Lessons from Chicago

Over a hundred years ago, the entire city of Chicago was lifted up above the waterline. Why can't we do the same with New Orleans today?

Austin Williams

Topics Politics

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Chicago was built on reclaimed swampland and much of the city is only a few feet above Lake Michigan’s water surface. Getting fed up of constant flooding, inadequate sanitation and the threat of disease, something had to be done.

In the mid-1850s, therefore, the city authorities introduced legislation to overcome the problem – that the streets be lifted. Over the next 20 years, the city was lifted up in the air, out of harms way, by between one and five metres. Famously, there are reports of the Tremont Hotel, a six-story building, being jacked up while the guests remained in their rooms. This remains one of the most amazing engineering feats of modern times. The flood risk was effectively eliminated.

However, just as work was being competed, a huge section of Chicago burned to the ground, decimating an area of some 2,000 acres. Sod’s law. One third of the city’s population of 300,000 inhabitants were made homeless. More than 17,000 buildings – $400million-worth of construction in the value of the day – were destroyed.

Incredibly, the city wasn’t defeated. The triumph of the original engineering solution increased the resolve that from this terrible destruction would arise a new city, and a new school of architecture.

The lessons learned provided an incentive to invent, manufacture and legislate for steel fire protection – something that had been unthought of before then. The city’s great Columbian Exposition less than 20 years later featured the safety elevator that enabled designers to create the magnificent highrise skyline, much of which we still see today. Chicago’s ‘natural’ disaster was used as a springboard to create new city.

Imagine if that disaster had happened today. Someone would be demanding to know why US President George W Bush had not invested in more research in the steel insulation industry; why nobody had risk assessed the chances of a cow kicking over a candle in a barn (reputed to be the cause of the fire, although there are suggestions of a porcine cover-up); or why so many descendants of immigrants were adversely affected. Probably, there would be major headlines about British backpackers traumatised by coming into contact with black people, and scientifically verifiable tales about how global warming, caused by the construction of the city in the first place, had created the tinderbox conditions for the conflagration.

This attitude is reminiscent of the dark days when people believed that catastrophe was retribution from God. Today, as in the Dark Ages, people believe that horrific events are payback for overstepping preordained limits. The difference is that now people see humans themselves, rather than the gods, as directly responsible for bringing an almighty deluge.

In many reports from New Orleans, it seems that the initial response to the tragedy has been premised on the idea that a city in this location was a human-inspired accident waiting to happen. The arrogance of man building in the flood plain, without constant watch on Neptune’s wrath, has heaped a mighty and terrible justice on the heathen who believes that he can do what he likes. Man hath been smote, sayeth the righteous.

One of those righteous is Michael Moore, who wrote an open letter suggesting that the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq was responsible. This argument from a smart-arsed advocate of blame culture simply breeds cynicism. At a simple level, this attitude will make us more likely to ignore the necessity to run for your life when occasion demands.

New Orleans was a terrible accident. However, it seems that today accidents do not happen. Instead, the belief that humanity’s actions inevitably cause damage is almost a first principle to understanding the world.

Books on Malthusianism are back in fashion, articles on humanity’s destructive force are mainstream, and commentators and politicians cite the damaging effect that mankind’s existence is causing. Architects even believe that they have a detrimental, as opposed to a positive, impact on the planet.

The lessons of Chicago must be reclaimed. Rebuilding plans for New Orleans must not be premised on creating a gigantic urban memorial. Politicians must strive to build bigger, better and more nature-defeating architecture. If we think small; or decide that constructing on the flood plain is negligent; or wallow in cynicism about the political system; then regardless of the number of judicial inquiries that take place, we shall progress not one jot.

Austin Williams is director of the Future Cities Project (email

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Topics Politics


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