City were rebuilt on the same site near the city center - a vibrant focus of the formal and informal economy - which enabled people to maintain their position in the life of the community.

Social aspects of reconstruction

Local social and cultural values must be considered in development and reconstruction programs. According to Weitz (1986) - who calls for “massive representation” of local communities in development projects - a “major reason for the recurrent failures of past development efforts is the neglect to involve value systems in development planning and implementation.” Similarly, Goulet (1978) asserts that the values of the society itself must calibrate the terms of its development. Analysts of recovery programs after earthquakes and other disasters link the failure of many reconstruction programs to a lack of respect for the social and cultural values of the affected communities (Aysan and Oliver 1987). Two objectives of reconstruction should be to strengthen the local community by using its resources and to incorporate the cultural values of the community into the reconstruction process.


Many people participate in planning and implementation of reconstruction after an earthquake, but the victims are often left out of the process. In the short term, reconstruction is thus deprived of local skills, experience, manpower, institutions, and sometimes significant funds for rebuilding. In the long run, the community is robbed of the invigorating experience of rebuilding and runs the risk that its lifestyle may be changed beyond recognition. Outside decisionmakers often bring ready-made solutions, foreign technologies, and inappropriate lifestyles to communities whose residents are excluded from meaningful participation in reconstruction. Turkish authorities, for example, provided prefabricated housing with modem amenities to the victims of the Gediz 1970 and Lice 1975 earthquakes, housing that proved to be sorely inappropriate for the traditional rural and nomadic culture and religious beliefs of the affected population (Aysan and Oliver 1987, Cavanagh and Johnson 1976).

Involving the local community and resources in reconstruction planning and implementation can materially strengthen a community hit by an earthquake. For example, in Renovacion Habitacional Popular (RHP) - the groundbreaking housing reconstruction program that provided almost 50,000 housing units in Mexico City - decisionmaking involved representatives of all concerned groups from the local communities in which reconstruction was taking place, including neighborhood associations, tenement groups, and church organizations. The result of negotiations, a formally signed social agreement, became a blueprint for implementing reconstruction, in which the local community continued to participate actively (RHP 1987, SEDUE 1987).

Assistance from outside the community - although often welcome and sometimes necessary as a “catalyst” for successful reconstruction - must not take on a leading role. Foreign aid can expedite development but “cannot in and of itself develop a poor nation” (Weitz 1986). The same applies to reconstruction. Local participation brings in the special knowledge, work experience, and technical and organizational skills needed for successful recovery. Local involvement in reconstruction provides a framework for social and economic community development. In Mexico City, for instance, many funds were funneled back into the communities affected by the earthquake. Renovacion Habitacional Popular created about 115,000 new jobs in the construction industry, which were filled almost exclusively by locally recruited workers (RHP 1987). And the community’s economic base was strengthened in the long term by providing production shops and commercial spaces for local businesses.

Two objectives in Mexico City were to strengthen the alliance between the public and the private sector and to reinforce existing institutions rather than establish new institutions. RHP was organized as a task force, combining experts from the public and private sector. Members of this group were on “loan” from their parent organizations as long as reconstruction lasted. Then RHP was dissolved, preventing the institutionalization and bureaucratization of the reconstruction program. The public sector provided institutional support, a timely flow of information and funds, and shortcuts in bureaucratic procedures, while the private sector contributed practical experience in finance, design, construction, and management.

Urban growth and natural hazards

Michael Cohen

There is a great need for research and development on the urban environment, particularly on the relationship between global and urban environmental problems. If global warming does occur and sea levels really do increase, think what the implications are for cities such as Bombay, Lagos, Rio, Dacca, Manila, Shanghai, and New York. What will happen to the quality of the aquifer? If the water supply for such huge populations is ruined, what will happen to economic activity? If half of the GDP is generated in the cities, how will that affect economic growth? What are a country’s economic prospects without its major urban centers? Or look at it the other way: How do cities affect global environmental problems? Cities pollute - and eat up scarce environmental resources. We don’t know as much as we need to know but one thing is clear. We must define urban policy and take action in urban areas. Four aspects of urban growth demand special attention in discussions of natural hazards: demographic growth, constraints on urban productivity, spatial growth, and weak local institutional capabilities.

