On August Disasters

When the collective wisdom is unquestioned, it is a good sign that it is wrong. Take the collapse of the housing crisis, for example, which caught a generation of architects, businesspeople, politicians and economists unawares even though to anyone who bothered to look at the situation, the inevitability of the outcome was plain as day. Unfortunately, its a facet of modern society that people learn little from such mistakes.   

This month's events have me thinking again about some of the gaps in our collective wisdom. We started off with another market crisis triggered by political stalemate, mounting global debts, and reports that economies have run out of steam. None of these are new and should have come as no surprise. Rather this is the sort of stationary state that Gopal Balakrishnan diagnosed as the new status quo back in 2009 in this article. In this condition, the market winds up exploited by profiteers who have little interest in actual investment but rather only in profiting off the swings as this Wall Street Journal piece reports. Capitalism itself is being fundamentally altered under such conditions. Even if, quite obviously, capitalism remains based on investment, when the origin of that investment is increasingly relegated to individually funded pensions (in other words to a class that a scant generation ago was not directly associated with large investment) while the capitalist elite is playing an entirely different game, we have to ask ourselves if network culture isn't breeding an economic mutation that we can scarce appreciate yet.     

But my concern today isn't economics, its the uncritical urban ideology that now dominates thinking in architecture, politics, and urbanism. With the development of network cities in the 1990s and the apparent recovery of cities like New York, Los Angeles, and London, it's easy to be confident that we live in the urban millennium, the age of "the endless city," powered by the net, jet travel, finance, and conspicious consumption of architecture, clothing, and technology. Of course we have reminders like Detroit and New Orleans, but these are supposed to be indicators of the sort of rigid thought that we've left behind long ago. Network culture is supposed to be totally different, right? 

August is traditionally the month that most people in the Northern hemisphere who have the luxury of taking time off depart on vacation. But as Russians know, it is also the month of "the August Curse," the month when people go away to the dacha only to find that the country has collapsed or unthinkable acts of terrorism have taken place. So this year we have another crisis in the market, but we also have Hurricane Irene barrelling toward the East Coast, due to land almost six years to the day after Katrina hit. 

If we're lucky, Irene will turn out to be a non-event, it's greatest harm being making a populace that is convinced nothing will happen to them since they are armed with iPhones feel invincible. But if we're unlucky, it will hit hard. When the city suffered a direct strike in 1893, Manhattan south of Canal Street was flooded and waters rose thirteen feet in an hour where Battery Park City now stands. There's nothing the city has done since then to mitigate this in any serious way so if a storm hits, expect lower Manthattan to look worse than Katrina. Water, of course, seeks the lowes point so a storm surge into the subway system will follow, rapidly overwhelming the system's pumps and—apart from extending service disruptions (at this stage, the MTA expects to shut down in advance of the storm Saturday an noon and not reopen until Monday) will damage and corrode the aged equipment, leading to repairs that might takes months or even years to finish. Commuter rail lines will do little better and perhaps, given the state of Amtrak's lines into Penn Station, even worse, thus crippling commuting into the city for some time to come. One analyst suggests that the hurricane may cause up to $20 billion in direct damages, but the indirect costs of such an event could be much higher, leading to a final death blow for the city's struggling financial industry, already in trouble as the second dip of this decade-long recession gets underway.  

The complexity that we have built into our urban systems is profoundly dangerous. Urban systems are extremely interdependent today and we are less able to operate outside of them than ever. But this applies to our personal lives too. Those who have gotten rid of land lines for cell phones got a little reminder during this week's earthquake of how rapidly such systems are overwhelmed during times of crisis. But even land lines aren't the same anymore, with voltage-carrying copper replaced by cable and fiber and phones that plug into the wall replaced by cordless phones. We are more and more dependent on electricity and on such systems continuing to run. How many of us even have battery-powered radios anymore? Or maps and compasses to evacuate if data communications are down?  

As we saw earlier this year in Japan, modern life can come to a halt rapidly and take a long time to recover. A direct hit by a Category 3 storm on New York or a disaster of similar scale on a major metropolis like Tokyo or London would have major repercussions on the model of high density living that we accept without question today. In that case, this may yet be a century known for urban collapse and reruralization in the developed world. 

Comments

Glad you and the rest of the

Glad you and the rest of the NY area made it out mostly all-right.
Even if the NE in general seems to have actually been damaged more than realized at first. Especially now that the president has declared "major disaster" in Vermont, North Carolina and New York state. Will this be the final hit that equals a double recession?
Either way the myth of urban safety remains it seems inspite of or perhaps because of the "technocratic professionalism" of Bloomberg as well as the fortune of a weakened storm.

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