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The seismic future of cities


The final projected doubling in Earth’s population in the next half century, requires an additional 1 billion housing units, more dwellings constructed in a single generation than at any time in Earth’s history. Earth’s tenfold increase in population has occurred during a time that is short compared to the return time of damaging earthquakes. In the next century, therefore, earthquakes that had little impact on villages and towns, will be shaking urban agglomerations housing upwards of 12 million people. An epicentral hit on a megacity has the potential to cause 1 million fatalities. The incorporation of earthquake resistant structures in the current global building boom, despite successes in the developed nations, has been neglected in the developing nations where historically earthquake damage has been high. The reasons for this neglect are attributed to indifference, ignorance and corrupt practices, not due to an absence of engineering competence. Never has a generation of earthquake engineers been faced with such a grave responsibility to exercise their skills, both political and technical, as now.

The eye is bewildered by “a city become an heap”. Robert Mallet (1862).


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I am grateful for discussions and suggestions from Nick Ambraseys, Paula Dunbar, Sarosh Lodi, Susan Hough, Stacey Martin, Brian Tucker, Dave Wald, and Max Wyss. GPS and strain data were made available by UNAVCO, Inc. I thank Nick Ambraseys, Zygmunt Lubko, Clark Fenton and Roger Musson for reviewing and suggesting improvements to the text. The research was funded at various times in the past few decades by NEHRP, the National Science Foundation and by the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

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Bilham, R. The seismic future of cities. Bull Earthquake Eng 7, 839 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10518-009-9147-0

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  • Earthquakes
  • Megacities
  • Earthquake-fatalities
  • Corruption