What Drives Urban Resilience? Two Cities That Bounced Back


Every so often, cities face major shocks. These can be economic shocks, such as the decline of key markets; natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina; or political shocks, such as corruption or gross mismanagement. Larger cities can often deal with these events using their own ample manpower and by leveraging their relationships with national governments. Smaller cities have a greater need for outside resource, but often have to fall back on their own resources and creativity to survive.

Here we take a look at two cities that have been hit with adversity and managed to bounce back, to a large extent on the basis of their own efforts. These cities provide insights into the nature of good public policy, but they also point to the key ingredients of community, local leadership and a strong sense of place.

Liverpool, England

Even before the Beatles, Liverpool was an iconic city. In the 19th century, it was the second city of the (British) Empire. Its port shipped huge volumes of manufactured goods to Asia, Africa and the Americas. In turn, it imported raw materials, including cotton, to fuel Britain’s burgeoning industrial revolution.

As befits a grand trading city, Liverpool developed a rich architectural heritage.

During the famine of the 1840s and 1850s, Liverpool was the first staging post in the mass emigration of the Irish to America. Many Irish people stayed in Liverpool to work in its flourishing docks and dock-related industries, contributing to local religion and culture. Global trade—including, it must be said, the trading of slaves until 1807—brought in communities of African and Chinese origin, which are now regarded as the oldest of their kind in Europe. Today, ethnic diversity is part of Liverpool’s identity.

As befits a grand trading city, Liverpool developed a rich architectural heritage. The three graces—The Royal Liver Building, The Cunard Building and The City of Liverpool building, which have dominated the Mersey waterfront for nearly a century—have their direct counterparts on the waterfront in Shanghai. What is less well known is that the Catholic Church had plans to build a cathedral, designed by Sir Edward Lutyens, that would have rivaled St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in size and grandeur. However, for lack of funds, and perhaps foreshadowing the city’s decline, only the crypt and treasury were completed in the 1940s.


The Three Graces were built between 1903 and 1916, and were constructed as visible symbols of Liverpool’s international prestige.

With economic decline having already set in, Liverpool reached its cultural apogee in the late 1960s, with the Beatles, their roots firmly in the city, defining the culture and attitudes of a generation. At the same time, the port of Liverpool was hit by the shift in Britain’s trade to Europe and away from the Empire, which had ceased to exist in the 1950s, and North America. The east coast ports rose and the west coast ports fell into relative decline. Moreover, trade was increasingly containerized and required vastly fewer workers, so tens of thousands of jobs were lost. Liverpool hit bottom in the mid-1980s, when unemployment peaked at around 25 percent.

Liverpool’s manufacturing base, which had been attracted to the city by grants and state aid to absorb unemployed dock labour, also collapsed as the U.K. economy restructured itself towards the service sector. The politics of militant socialism and street protest become dominant, and private-sector investors were scared away. Liverpool became a watchword in the U.K. for urban decay, poverty and crime.

It is difficult to date exactly the bounce-back of Liverpool, as it had several strands. National initiatives, albeit not involving a great deal of money, were important, but it was mainly a locally driven renaissance. Planning policy in the U.K., which severely restricts the development of large out-of-town retail malls, also helped by creating the conditions for retail-led urban regeneration.

With central government assistance, the city held a Garden Festival in 1986 with a view to revitalizing the tourist industry; it was enormously successful. Meanwhile, left-wing extremists were expelled by the Labour party and more moderate, business friendly, politics began again. Then, in 1992, the university sector expanded with the creation of John Moore’s University. With its trendy image, low living costs and decent universities, Liverpool was able to grow its student population. Thanks to investment and local entrepreneurial management, the airport capitalized on the growth of air travel to become Europe’s fastest growing facility between 1997 and 2007. In 2001, it was renamed Liverpool John Lennon Airport.


The Canning Dock, located next to the Liverpool ONE shopping center, exemplifies the fusion between old and new Liverpool.

In 1998, the Liberal Democrats, a centrist party, took control of the city council and launched an initiative to redevelop the city centre as world-class shopping destination. The Grosvenor Group invested £1 billion, and a new shopping centre was opened in 2008, the same year as Liverpool was European City of culture. Liverpool 1 was named shopping centre of the year by the International Council of Shopping Centers in 2011. Unemployment in Merseyside, the region which contains the City of Liverpool, was around 6 percent in 2016, and today, private sector investment is burgeoning and the city is a major tourist and leisure destination.

