In 2009, a mas­sive earth­quake struck L’Aquila, Italy, a town two hours north of Rome where gen­er­a­tions of fam­i­lies have lived for thou­sands of years. The quake dev­as­tated the com­mu­nity so much that its cit­i­zens have not been able to return; anyone crossing into the city must wear pro­tec­tive gear and be accom­pa­nied by emer­gency personnel.

It looks like a war zone of the worst kind,” said Matthias Ruth, a pro­fessor with dual appoint­ments in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the Depart­ment of Civil and Envi­ron­mental Engi­neering.

Matthias Ruth is a pro­fessor of public policy and engi­neering. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Ruth is part of a team of about 20 researchers from the Organ­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co-​​operation and Devel­op­ment that has studied the after­math of the Italian earth­quake in hopes of teaching other cities how to improve their resilience to major dis­as­ters. The research team released a report of their rec­om­men­da­tions, “Building Resilient Regions after a National Dis­aster,” in Rome ear­lier this month.

We need to pre­pare our­selves,” Ruth said. “That’s the intel­lec­tual ques­tion we have to face: When we rebuild, how do we do that con­sid­ering the next dis­aster? Now that we are given the oppor­tu­nity to rethink and rebuild, how do we do this in a smarter way?”

Plan­ners, engi­neers, and gov­ern­ment offi­cials in L’Aquila have begun rebuilding the rav­aged city, Ruth said. They are looking at how to bal­ance its existing nature—a quin­tes­sen­tially Italian com­mu­nity of winding streets, side­walk cafes, and close quarters—with the needs of a modern city to allow for both resilience against future dis­as­ters and an infra­struc­ture that can sup­port a new gen­er­a­tion of entre­pre­neurs and inno­va­tion. Some struc­tures will simply not be rebuilt; others may look the same but will be built using entirely new methods and materials.

Work is underway to rebuild L’Aquila, which was dev­as­tated by a 2009 earth­quake. Photo by Matthias Ruth.

The big ques­tion is, ‘How do we use tech­nology to con­tinue to give the feel of an old city with its own charm and recreate the social fabric and some kind of authen­ticity, while also incor­po­rating modern mate­rials, sen­sors, and infor­ma­tion tech­nology to make the city a safer place?’” Ruth said. These issues, he said, rep­re­sent the key chal­lenges facing urban resilience projects, and they align with the larger debate of designing sus­tain­able cities that can evolve with both envi­ron­mental and social changes.

Ruth said lessons learned in L’Aquila—gathered from more than 400 in-​​person inter­views and inten­sive land­scape sur­veys and assessments—can be applied to cities in places like New York, New Jersey, and Con­necticut, all of which were bat­tered by super­storm Sandy. In a sign that Ruth’s report has had far-​​reaching effect, some offi­cials have announced that destroyed water­front struc­tures will either not be rebuilt or, in cases like beach­front board­walks, will be rebuilt out of con­crete, not wood like the pre­vious structures.

This is not just about Italy,” Ruth said. “This is really a piece of the ground­work to be laid for cities all around the world.”