Cities are the Best Protection Against Disaster

Several months ago, when I was covering various wildfires, I spoke briefly to a few officials about the danger fires pose to homes deep within urban areas of cities. I had noticed that virtually all of the fire-related evacuations and structure damage happened in outlying neighborhoods, and I was curious if buildings in downtown areas were ever seriously threatened.

I was told by these officials that the threat to homes in dense urban areas have a very low chance of being burned down in wildfires. In fact, when I asked one official to imagine a scenario in which numerous urban structures would burn down he speculated a large coordinated terrorist attack might do it. Short of that — or perhaps a truly massive earthquake — homes in Utah’s most urban neighborhoods are pretty safe from disaster. Sure, a structure might burn here and there, but crews almost always contain the blaze before it spreads to whole neighborhoods as can happen in suburban areas that abut wild land.

Homes in the Maeser Neighborhood. According to experts I talked to, these homes are far less likely to burn down than those in far-flung suburbs.

The reasons urban structures are safer overlap with the reasons they’re also more efficient. There are more resources — in this case fire fighters — concentrated in a smaller area. There are numerous and frequent streets, which serve as fire breaks. Larger buildings, like the Utah Valley Convention Center, have advanced fire suppression systems. With more people around problems are spotted and solved more quickly. In the end, disasters can happen anywhere but there are more safeguards in cities and, according to the experts I talked to, problems are less likely to become massive.

This is a similar conclusion reached by writer Daniel Aldrich in the New York Times last week. Writing about hurricane responses, Aldrich — who is also a professor of political science — argues that city composition plays an important factor in a community’s resilience.

As a political scientist (I taught at Tulane at the time), I decided to study how communities respond to natural disasters. I’ve concluded that the density and strength of social networks are the most important variables — not wealth, education or culture — in determining their resilience in the face of catastrophe.

Aldrich goes on to discuss community building activities, such as mini festivals, that enhance relationships and therefore make cities more capable of responding to disasters. Many such activities already take place in Provo via volunteering opportunities and religious events. But the point about dense social networks — or the kind fostered by dense cities — is a significant one and sets places like Provo’s downtown neighborhoods apart, and in a better position, than the distant suburbs that face down wildfires every summer.

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