City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Dresden 1945

Since I wrote about the first glimpse of the bushfire season here in Sydney a few weeks ago, attention has switched to the south-west of the USA, where devastating wildfires continue to burn across California. While bushfires or wildfires have been a part of both areas since time immemorial (see also France, Portugal, South Africa, Greece, the Balkans, etc.) there seems little doubt that the drought attributed to climate change is exacerbating the situation. So fires both get worse and more widespread.

By chance I also happened to recently read an astonishing, sobering article on the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima in the Second World War, entitled ‘The Mongol devastations’, by Jörg Friedrich. (Originally publishd in Die Welt, on 10 February, 2005, it’s hugely enlightening on this horrific, unnecessarily brutal end to the war, amidst the post-war carve-up of Europe and Asia, suggesting that the bombing by the British and Americans was essentially just a strategic show of strength to the Russians – "the demonstration of a capacity" – using already-defeated Germany and Japan as no more than a token.)

Dresden in ruins

In the aftermath of the Dresden firebombing

Friedrich’s article, when taken with images of the wildfires in California, and those around Australian cities in recent years, gave me pause to consider how urban form and fire are related. I don’t want to use the terrible fires around California, and in Australia before them, as my own spurious token in an academic argument about urban planning. And yet I can’t help but correlate urban sprawl with placing more and more people into areas consistently threatened by fire. In this, the contemporary form of the sprawling city is not only something that is bad for the city in general – you could argue that point of course, but I don’t think it can really be doubted  – but also just supremely dangerous.

Rancho Bernardo, San Diego County

Rancho Bernardo, San Diego County

We’re now seeing deaths, upheaval of communities, destruction of property and vast economic losses. And this is to do with the form of the city,

In Friedrich’s words, in their numbing horror, we see that urban form itself, as well as the motivation of bombers, either encouraged or discouraged the flames of late-World War 2. He describes the malevolent science of firebombing developed by the allies as they studied the effects of fire on various cities. These designers – why not use that word? – attempted to create more efficient city-destroying systems. In effect, they were a form of urban planner, yet looking at the landscape, structure and fabric of the city in order to destroy rather than create. Friedrich makes clear it was planning, rational enquiry and product development, with strategists asking questions such as "How could similar death zones be made to be safer, more manageable, more cost-effective and larger?" and describing the race to the atom bomb as "the most formidable development project of all time". (Disconcertingly, you can almost perceive this stance on the RAF Bomber Command’s website, in the grimly satisfied terms deployed to describe their bombing of Dresden, which they still claim to have been of military importance, running against Friedrich’s well-researched counterpoint.)

The firebombing of Dresden

A lengthy quotation from Friedrich’s article:

"The fire bombing of Hamburg killed 45,000 people overnight, more than the Luftwaffe had achieved in nine months of dropping bombs on England. Only eight weeks earlier,the fire in Wuppertal had resulted in 3,000 deaths, an unprecedented figure until then."

"The fire in Wuppertal burnt in the air circulation pattern particular to enclosed river valleys. In Hamburg it was the dry summer heat; in Heilbronn, Dresden and Pforzheim it was winter snow. Tokyo was built almost entirely of wood and paper, Darmstadt of sandstone, Munster of brick. Hildesheim and Halberstadt were criss-crossed by narrow streets lined with half-timbered houses, Mannheim was divided into classic quadrants, Dortmund and Duisburg were made up of sprawling 19th century blocks. The thermonuclear planners delved into the fund of knowledge left by the area bombing of the Axis powers. This was the only way to understand how individual cities burn."

"The historic fires in San Francisco, Hamburg and London had nothing in common with the procedure whereby in only 17 minutes (Würzburg) or 21 minutes (Dresden), cities were showered with hundreds of thousands of incendiary bombs. These sparked thousands of fires, which within three hours became a flaming sea, several square kilometres wide. Large natural fires normally have a single source, and are driven for days by the wind. But war statistics showed that such winds played a minor role in fires caused by bombs. The real destructive power was not in the wind that drives the fire, but in the fire itself, which unleashes its own hurricane on the ground."

"Neither buildings nor people can escape the logic of the elements of fire and air. A fire starts, it sets the air in motion, fire and air form a vortex extinguishing life and all that belongs to it: books, altars, hospitals, asylums, jails and jailers, the block warden and his child, the armourers, the people’s court and all the people in it, the slave’s barracks and the Jew’s hideout, the strangler as well as the strangled. Hiroshima and Dresden, Tokyo and Kassel were transformed from cities into destructive systems. The agent of change is the bomb war, and the bomb war is its construction site."

Of course, the ‘motives’ behind the wildfires and bushfires – save for cases of arson – are entirely different, being the result of systemic interactions between wind, climate and terrain. Yet this is a dynamic system and at least one of those variables has been actively altered by humankind, and by city dwellers most of all. Developing Friedrichs’ notion – that cities can become destructive systems – can we see that the form of the contemporary sprawl city, 65 years later, might be becoming a new kind of destructive system?

