Megacities Today, Rubble Tomorrow: Haiti, Chile as Architectural Wake-Up Call [UPDATE]

Disasters in Haiti and Chile show architecture is the problem—and the solution—for earthquake-prone cities.

This week in The New York Times, Andrew Revkin published a wake-up call for megacities: Learn from Haiti; you might be next. And the problem is architecture. Earthquakes don't kill people, he says. Buildings do. "In recent earthquakes, buildings have acted as weapons of mass destruction," Roger Bilham, a seismologist who Revkin interviews, wrote in Nature. Most of the buildings in the world's fastest-growing cities are "rubble in waiting."

Seismic Cities

Joel Achenbach's article in the Washington Post says if you live in one of the biggest cities on the planet, you're probably at risk. (The Times has a similar map here.)

The next Big One could strike Tokyo, Istanbul, Tehran, Mexico City, New Delhi, Kathmandu or the two metropolises near California's San Andreas Fault, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Or it could devastate Dhaka, Jakarta, Karachi, Manila, Cairo, Osaka, Lima or Bogota. The list goes on and on.
"You can name about 25 cities that are like Port-au-Prince. They're not going to shake but every 250 years [on average]. But if you can name 25 of them, you're going to have an event like this every 10 years," said David Wald, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

It's a design problem.

Architecture for Humanity's Cameron Sinclair saw the writing on the walls of Port-au-Prince's architecture when he visited Haiti in October: "In Haiti, most if not all of the buildings have major engineering flaws," he said. Concrete, mostly imported from the US, is expensive, so engineers cut it with sand and skimp on the re-bar. Buildings are built to hold up in a hurricane, but never in an earthquake. (Want a physics lesson? Read Roger K. Lewis's summary of earthquake damage here, or check out this fascinating book.)

After the quake, Sinclair publicized an 11-step plan for those working in Haiti—especially designers—to rebuild the city. And there are many more like him. (Listen to Sinclair, along with historian Patrick Sylvain, Global Green's Ted Bardacke, and Make It Right's Alejandra Lillo on KCRW here.)

Will Haiti galvanize designers (as Sinclair and others, like Thomas Fisher, hope)—as well as political leaders—to build smarter, safer cities? Istanbul—Revkin's case study—is no stranger to major quakes. Still:

The city is rife with buildings with glaring flaws, like ground floors with walls or columns removed to make way for store displays, or a succession of illegal new floors added in each election period on the presumption that local officials will look the other way. On many blocks, upper floors jut precariously over the sidewalk, taking advantage of an old permitting process that governed only a building’s footprint.

The difference is, in 2006 Istanbul drafted an "earthquake master plan" that involved strengthening building codes, mandating earthquake insurance, and reinforcing schools and hospitals with new walls, stronger columns, and other retrofits. Will other cities follow suit? "Buildings are being constructed right now Pakistan and Iran that are almost designed to kill their occupants when the earthquake comes, and it will," Bilham told Revkin. Buildings are the problem, but, perhaps, they can also be the solution.

UPDATE: Over the weekend, central Chile was rattled by an 8.8 earthquake—250-300 times stronger than the quake in Haiti. Although buildings are down, hundreds of people are dead, and millions displaced, experts say Chile was spared even greater devastation thanks to strict building codes set in place after two cataclysmic earthquakes in 1960 (at 9.5, the strongest ever recorded) and 1985. "There is a lot of reinforced concrete in Chile, which is normal in Latin America," Chilean seismic researcher Andre Filiatrault told the Times. "The only issue in this, like any earthquake, are the older buildings and residential construction that might not have been designed according to these codes." MIT engineering professor Eduardo Kausel elaborates on Monday's All Things Considered.

Of course, the earthquake, hitting just 70 miles from Chile's second most populous city, Concepción, was still disastrous, and Chile is reeling. David Assael and David Basulto are chronicling the damage there on their excellent blog Plataforma Arquitectura and are supposedly in touch with Architecture for Humanity.

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  • Christine Maingard

    Megacities as potential physical death traps, created by inappropriate architecture, described as 'rubble in waiting' - what an informative article! However, even if there are no major disasters, such as earthquakes, large cities are increasingly becoming health traps of a different kind. For the first time in human history, more than half of the world's population is living in cities (in 1800 it was 3%) and in many developed countries the proportion is over 80%. Together with the increasing rate of urbanisation we have witnessed, on a global scale, a deterioration of mental health and wellbeing, not even to mention dramatically increased levels of poverty, violence and crime. Urbanisation has brought with it a disconnection from our natural world - we spend more time in artificial environments than ever before. We need to find ways to make our cities and megacities safer and better places - not just architecturally but also from an ecopsychological perspective.
    Dr Christine Maingard
    Author of "Think Less, Be More"
    http://www.thinklessbemore.com