Urban Catastrophes: Vulnerability, Disasters, And Urban Resilience since the Middle Ages

Urbanization is a defining feature of modernity and its history. Although the majority of the world population did not live in towns and cities before 2008, the experience of urban life offers a useful perspective on the making of the modern world. Centres of political power, cultural influence, and economic activity, towns and cities have long played a critical role in global history. As a result, urban disasters often threatened the long-term trajectories of cities and states alike as their human and material toll reverberated for years thereafter. From fifteenth-century Kos to Beirut in the late-twentieth century, the capacity of urban settlements to recover from environmental and man-made catastrophes revealed the strengths and the weaknesses of their social fabric. Urban reconstruction also brings to light many issues of great importance to modern historians: the link between the built environment and local identity, the nature of social cohesion, the relationship between state and civil society, the emergence of transnational solidarity, etc.

This learning unit will introduce students to urban history by focussing on the most extreme examples of urban crises since the pre-modern era. It will combine general and comparative discussions with individual case-studies that will inform our collective reflection. Those will include cities destroyed by earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, floods, and industrial accidents. We will also consider the post-conflict reconstruction of cities and the impact of deindustrialization and economic decline.

For an overview of the case studies covered in this learning unit, please click here.

Learning Community Activities
Upcoming Events

Workshops In summer 2024, the Learning Community hopes to host a Q&A session to discuss different disciplinary perspectives on post-disaster urban reconstruction. Hosted by the historian, Dr Pierre Purseigle and architect Matevž Juvančič, the event will consist of a presentation, student discussions and a Q&A.

The learning community will be releasing a short podcast series in 2024 hosted by partners and featuring interviews with academics and practitioners working in the field of urban disasters, emergency response and reconstruction.

Past Events

'Why write a history of urban disasters?' - On the 13th December 2022, Dr Pierre Purseigle delivered a guest lecture as part of Professor Anne Winter's 'Urban History' module. This lecture was attended by students enrolled on the History MA or Urban Studies MA at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). It entailed an overview of the history of urban disasters and explored the importance of studying the history of these events. 

How to get involved?

(Students and educators)
Contact the EUTOPIA curriculum team: Jo Angouri (J.Angouri@warwick.ac.uk) and Karen Triquet (karen.triquet@vub.be)
Learning Community Members
Lead: Pierre Purseigle (UW). Email: p.purseigle@warwick.ac.uk

Pierre Purseigle is Associate Professor in Modern European History at the University of Warwick and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. His teaching focusses on the comparative and transnational history of war and catastrophes. His work lies at the intersection of urban history and critical disaster studies. He has taught modern history and the methodology of history in France, the United Kingdom, and the USA.
Assistant: Eliza Cubitt (UW). Email: Eliza.Cubitt@warwick.ac.uk

Eliza Cubitt is a researcher interested in the history and literature of urban change, particularly in the Victorian city. She is the author of the critical biography Arthur Morrison and the East End (Routledge, 2018) and is currently working on a new project on urban marshlands and their myths.

Partner: Jelena Juvan (UL). Email: Jelena.Juvan@fdv.uni-lj.si

Assis. Prof. Jelena Juvan, PhD, is a higher education teacher and lecturer at the Department of Defence Studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana and a senior research assistant at the Defence Research Center of the Faculty of Social Sciences. She has been employed at the Faculty of Social Sciences since 2003. In the pedagogical process, she is the holder of the courses in EU Security and Defence Policy and Professional Practice at the 2nd level of the Master's Degree in Defence Studies. She is also a co-lecturer in the courses of  Security in the Information Society, Defense and Security System at the 1st level and Cyber Security at the 2nd level of study. Her research interests include crisis management, disaster management, caber and information security, European  security. She is a Head of Chair of Defence Studies and a Head of Department of Politology at the Faculty of Social Sciencies University of Ljubljana.

