COVID-19 and the City

How will our future cities be shaped by a climate where social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine, border measures, contact tracing and public health advice have been introduced to the basic vocabulary of your average lad? One positive thing about the pandemic: people are finally talking about cities in terms of health.

Photo: Oleksandr Polonskyi. Flickr 15 March 2020 (shorturl.at/auAGS)

While many cities across the globe have already experienced living in isolation for a matter of days, weeks, and months, the rest of the world is preparing for the same destiny.

Museums like National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Uffizi Gallery, Florence; and National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City; have already accommodated to culturally entertain people in strict quarantine (like reported).

Exercise apps are offering free yoga classes for home practice. Food stores that still have products left after the panic-purchasing episode have never had such popular home deliveries. New York, the Mecha of the hospitality industry, banned dining in restaurants, bars and cafes. The world ran out of hand sanitizer and face masks weeks ago. Suddenly everyone knows a small business owner who’s had to put up the shutters (or in the lucky countries, received extensive government subsidies).

How will COVID-19 influence city planning, resilience and density, now and in the future?

Thinking about cities in terms of health has existed since the very birth of urban planning. City and town planning originally emerged to tackle infectious disease risks of the industrial city, such as wide cholera outbreaks. Famous planning projects like London’s Metropolitan Board of Works and the mid-19th century sanitation system improvements in the US and across Europe are examples of public-health-driven planning projects.

Disease episodes and pandemics have shaped our cities in the past and they will shape our cities in the future.

COVID-19 follows the Spanish flu, SARS, and H1N1, MERS and Ebola in the ‘scary list of disease’. The Spanish flu influenced about a third of the world’s population. Here in the Pacific Ocean, New Zealand infamously carried the flu to Samoa, killing about a fifth of Samoa’s population alone. However, the spread of the Spanish flu was very different in 1918 when the world was in a war, and scientists were not yet aware that viruses caused disease, .

While SARS (another type of coronavirus) and Ebola have a lot more fatal rates than the COVID-19, the current pandemic spreads faster, much like the common flu. The rapid development makes the response challenging.

The fast spread of COVID-19 has clarified a number of global patterns: from interdependent trade routes to urban-peri-urban connections, to ever-increasing role of technology and changing community-ties.

From interdependent global trade to urban-peri-urban connections

Four months ago, how many people would have been able to place Wuhan on a map? Today, I bet not a single person reading this would not be aware of its connection to global transport and industry ().

shared a story of how Germany discovered its trading connections to Wuhan. Webasto, a company providing car parts, has its headquarters at the outskirts of Munich. In January 2020, Webasto hosted a training session for its employees, provided by the company’s Chinese branch. A representative from the Chinese branch was not feeling sick at the time of the training. She only began to show symptoms on her way back to Wuhan — at a time when she had already been in contact with her Bavaria-based colleagues. Soon after, some participants of the training discovered they had not only contracted the virus but infected other colleagues and family members too. As 110 people suddenly got sick, Webasto temporarily closed its fabrication connection to China, followed by Lufthansa cancelling flights.

The pandemic has also highlighted the connection between Chinese labour and production and the famous Made-in-Italy tags. While the NewYorker revealed ‘’ already in 2018, most of the world was shocked to learn about the extent of Chinese migrant workers behind Italy’s recognised leather industry. Where it seems that Italy was expecting a lot of cases from the very beginning of the outbreak, the rest of the world was not prepared.

That’s not to point at any fingers at China, however. Pandemics like this can start from anywhere — and the racist rhetorics are disheartening.

Rather, for most of us, COVID-19 has been a wake-up call for the negatives of globalisation and mega-urbanisation.

From the Chinese mega-cities to medium-sized European suburbs, we are all being reminded of how dependent a small local city can be of the fast-paced global rhythm. We are all facing some serious reconsiderations of our consumption habits, and our cities are facing some serious rethinking for resilience.

A new role for technology

Photo: Allan C. Flickr 18 March 2020 (shorturl.at/ijqEU)

While the streets of cities are temporarily emptying, technology plays a stronger and stronger role for social connections, employment opportunities, health advice and entertainment.

I have always been slightly techno-sceptic, in that I have believed the future of cities lies in people, and not machinery. However, the pandemic has started to convince my unconvinced brain that perhaps there is some truth in that the future of cities (re)lies on technology.

COVID-19 is the world’s first pandemic that is (at least somewhat) under control. However…

  • Would the 1918 Spanish flu have been less detrimental, if the world had modern communication systems in place?
  • If we didn’t have real-time international data, would we be able to follow and predict future patterns?
  • Would we have known to close the borders from travel, if we didn’t track movements of ships, planes, trade and people with geographical information systems?
  • If we didn’t share information, would we be able to learn from other countries?
  • How would we keep in touch with friends and family across seas, let along maintain our social sanity in self-isolation?

For this pandemic, technology seems to play the role of a saviour. No wonder that deliberate: “Modern planning and civil engineering were born out of the mid-19th century development of sanitation in response to the spread of malaria and cholera in cities. Digital infrastructure might be the sanitation of our time”.

Changing community-ties

I was speaking with a dear friend who is a couple of weeks in a government-enforced quarantine in Milan. While on a video-call, her flatmates pranked her to be locked at the balcony. Waiting for a rescue, she turned the camera around to the empty street and told me about the strange atmosphere between her house and the corner store — the only five-minute walk she is allowed to leave the house for. On the one hand, everyone is on the same boat and the air is filled with a mutual feeling of sympathy. Yet, people are gazing at each other with one brow heightened, suspecting that everyone else is a carrier of this infectious disease, and staying a fair distance apart.

However, she confirmed the social media tales to be true. When the sun’s up, people gather on their balconies for a community-like gathering. Those with instrumental talents entertain the others by playing the guitar, while the balcony crowds join in for a sing-a-long of Italian classics. Amid a pandemic, there is still space for appreciation of the little things, and some meaningful social connections.

Photo: Nicolò Campo/ LightRocket. 13 March 2020 via Getty Images ()

Wellington-based urbanist. Life-long yogi. Feminist. Holistic wellbeing & healthy cities advocate. A person on a bike. Policy writer by day.