Save for the railway track that curves beside it, the downtown was destroyed – businesses levelled, municipal buildings gutted, nearby homes knocked off their foundations. Now, though, a vision for a rebuilt town – for a sense of normalcy in a community healing from a disaster that violently tore through the landscape as it claimed lives – is gathering steam. The main drag will be shifted to the east. A market, a nucleus for the town until development is completed elsewhere, will be the first major commercial building erected. Roads will be joined to funnel traffic downtown and bring communities together. Victims will be memorialized with green space.
This is the story of Cordova, an Alabama town in the rolling foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, where two tornadoes ripped through the downtown in 2011and left it a shambles until earlier this year, when the town received federal funding to clear the debris. It’s also eerily similar to the story of Lac-Mégantic, the Quebec town reeling from a July 6 train derailment that incinerated much of the downtown and killed at least 47 people.
Emerging from both sets of ashes is a reminder not only of the enormous resilience it takes to imagine a way forward after a tragedy, but of the importance of cities in shaping the way we live. It matters where our roads meet, how wide the sidewalks are, how far away the supermarket is and whether we mix work with play or segregate home from the rest of our lives. Sometimes these elements emerge organically over time; sometimes the challenge is to engineer them and then let residents do the rest.
“You’ve got to recapture the whole sense of the city,” says John van Nostrand, a Toronto architect and urban planner with international experience working in disaster-riddled communities. “It’s partly about nostalgia, but it’s partly the opportunity to change it. … You need good streets, you need public space, and you need a good layout – but you also need a place that allows people to remake it the way they’d like to see it.”
Just as people don’t suffer or recover from trauma the exact same way, no two towns emerge from disaster with the same scars or plans for renewal. But both Cordova and Lac-Mégantic are in the rare (if deeply unenviable) position to build their centres from scratch, to lay the groundwork for a “destination” rather than a cookie-cutter “non-place” lacking the natural energy that pulses from established communities but is so rarely found in overly built environments.
“The golden goose is an authentic place that’s good for residents but also attractive to visitors,” says Brent Toderian, a city planning consultant and president of the Council for Canadian Urbanism.
Long before the disaster that changed it forever, Lac-Mégantic was already using its century-old roots as a blueprint for its future. To preserve its historic downtown, the town put up eye-pleasing street lamps, invested in sidewalk furniture so people could linger and beautified both the core and nearby parks.
“There was a fear that we were entering a phase of a long, slow march to the death of downtown,” Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche says. “Over the past decade, we invested a lot of time, energy and money to make sure that didn’t happen. It worked, and the town had a social life and an energy downtown.”
Mr. Toderian suggests that many small towns, including Lac-Mégantic, have benefited from embracing “traditional” scale and values. By “traditional,” of course, he means the type of streetscapes developed before the advent of the car – towns that are walkable, navigable and connected. He means towns that urban planners all over the world, in cities untouched by tragedy but fighting the disconnectedness and unsustainability of sprawl, are now looking to for inspiration.