August 22, 2012
Greg Bankoff (History--University of Hull), Ewe Lubken (Rachel Carson Center, Munich), and Jordan Sand (History--Georgetown) have published Flammable Cities: Urban Conflagration and the Making of the Modern World (U. Wisconsin Press, 2012), an edited volume of essays on the role of fires in the history of urban development. The blurb:
In most cities today, fire has been reduced to a sporadic and isolated threat. But throughout history the constant risk of fire has left a deep and lasting imprint on almost every dimension of urban society. This volume, the first truly global study of urban conflagration, shows how fire has shaped cities throughout the modern world, from Europe to the imperial colonies, major trade entrepôts, and non-European capitals, right up to such present-day megacities as Lagos and Jakarta. Urban fire may hinder commerce or even spur it; it may break down or reinforce barriers of race, class, and ethnicity; it may serve as a pretext for state violence or provide an opportunity for displays of state benevolence. As this volume demonstrates, the many and varied attempts to master, marginalize, or manipulate fire can turn a natural and human hazard into a highly useful social and political tool.
Over at The Atlantic Cities, Emily Badger has a review called The Uncomfortable Politics Behind the History of Urban Fires. She notes how fires played a role in the contested theories and policies behind land use, property, and government:
In the United States, we’ve come to think of forest fires this way, as we spar over the rights of wealthy people to build their vacation homes in flammable places like Malibu. But the history of urban fires is similarly political, in large part because it reflects the story of how governments came to view and value property.
"Fire is, of course, this threat to human life, but conspicuously it’s about the destruction of property," Sand says. "Is it the obligation of the city fathers or [government] to prevent peoples' private property from being destroyed?"
Badger's review and the book have a lot of interesting observations.
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