The modern city has very much been shaped by diseases. When cholera once again gripped New York City in 1849 (killing some 15000 people), the current thinking was that it was spread through miasmic gases, or “bad air”. Among those who embraced the miasma theory was Frederick Law Olmsted, the man behind the design of Central Park. Olmsted described it as “the lungs of the city”—a place where people could breathe free of fear of disease. He believed that the green open space would provide a respite to New Yorker’s living in an overcrowded tangle of buildings, streets, and other people.
It was cholera that influenced the modern street grid. During an outbreak in London in the 1850s the link between contaminated drinking water and deaths was made, resulting in water-based sewage systems being developed in many cities, requiring the roads above them to be wider and straighter. Later, the fear of tuberculosis and the desire to eradicate dark and dusty rooms where it lurked, became the driver behind much of the modernist movement. It inspired architects like Le Corbusier and others to bring fresh air and lights into their designs with expansive windows. This sanitarium style brought in an era of white-painted rooms, hygienic tiled bathrooms and the ubiquitous mid-century recliner chair. As Beatriz Colomina writes in her book X-ray Architecture, the austerity of Mies van der Rohe or Marcel Breuer “is unambiguously that of the hospital, the empty white walls, bare floors, and clean metal fixtures are all surfaces that, as it were, demonstrate their cleanliness.”
On the urban scale, planning theorists like Ebenezer Howard argued that diseases such as tuberculosis made overcrowding of cities deadly. Cities had to be depopulated, their teeming streets replaced with green open spaces. Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1944 put these ideas into practice, declaring that a large number of Londoners should be moved to new, “healthy” towns. Once antibiotics pushed back the fear of tuberculosis, the virtues of city life once again came to the forefront. Jane Jacobs celebrated these virtues in The Death and Life of Great American Cities of 1961, after which it became the creed of right-thinking urbanists that the density and vibrancy of cities were to be encouraged. Theory was eventually put into practice with success, at least in economically powerful and attractive cities such as London and New York. The 1980s the phrase “inner-city deprivation” gave way to the estate agents’ buzz-term “urban lifestyle”. Once again cities were good and big cities were best.
Until in 2020, when COVID-19 has once again made us question the safety of crowded urban areas. It has forced us to be more conscious of the ways we occupy space in relation to each other. Our immediate environments have been reshaped in response to the need for physical distancing – be it clearing space for queues outside of shops, reducing the number of tables in restaurants, the placing of protective screens, the one way systems. The situation has allowed us, temporarily, to reclaim the streets from cars. People walked, ran and cycled in what had been the domain of the vehicle, the standard pavement width feeling inadequate and confining, the prospect of using the usually packed public transport system discomforting.
Many of the changes caused by lockdown were temporary, yet the pandemic is playing a role in accelerating infrastructure works that might have otherwise taken years to accomplish. Some of this is due to the unprecedented reduction in road traffic, but the impact that the situation is having on the public's attitudes cannot be underestimated.
Many cities used the lack of cars on streets not only as an opportunity for road repair works, but also to trial new solutions. Athens is widening its pavements, enlarging public squares and banning traffic from areas beneath the Acropolis. The Dublin city council has set aside space for pedestrians and cyclists to enable social distancing in a “temporary mobility plan” that may become permanent. London too is improving its network of bike lanes. Low traffic neighbourhoods are on the rise across the UK, and while the opposition to them is loud, it appears to be in the minority. Lockdowns and travel restrictions have strengthened the case for making neighbourhoods self-sufficient: Melbourne plans to put shopping, leisure and work within 20 minutes of its residents’ homes; the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, promises to transform it into a 15-minute city.
Until now, the tangible impacts of the pandemic on urbanism and architecture have mostly shown up in changes which can be implemented quickly - we are yet to see the effects of this on building codes or zoning plans. Rather, it has changed the way we interact with the built environment that already exists. However, as we have seen, humanities responses to pandemics have had a fundamental role in shaping the built environment. With scientists unified in the stance that it is not if, but when that the next pandemic comes, and with the other, more immediate threats of climate breakdown, social crisis and a global recession looming over us, it is high time we make our cities and towns more resilient. Perhaps the
glimpses of alternative realities we are witnessing should become guides to the future?
By Zanna Krzyzanowska, OSA Magazine