Map of fire damage in Dresden

Map of fire surrounding San Diego

Satellite image of California on fire

If the early-20th century urban forms of Hamburg, Tokyo, and Dresden set up their own destruction under the extreme conditions of their time – a bomb war, in that case – the new urban form of Sydney and San Diego in the early-21st century might also be setting up destructive systems, inadvertently unleashing a similar firestorm but at the edges of the sprawling city. In both cases, the combination of urban form introduced to a new agent of change results in the hurricane of fire: in the Second World War, firebombing destroys cities, flames sweeping from the centre out. In the 21st century, the rising temperatures create tinder-dry conditions in the bush and fire attacks the city from the edges inwards, edges that have begun to extend well into dangerous territory.

Harris Fire Mount Miguel

San Diego skyline under smoke

Santa Clarita, California


In The Economist’s recent piece on the wildfires, Joel Kotkin all but suggests that cities are over-extending their reach:

"Recent (fires) have caused more damage than those 30 years ago, because the population has grown and many more Californians have moved out of city centres and built big homes surrounded by foliage. “In more remote areas, you’re more susceptible to fire,” argues Mr Kotkin, “and nature still has a lot of power.”

Similarly, an excellent recent documentary on bushfires on Australia’s ABC Radio National makes a similar point about the "urban interface" and its new proximity to bushfires:

"The cities are sprawling outwards, into bushland, and closer to national parks. In Melbourne, it’s the hills around the city; in Sydney it’s the northern and southern suburbs and the Blue Mountains area. The edges of Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth and Hobart are all places where the city now meets the bush head-on."

In the same programme, Naomi Brown, CEO of the Australasian Fire Authorities Council, sounds frustrated that people don’t see this "bigger picture" of urban development’s role in recent bushfires around Australian cities:

"They very rarely have the ability or the inclination to take a few steps back and look at the really big picture on what actually led up to these fires, what’s happening with land management … You know, why is the vegetation doing what it’s doing, what is happening with land planning. You know why are structures and developments where they are. You very rarely get that big look at what the total picture is"

Ross Bradstock, Head of the University of Woolongong’s Centre for Environmental Risk Management:

"You know, there’s hard decisions to make because real estate is valuable, and people value their lifestyles and all those sorts of things. And to some degree you know, you can’t have your cake and eat it. People can’t live right in the bush, and expect to enjoy low risk of damage to their property. So there’s always going to be hard choices to make about the way development is managed in the future"

I recall Barista’s post of last year, describing how those fires affected Melbourne:

"Now Melbourne – ultra-sophisticated, urban, discursive, computerised, air-conditioned, internationalised – carries an elemental haze of smoke. I walk the dog on beaches that smell of hydrogen sulphide and ash. My partner Susie reaches fretfully for her athsma inhaler"

The site for ABC’s Background Briefing has a series of images of new habitation in and around the Ku-rin-gai National Park north of Sydney, such as this street, sitting just below the fire-blackened trees on the skyline.

Street near bush, Ku-rin-gai

I’m currently reading David Peace’s shattering new novel Tokyo Year Zero, which is set in the almost mortally-wounded Tokyo of 1946. The sense of the city in ruins, physically and psychologically, has rarely been rendered more evocatively – Tokyo is utterly defeated, on its knees – yet each image also implicitly prompts you to consider how Tokyo responded, building one of the most advanced, civilised and affluent cities of our time.

The firebombing of Tokyo

The Tokyo skyline earlier this year

It is possible to calibrate the symbiotic relationship between cities and cultures – indeed, it’s manipulating cities through the legislation of property development that has led to sprawl. What’s more complex here, as with much these days, is that the imagery and problem is not rendered in sharp black-and-white contrast – a burnt-out Dresden or Tokyo – but is more amorphous, dynamically distributed and insidious. The sense of a few cities glowing at their edges, with a complex set of underlying causes, does not in itself provide enough traction for change. (Note Bryan Finoki’s recent reportage from Flint, Michigan, a city largely in an advanced stage of decay, caught in the wake of contemporary economic development and struggling to respond. This slow demise may prove fatal, as opposed to the quick double-tap incapacitation of firebombing. Ironically, if the causal factors are apparently difficult to perceive until it’s almost too late, the resolution of imagery has increased such that we can see the effects of these changes almost as vividly as those images of Dresden and Tokyo, and certainly from more angles; see the maps of CNN or Wikipedia. A form of City Informational Modeling – a derivation of BIM – may enable us to see – the changing city in real-time.)

So without undergoing world war, without the bomb as an "agent of change", we seem to have still developed the conditions for burning cities, through little more than avarice and a culture of individualism. It’s not a time for pointing the finger at individuals suffering terrible upheaval and dealing with huge personal loss. It is a time, however, to look at the patterns of urban development – and the wider political context – that created this situation, with the fringes of metro areas the fastest growing parts of the USA and Australia. Not just enabling cities to sprawl but subsidising and encouraging them to do so, as Dolores Hayden suggests. In the context of accelerating a climate change, it has only increased the likelihood of bushfires in inhabited areas. This careless combination has already proved deadly in Australia and California.

