Urban Infrastructure, Climate Change, Disaster and Risk: Lessons from the Past for the Future

Robin Coningham, Lisa J Lucero

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Narratives of lost cities and the exploration of ruins have captivated scholars and travellers for hundreds of years with explanations for their demise ranging from invasions to cataclysmic environmen-tal events. This article explores three case studies to consider the impact of climate change, disaster and risk on urban infrastructure in the past, as well as to reflect on potential lessons of adaptation and resil-ience for modern cities and their inhabitants. The first examines the degree to which historic urban infra-structure can tell us about seismic adaptation in pre-modern Nepal, as well as recognising the increasing challenges to vernacular architecture from climate change. The second, Sri Lanka’s Medieval cities in the North Central Province, examines the intricate relationship between the ancient city of Anuradhapura and its artificial hydraulic landscape, a relationship which saw resilience defeated by irreversibly engi-neered adaptation. The final example is drawn from the experience of another tropical society on the other side of the globe, the low-density urban Classic Maya of Central America, which offers different yet relevant insights into alternate urban lifeways, both ancient and contemporary. Focusing on issues of successful and unsuccessful adaptations in urban settings over an archaeological time range and eval-uating how archaeologists and historians have explored and presented this evidence, we conclude by considering how archaeology and archaeologists can also play a greater role in future sustainable urban planning.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)79-114
JournalJournal of the British Academy
Issue numbers8
StatePublished - Oct 29 2021


  • climate change
  • lessons learned
  • path dependency
  • the Classic Maya
  • historic infrastructure
  • tsunamis
  • earthquakes
  • pre-modern Nepal and Sri Lanka
  • adaptation
  • reliance
  • risk
  • disaster
  • urban infrastructure


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