Monday, March 11, 2013

Does history matter? – A tale of the 1879’s great flood of Szeged

Does history matter? – A tale of the 1879’s great flood of Szeged 

by Szilléry Mirjam

The 1879’s great flood of Szeged is a case where it can be tested whether history played a role in spatial distribution or not. By examining what changed after the reconstruction it can be found that the location of the city is rather determined by first geography factors while the location of certain institutions within the city can be explained with historical effects.

In the spring of 1879, one of the most tragic events of Szeged’s history happened, when a dam of the River Tisza burst and the flood destroyed almost every building in the city. There were about 6000 houses before, but only 265 remained. After the disaster, Emperor Francis Joseph visited the city and promised to help. His words became well known: “Szeged will be even more beautiful than it was”. His words didn’t remain empty promises; the reconstruction began with great forces.

Let’s look at this story as an illustration of the New Economic Geography Theory. One statement of this model is that spatial distribution is also determined by history. In other words, it is possible that there are two areas with different spatial distribution (one is spatially concentrated, while the other is dispersed) and we observe that they are similar in every relevant factor expect for their pasts. This can happen because in this dynamic model subsequent states of an area also determine the current one. If we want to prove the statement that history matters, we can consider a case when an exogenous shock erases the importance of history. In our example this exogenous shock is when water swept away the city of Szeged. If history matters, than the new outcome can be completely different from the original equilibrium.

Firstly, we should take a look at the population change. From that time, we have less precise data sets than those we use nowadays, but we have an estimated growth rate of every decade. Between 1860 and 1870 there is a growth rate of 10,9%, while between 1870 and 1890 the population only increases by 3,7%. In the three subsequent decades the growth rate is 16%, 17% and 15%. Lacking the annual data we can only make assumptions, but is seems logical to believe that the disaster made some families move out of the city, but then they started to move back to Szeged. Therefore, by analyzing the population change we cannot observe a permanent impact of the exogenous shock.

However, there are some aspects in which the city has changed dramatically. Instead of the original one, a wholly new city-structure came to life. This new structure was characterized by a small and a big semi-circle shaped boulevard, starting from the banks of the Tisza. With the reconstruction many new public buildings were also established. 

By looking at these contradictory facts, we might think it is time to give up searching for connections with the theory, but in my opinion these facts can be explained with the concept of Economic Geography. If we take into account first geography, it becomes clear why the city remained an important one after such a disaster. Located at the meeting point of Tisza and Maros, the city could benefit from the shipping opportunities. Thus we can assume that the location of the city was not determined by historical accident but by permanent first geography factors. Now turning to the structure of the city, we might find a better ground for an illustration of the importance of history. The location of certain institutions within the city could have been affected by historical factors and when starting off fresh new locations became optimal. 

As we have seen from the illustration, it is important to highlight the importance of first geography in localization while we can also see some evidence of historical determination. It is important to mention that we should treat these conclusions with some suspicion, as in the model of New Economic Geography the outcome is the equilibrium of many actors’ behavior, while in this case the reconstruction was also a policy decision and it is hard to separate the effects.


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