Burnt-out housing in southern California

The only good that could come from these ongoing reports at the singed urban interface would be an increased impetus to reverse both these trends and focus on re-building the high-density city, diminishing the need for a sprawl of over-large detached houses with their associated environmental cost, and thus remaining easily defensible against these natural fires.

The cities described by Friedrich were old European or Asian forms and, frankly, didn’t stand a chance:

"… There were cities like Berlin that did not work right. The width of the streets, the firewalls, the abundance of greenery and canals opposed the fire-injections and responded wrong. But Dresden’s narrow streets, decorative old town and wooden buildings fed the fires according to plan. The carefully selected triangle between the Ostragehege park and the main railway station functioned as a "fire-raiser". The old cities, bent with age, testimonies to the distant past, were best suited to such attacks. Freiburg, Heilbronn, Trier, Mainz, Nuremberg, Paderborn, Hildesheim, Halberstadt, Würzburg: this avenue of German history shared the lot of Dresden in these months. For the allied fire bomb strategists, the study of their material composition was a science in itself."

But San Diego and Sydney are new cities – New World cities, even – and if urban progress is to mean anything, they shouldn’t really be on fire. The "study of their material composition" doesn’t need to be that forensic for us to realise it’s not scalable to sprawl. Taking a reductionist approach, as if we were allied scientists attempting to come up with a formula for destroying new cities, you might conclude:

urban sprawl + climate change =  destructive fires


5 responses to “The city as destructive system: wildfires, Dresden and the case against urban sprawl”

  1. lauren Avatar

    this is awesome dan! i’m starting some study on the city as a modern inorganic organism, so this destructive element of it is fantastic! part of me wonders if the city as a destructive system is because destruction is a particularly human trait, or is it the nature of any kind of system (entropy)?


  2. Enrique Ramirez Avatar

    Friedrich’s article touches on some of the points he raised in his controversial Der Brand: Bombenkrieg in Deutschland. The ignominious legacy of firebombing is well known, and there is more scholarship to be completed in this arena … yet Friedrich’s article is problematic for two reasons. On the first hand, there are some factual inconsistencies. Horatio Bond was an American strategist, not British. And he was the head of the U.S. National Fire Safety Board (more on this irony later). Second, nowhere does Friedrich mention the utter devastation of the March 9, 1945 raid on Tokyo (a raid unprecedented in scale — 80,000 killed and 16 square miles razed in a matter of hours). These are minor quibbles.
    There are two additional ways in which the system of city destruction and city growth are related. On the one hand, protection from firebomb attack was a popular topic in American architectural publications during the 1940s. In fact, Serge Chermayeff published various editorials in Architecture Forum pleading city planners to devise means to protect against firebombing. The Dugway project (which Friedrich also deals with inaccurately) started off as that most unusual of projects — a collaboration between the National Fire Safety Board, the War Department, and the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service. Dugway’s history is well known, as it was Erich Mendelsohn (Chermayeff’s working partner in Britain during the late 1930s), who completed a lot of the work for that project.
    On the other hand, a growing body of scholarship talks about how urban decentralization was a strategy used to protect cities. Historian of Science Peter Galison published a piece in Grey Room years ago on this topic, specifically on how Norbert Wiener, Paul Baran and others made their views on decentralization public during the 1950s. That Paul Baran was involved in this discourse is interesting – he was a member of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, the government agency entrusted with assessing bomb damage in Europe and Japan. The idea behind decentralization is rather simple — by allowing sprawl, damage to urban areas and key infrastructural elements is minimized. However, during the time, James Conant, president of Harvard University, was also lobbying against the protection of major cities from nuclear attack. The idea here was it would make the Americans look less proactive, and protect surrounding rural areas from nuclear devastation.
    Interesting, then, how what you attribute as an engine of destruction — sprawl — was once viewed as a way to mitigate urban devastation.


  3. Dan Hill Avatar

    Following up on Enrique’s excellent contribution above, I’ve just read WG Sebald’s On The Natural History Of Destruction, and there’s a recollection from Albert Speer in there, around density and city form:

    “Speer describes Hitler at a dinner in the Reich Chancellery in 1940 imagining the total destruction of the capital of the British Empire: “Have you ever seen a map of London? It is so densely built that one fire alone would be enough to destroy the whole city, just as it did over two hundred years ago. Göring will start fires all over London, fires everywhere, with countless incendiary bombs of an entirely new type. Thousands of fires. They will unit in one huge blaze over the whole area. Göring has the right idea: high explosives don’t work, but we can do it with incendiaries; we can destroy London completely. What will their firemen be able to do once it’s really burning?”

    This link between density and firebombing, combined with the later destruction of German and Japanese cities, would certainly back the suggestion that urban form might be problematic. Still, it would be hugely ironic – and not in an amusing way – to have then embarked on a strategy that would later put cities in the path of naturally occurring fires.
    Either way, I can’t see that the ‘protective strategy’ was of greater import than the business imperative for enabling and driving sprawl. All very interesting though.


  4. Alena Avatar

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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