A vulnerability approach to disaster seeks the roots of disaster in the political and economic factors that shape material life and landscapes of communities. Our discussion of the Northridge disaster begins with the larger contexts of California and the Los Angeles region, examining the historical-geographical factors that have produced its contemporary landscapes. This chapter provides context at three levels; first, by briefly examining the history of California’s urban development, next, by tracing the evolution of policies about earthquake hazards and their effects on social protection, and last in an overview of events associated specifically with the Northridge earthquake. As we move among these different levels of understanding, the interplay of private interests and public policies emerges as a theme in risk and vulnerability as social products.
We begin by discussing the unlikely urban development of the seismically active deserts and arid foothills of Southern California into the geographically most expansive metropolitan area in the United States. The urbanization process is the result of extensive land speculation and real estate development driven by private capital but facilitated by large public expenditures to provide water. We next review how the earthquake risks entailed by this space-consuming developmental trajectory became the subject of federal and state hazard mitigation policies that are today very much part of the political organization of hazard management in California. Last, we begin to examine the general features of the Northridge disaster, reviewing both the patterns of losses and the organized responses to it. We develop our understanding of the disaster by conceptualizing it as a product of the history of the region, the nature of social protection in place, and the physical particularities of its seismic hazards.
California’s earthquake risk was produced by Anglo-European settlement and subsequent large-scale urbanization. Rapid population growth in its two primary urban centers, San Francisco and Los Angeles, has situated more than half the state’s thirty million residents in areas of high seismic activity (Bolt 1993). Population growth and urbanization in both metropolitan areas, in turn, have been dependent on the acquisition and development of water supplies for domestic and commercial uses. In this section we trace the development of Los Angeles, from a tiny pueblo of a few hundred people in 1781 to a late twentieth-century postmodern megalopolis.