Partner: Nel de Mûelenaere (VUB). Email: Nel.De.Muelenaere@vub.be

Nel de Mûelenaere is a historian of 19th and 20th century Europe, and assistant professor at the Social and Cultural Food Studies (FOST) research group of the University of Brussels (VUB). In the fall of 2022, she holds the Peter Paul Rubens Chair at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on the relation between humanitarian aid, food and gender during and after the First World War. One strand of her work examines the experiences and impact of female American relief workers in Belgium and France. Another looks at food and living standards of Belgian families during and after WWI and the development of home economics and nutritional science. She teaches methodological courses and a course on the history of warfare. Nel is the academic co-director of the Brussels Institute for Advanced Studies (BrIAS) and the chair of the research committee for the Faculty of Languages and the Humanities. In 2019, dr. de Mûelenaere was the BAEF Cabeaux-Jacobs postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University. There, her research on the Belgian relief work of American home economists Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose in 1923 was rewarded with the Dean’s Fellowship in the History of Home Economics. She holds a PhD in political history (2016) from Antwerp University. Her dissertation explored forgotten militarization processes in Belgian society between 1890 and 1914, and was published by Leuven University Press in 2019. Dr. de Mûelenaere has previously worked as scientific coordinator for NISE - National movements and Intermediary Structures in Europe (2015-2018) and CegeSoma - the Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society (2009-2010).

Partner: Anne Winter (VUB). Email: anne.winter@vub.be

Anne Winter is Professor of History and part of the research team Historical Research into Urban Transformation Processes (HOST) at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), of which she was director from 2011 to 2021. She was awarded the 6-yearly prize I. Vanderschueren for the best PhD in the Human Sciences by the Research Council of the VUB (2010), and the 3-yearly prize of the Flemish Scientific Foundation (2011) awarded by the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts, and was Francqui Research Professor at the VUB from 2012-2015. She spent extended research stays at Somerville College (University of Oxford) and Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris) and held the Van Dyck Chair at University of California - Los Angeles during Spring Term 2017. She was/is editor of TSEG – Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History (2010-2016), BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review (2017-2019), and Journal of Migration History (since 2019).

Anne Winter's research deals with the social and economic history of the Low Countries in the early modern period and long nineteenth century in an internationally comparative perspective, with a focus on the interactions between migration, social policy, urbanization and labour relations. Her teaching includes introductory and specialized courses on early modern Europe as well as long-term perspectives on social and economic history and urban history.

Partner: Matevz Juvancic (UL). Email: matevz.juvancic@fa.uni-lj.si

Born in Ljubljana, Slovenia, Matevz Juvancic is an architect, a teacher and a researcher at the Faculty of Architecture, University of Ljubljana. His research work was initially focused on architectural education of the general public and public participation. In later years, he has become fascinated by anonymous, generic elements in urban environments as well as more distinct ones, studying their significance in space orientation, space use and spatial character. His main research focus has recently shifted towards spatial semantics, spatial character in connection with identity issues, and fundamental questions related to what makes places recognizable and identifiable, or put more simply: why they are as they are, why we recognize them as such and how they came to be. Research wise he is also involved in projects dealing with sustainability of neighbourhoods and districts as well as specific aspects of urban resilience. At the Faculty of Architecture, he is teaching at bachelor, master and doctoral level (main subject: Introduction to urbanism, Urban design studio 1,2 and 3 - bachelor level, Urban design studio 1 and 2 - master level, elective subjects: Space and media; Townscapes and interactive cities). A large proportion of his daily activities consist of Erasmus and other international exchange programmes management. He has been practicing architecture since 2002 and is a licensed architect.

Introduction to Urbanism is an integrative course – theoretical, analytical, and applicative - that introduces fundamental definitions and understandings of the urbanity, basic terminological notions in the field of urbanism and urban design. Students gain compact historical overview and analysis of the development of urban spaces and key moments that shaped them along with the evolution of urban theoretical thought. It is in these - key moments – of urbanity that happened as a result of progress, social and cultural currents in societies, conflicts and catastrophes, that we can observe cities and urban spaces under pressure and at their best or their worst dealing with the problems. Urban planning and urban design strive to achieve balance of resources, equal opportunities, social justice for its citizens and provide stable, creative and prosperous environments. In the course students learn what makes cities work and why urban dwelling posits an attractive living environment for many. The LC topic of Urban Catastrophes reminds us as planners and demands from us as thinkers to ask a simple yet incredibly complex question: what happens when cities and urbanity are put under stress and break? Can we as planners and ‘doers’ anticipate the breaking points and plan for them, mitigate the consequences, reduce their impacts? Are they all the same, are some manageable, predictable, preventable? As architects and urbanists, we are ill equipped to answer these questions alone and LC offers a perfect platform to build a common understanding of the issues at hand and of each other: fellow scholars, researchers and disciplines that are also involved and knowledgeable in the field.

partners coming soon