Demographic growth. In 1960, only one city - Shanghai - had a population of 10 million; in the year 2000, 17 cities are expected to have populations above 10 million. And secondary cities in most developing countries are growing faster than many larger cities. The urban population, which was about 1.3 billion people in 1988, will expand by about 600 million people by the year 2000. Urban growth continues, the numbers are huge, and no effort to restrain urban growth - such as limiting migration - has worked. It is impossible to keep people in rural areas and in any case growth often occurs in the cities themselves, from natural increase. Cities impose tremendous pressures on environmental resources, especially air and water. What is the carrying capacity of large cities? We do not know, as cities are growing to unprecedented levels.

Constraints on urban productivity. Cities are crucial to economic productivity. Almost half of the gross domestic product (GDP) in most of the Bank’s member countries is generated in urban areas. This is less true in rural African countries, but certainly applies in such countries as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. About 80 percent of future growth is expected to come from the urban economy.

But in most developing countries, cities are not as productive as they could be. There are serious constraints on productivity, the most obvious being deficiencies of infrastructure, such as traffic problems in places like Cairo and Mexico City and shortages of water in Karachi and Bombay. Economic policies make daily economic activity far too complicated and complex regulatory frameworks hinder rather than regulate growth. But worst of all constraints on productivity are the weak institutional frameworks for managing cities. The result is extensive urban poverty. By World Bank estimates, about one quarter of city dwellers - roughly 330 million people - live below the urban poverty line. And a substantial portion of the 600 million to be added to the urban population will be urban poor.

Spatial growth. Cities are expanding rapidly into peripheral areas. Areas that once were agricultural land are now inhabited by increasingly dense populations. Employment tends to decentralize; areas that were once residential, and before that agricultural, are now becoming employment centers. Areas that are now residential were once zoned for industry and still may be industrial to some extent. Land used for mixed purposes creates hazards, introducing industrial pollution and hazardous waste to residential neighborhoods, for example.

With spatial growth in some areas comes densification and centralization in others, which increase rather than decrease the risks associated with natural disasters. Pollution is heavy, air quality is deteriorating, marginal lines are being settled, and environmental risks in cities are increasing rapidly. But among data on the developing countries, you will find surprisingly little information on the urban environment.

Weakened local institutional capabilities. In most countries local governments are weaker now than they were 20 years ago - particularly in infrastructure. Administrative pressures to centralize government have starved local governments of revenues, autonomy, and technical capabilities. Urban infrastructure in most parts of the world is in a crisis, with poor maintenance undermining the value of development investments. Institutional capabilities are especially poor in zoning and the enforcement of environmental regulations. Even data on air and water pollution in Mexico City and most African and Asian cities are not available.

Our phenomenal ignorance of the escalating economic, social, and political stakes of urban growth makes risk assessment exceedingly difficult. The likelihood of environmental disasters is probably increasing, and the prospects of their affecting cities is certainly increasing - because human activity is becoming densified and residential, and industrial activities coexist in the same neighborhoods in interactions about which regulations and policy are not clear. We must work together to identify ways to reduce these risks, but there is much to be done.


Physical structures identify neighborhoods, embody a way of life, and express the cultural values of the community. One important measure of a reconstruction program’s success is the extent to which a community can preserve its cultural identity and lifestyle. Urban ambiance, the historical heritage, and traditional architectural values are frequently destroyed by an earthquake, but often reconstruction programs sacrifice these values, too, damaging the social fabric of the community. Before the 1963 earthquake, for example, Skopje was a closely knit city with a strong medieval Ottoman heritage. Reconstruction converted it to a low-density, thin, linear city, 24 kilometers long - changing forever the lifestyle of its citizens (Davis 1975).

More efforts were made to maintain the cultural identity of communities recovering from earthquakes and other disasters in the 1970s. The cultural values of the victims in Guatemala, for example, were integrated into its reconstruction programs (Thompson and Thompson 1977). Of course, some strategies to preserve a place’s cultural identity may cause hardships for its residents. Venzone, for example - a historical town damaged in the 1976 Fruiuli earthquakes - embarked on a slow process of rehabilitating its historical buildings and preserving its unique ambiance at the expense of its residents, who were displaced to prefabricated dwellings outside of town (Hogg 1980). Mexico City’s local residents, however, were not displaced but camped near the reconstruction sites, observing and helping in the rebuilding of their new homes. The concept of the traditional neighborhood and the spirit of the “vecindad” were skillfully translated into the design for new condominiums, and the historical “vecindades” - the subjects of special architectural conservation projects - received their original residents as soon as they were rebuilt.