How do cities rebuild after war? Town planning and maintaining cultural identity after devastation

What steps need to be taken and what questions need to be considered to help build a city back up from ruins?

A major city always springs back into life after devastation. The process is slow and thoughtful, with care sprinkled into ensuring life resumes as normal, and the effects of the destruction are minimal.

But the steps to rebuilding a city are complex and require a delicate dance, combining effective and sustainable long term planning, while honouring the memory of a city that once was. Events in Ukraine recently, where entire towns and cities have been flattened, have brought this issue into sharp focus.

Dr Peter Larkham, professor of planning at Birmingham City University, emphasises the importance between the initial emergency response and the overall permanent plans - which should be more sustainable and adaptable.

“People are going to need rehousing - the infrastructure, the services, need to go back in so people can actually live, but that isn’t (the same as) replanting or rebuilding a city for the next 50 plus years,” he says. “That takes a lot of time, effort and money. If you have all those resources, it’s going to take 10 to 20 years to rebuild a very badly damaged city.”

He explains how, after World War Two, Birmingham used prefabricated housing - also known as prefabs - as its initial emergency response. “Birmingham was allocated 6,000 of these prefabs because it was an emergency and partly because of the materials and the technology. They were designed with a very short lifespan - maybe five years. Later built was a mix of traditional type of two storey brick and high rise buildings. That’s part of the difference between the instant response and the more permanent.”

However, when it comes to rebuilding cities for the long-term, Dr Larkham suggests “flexibly building to adapt rather than build up and demolish” as a good ethos. While it’s hard to have that long-term perspective in the midst of a crisis, there are a few questions to ask first. “You’ve got to start thinking: do we use the same street layout? Was it effective? Did it work or do we really need to restructure everything?”

Cultural identity should also be considered. Dr Timothy Clack, a fellow in Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Oxford, says a city’s heritage comes to life in myriad ways. “A city can be symbolic of nation, religion, industry and way of life. Interactions from industry, trade, exchange and housing are drivers of social cohesion. Cities often also develop their own identities through dialects, accents and even architecture, sports teams and the arts,” he says.

He adds that “war often targets cultural identity. Brutal attacks are used to break the will of the people. As people and place are inextricably linked, attacks on either are injurious to both.”

Merging cultural identity and effective planning 

When rebuilding a city with its history in mind, the same building layouts are tempting, as the same infrastructure remains underneath, making it easier to re-plan. Starting fresh would require a green site or digging up all the infrastructure to start from scratch - the former being the cheaper option of the two.

Post-war planning has an influence on the city’s growing identity, as Dr Clack explains: “The transition to stability should be recognised in planning and redevelopment. Indeed, a focus on remembrance – as a means to catharsis – can be a powerful part of the rebuilding enterprise. This permits cities to acknowledge past trauma, register troubled pasts, and reset relationships between people.”

Dr Larkham says rebuilding a city destroyed by war should be centred around one word: sustainability.

Sustainability is about efficiency and social adaptation, as he elaborates: “People are now shopping online. A town centre might want some retailing in the centre but also some different facilities in there like converting buildings to housing and living in a city centre.

“If you can afford to build a little more generously, the buildings become much more adaptable and flexible. So one generation’s department store becomes the next generation’s office and maybe even the next generation after that converted to housing.”

Housing should come first when replanning a city, according to Dr Larkham, followed by employment and then ancillary support functions. "Cities are big things - they’ve got to keep going. You’re going to need pleasure and recreation and outdoor space is really important. If we don’t build that into our new city design, we are making a big mistake,” he says.

But how much does it actually cost to build back a city ravaged from war? Dr Larkham is reluctant to put a figure on it: “I’m not even going to speculate on that. One reason is costs change, and they effectively grow. The cost of design, building, use, and it being knocked down to it again in 15 or 20 years is high. But the cost of changing around internal partitions is relatively low.

“The cost of staying where you are because you’re not going to rebuild absolutely everything differently helps keep a lot with psychological investment. In a lot of European towns, there are damaged buildings as a landmark as a reminder.”

Maintaining a community’s story is a vital step, as war has a devastating effect on identity. “War affects cultural identity in a number of ways,” Dr Clack says. “It can, for example, be reinforcing of identity as threats and hardships serve to galvanise and bond people together.”

Palestine: a case study 

Dr Yara Sharif of the University of Westminster is an architect and co-founder of the Palestine Regeneration Team (PART), and works to rethink landscapes and create interventions that “heal and empower” the local community. Their projects take place internationally, with a focus on Palestine.

The team works with local communities, to offer a space of creativity and change. The work looks into sustainable forms of reconstruction to allow people in a rural context empower themselves, such as having equal access to water or alternative building methods, which are more affordable and freely available. Maintaining this narrative is vital, she says.

PART works in collaboration with a range of organisations, such as NGOs, UN Habitat and local councils in different parts of Palestine to rebuild on the ground - with a recent job with Rural Work seeing historic centres brought back to life after being abandoned in rural areas.

One of the initiatives in collaboration with a local NGO is called ‘The Eco Kitchen’. This has allowed local women to create a collective cooking space so the community could collectively cater for the schools and use their roofs to act as a garden.

Dr Sharif refers to this initiative as a means to address social ecology. “We’re not only addressing environmental issues in a very conventional sense as they may be viewed in the West, but also looking at social aspects and how unequal access to sources has an impact on social conditions.”

Her work also breaches the horizons of literal architecture. “We’re not only talking about the physical rebuilding themselves, but also the rituals associated with them, the artefacts, the whole notion of memory. We do not want to repeat regeneration schemes or reconstruction schemes that mimic some big cities like Dubai, or London or New York.

“There is a fear of having faceless cities, a faceless landscape where everything looks the same. It is very important we address the cultural issues, heritage, the culture and landscape, the culture and rituals that make every site specific and that requires understanding and working with the local community.”

Funding, however, can be limited, so Dr Sharif and her team get creative. “We try to think about how to build on techniques and practices already initiated by the local community. The Gazans have been amazing and resilient in rethinking their construction - they work with crushed concrete to make bricks and rethink new ways to generate energy.

“Gaza still needs aid,” she adds. “It still needs support, and we’re now relying purely on the locals to initiate and rebuild their homes.”