New Orleans, United States

Much like Liverpool, New Orleans is a city that thrives on culture, a rich history and the ability to draw people in and provide a unique experience. Located strategically on the Mississippi River, it was once the largest port in the American South, exporting most of the nation’s cotton and other products to Western Europe and New England. It evolved from port to economic engine of Louisiana to grand Southern City. With New Orleans changing hands three times by the Spanish and French before eventually being acquired by the U.S. in the early 19th century, much of the city’s European influence has remained. That, combined with the eclectic Creole mix, has led to New Orleans’ ability to create a sense of place so unique that it has reverberated throughout the country and world, giving curious visitors a reason to return, time and again.


A cotton steamer sits along the banks of the Mississippi River in New Orleans in the early 1900s.

Despite all of its positive attributes, New Orleans has had its fair share of challenges. The city’s history is fraught with political corruption, social and economic inequality, violent crime and critical infrastructure failures. On August 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. This was arguably the worst natural disaster in the history of the U.S., bringing New Orleans into the spotlight as people all over the country watched as the storm surge flooded 80 percent of the city and destroyed many neighborhoods and lives. The property damage amounted to $108 billion, making it the costliest of all U.S. Atlantic hurricanes.

Thus, it has been an unforgiving decade, with serious economic and social consequences; yet, people continue to flock to the city to visit a place that provides such a unique experience.

The ensuing recovery period truly tested the city’s resilience and, due to the size of the metro, resources were limited. People from all over the country were prompted to flock to the city with the goal of helping rebuild. Given their economic situation, many of the displaced residents were unable to return, but those who did have the financial means to stay and rebuild did so with unwavering determination.

Among the key institutional factors at play in the city’s revival was support from the federal government in the form of financial assistance: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent $14.5 billion on fortifications to protect the city and region from future storms and flooding. At the local level, educational and civic institutions became involved in the rebuilding effort, with university students and local business and political leaders volunteering their time and offering resources to help rebuild devastated communities throughout the city. The construction sector boomed during this period. Despite being in recovery mode, tourism continued to thrive with large events like Mardi Gras and Jazzfest drawing millions of people each year, providing a much needed boost to the service sector.

Notwithstanding, as native New Orleanians continued to pick themselves back up after Katrina, the blows kept coming: The city was hit by at least three other major hurricanes, experienced a devastating oil spill in the gulf region, and endured the great recession beginning in 2008. Thus, it has been an unforgiving decade, with serious economic and social consequences; yet, people continue to flock to the city to visit a place that provides such a unique experience. This draw—coupled with its residents’ refusal to quit—is helping keep New Orleans alive.


The street cars on Canal Street in New Orleans continue to run in the restored and revitalized city.

Today, the population is approximately 86 percent of the pre-Katrina total of 454,865, and it continues to be a tourist magnet, drawing more than 9 million visitors last year. This city also remains a popular destination for various business conferences as well as large sporting events, given its strong leisure and hospitality sector. Other job sectors that continue to drive the economy today include trade, transportation and utilities, healthcare and education.

Local political leaders, non-profit groups and global experts have created a comprehensive plan to invest in key strategies such as urban water management, incentivize property owners to invest in risk reduction, create a culture of environmental awareness, and improve the reliability of energy infrastructure, among other efforts. In 2015, the city adopted this plan in addition to a comprehensive zoning ordinance, which will ensure implementation going forward—helping to strengthen its resilience in a truly volatile physical, economic and political environment.

What Can We Learn?

What can we learn from these two examples of urban resiliency? First, state assistance is necessary; although, it requires a massive coordination effort from the federal to the local level, and local politicians need to rise to the challenge of navigating through “crisis mode.” Liverpool did not have much state assistance in its recovery, and its bounce-back took longer than in New Orleans. Second, civic engagement is critical to rebuilding community confidence and stronger social bonds, resulting in a sense of pride and appreciation for the city despite the challenges.

The experience economy has proven to be a huge growth driver.

Most importantly, there needs to be an adaptation to market forces in order for the local economy to rebound. We saw it in both examples, with Liverpool and New Orleans capitalizing on their ability to draw tourists from all over the world with their rich culture, history, architecture and retail offerings. Thus, the experience economy has proven to be a huge growth driver.

Beyond that, it boils down to a strong sense of place, which partially happens organically, and yet it is undoubtedly supported by these institutional forces which are controllable and can be strengthened over time. When disasters arise, whether environmental or economic, it is the cities with a strong sense of place that are able to bounce back and stay relevant.

As an afterthought, in this new era of “de-globalization,” we mention the fact that both Liverpool and New Orleans are ports. Port cities are uniquely exposed to patterns of trade, which history shows us can change quite quickly. The really smart port cities might want to give some thought to how they will adapt to a post-globalized world.


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