Urban infrastructure, climate change, disaster and risk: lessons from the past for the future

by Robin Coningham and Lisa J. Lucero

29 Oct 2021
Journal of the British Academy
https://doi.org/10.5871/jba/009s8.079

Abstract: Narratives of lost cities and the exploration of ruins have captivated scholars and travellers for hundreds of years with explanations for their demise ranging from invasions to cataclysmic environmental events. This article explores three case studies to consider the impact of climate change, disaster and risk on urban infrastructure in the past, as well as to reflect on potential lessons of adaptation and resilience for modern cities and their inhabitants. The first examines the degree to which historic urban infrastructure can tell us about seismic adaptation in pre-modern Nepal, as well as recognising the increasing challenges to vernacular architecture from climate change. The second, Sri Lanka’s Medieval cities in the North Central Province, examines the intricate relationship between the ancient city of Anuradhapura and its artificial hydraulic landscape, a relationship which saw resilience defeated by irreversibly engineered adaptation. The final example is drawn from the experience of another tropical society on the other side of the globe, the low-density urban Classic Maya of Central America, which offers different yet relevant insights into alternate urban lifeways, both ancient and contemporary. Focusing on issues of successful and unsuccessful adaptations in urban settings over an archaeological time range and evaluating how archaeologists and historians have explored and presented this evidence, we conclude by considering how archaeology and archaeologists can also play a greater role in future sustainable urban planning.

Keywords: climate change, urban infrastructure, disaster, risk, reliance, adaptation, pre-modern Nepal and Sri Lanka, earthquakes, tsunamis, historic infrastructure, the Classic Maya, path dependency, lessons learned.

Article posted to the Journal of the British Academy, volume 9, supplementary issue 8 (Climate, Disaster and Risk)

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