Pandemic And The City  

City Cycle Path  

Density is desirable in the modern world. Flourishing Cities and their thriving suburbs being living examples of the lure of density. The density which seemed alluring in the past rendered cities vulnerable and perilous amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. As the virus spread, the chorus against urban proximity grew louder. Lockdowns turning lively vibrant cities dormant, their survival being questioned, their future under scanner.

Cities are as ancient as agriculture, humans decamped to cities thousands of years ago to live close to each other. Proximity, face to face interactions and human contact being fundamental to the existence of any city. Ben Wilson, in his book ‘Metropolis- A History of the city’ stated, “…Cities are the most important inventions of mankind…..cities are not only resilient, they are also adaptive systems….”Can a pandemic in the passing threaten their existence? Throughout history, cities have been stalked by lethal and deadlier contagions. In present times when we are scientifically sound to face any adversity, it’s unlikely for a virus to bring cities to a halt. Also, the post contagion city has always been a bigger -better version of itself.

Wuhan, the infamous city of corona virus origin, is home to 11 million people, challenging the critics of urban density, with no mass urban exodus in sight. The twin cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima suffered devastation of much greater magnitude than any contagion, they have since been rebuilt from the ashes, boasting a population of more than 20 lacs in 2021.

In the past cities, not barely survived pandemics, they responded with crucial rebuilding completely changing urban landscape and the way we live. London, the hotbed for most contagions even in the past, saw the end of water borne cholera pandemic with better plumbing and modern sewer and sanitation system, also instrumental in reviving the river Thames from being ‘the great stink’ to one of the cleanest rivers in the world.

New York’s, Central Park was cities coping mechanism to escape deadly Cholera’s second attack.  Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park (1858), thought of parks as ‘lungs of the city’, where residents could breathe fresh clean air without fear. Recognizing the need of green spaces for fresh air and recreational purposes, Olmsted, eventually gave United States eight prominent parks. Prior to the introduction of parks in urban landscape people had no option but to visit graveyards to experience open spaces.

European cities bore the brunt of the highly contagious Tuberculosis in early 19th century. Heavily wooden Victorian era houses with almost no ventilation and heavy furnishings aided in the spread of the disease. Le Corbusier, pioneer of hygiene architecture introduced a fundamental change in architectural style of houses and buildings by incorporating huge windows to let in plenty of sunlight and fresh air, straight roofs to encourage terrace gardens and raised houses to avoid dampness, changes crucial to overcome disease. Resilient cities bounced back each time a contagion challenged them.

In the wake of the current pandemic, many global cities promptly adapted to their new role to survive the virus. Covid-19 stifled the already breathless population of highly polluted metro cities, hastening the climax of brimming climate crisis. Cities, in their bid to survive created zero emission zones, restricted the entry of cars to city centers, created special pedestrian paths and massively invested in the revival of cycling. Italian city of Milan wriggling to recovery from the tight grip of Covid converted 35 kms of its streets to pedestrian and cycling paths. Densely populated Paris also pledged to create 650 kms long cycle lanes. Columbian capital Bogota added 76km temporary cycle lanes to its already existing 550kms. Cities like Melbourne introduced decade long (2018-2028) cycling strategies to boost cycling participation.

Moreover, in many European countries, city residents wish to continue with the temporary measures introduced to survive the health crisis. These profound lifestyle changes could be a game changer for automobile obsessed cities. Cramped living in shoe box houses is also being reviewed post lockdown, as spacious well ventilated houses and green surroundings are panacea for any contagion.

Richard McGahey, economist at New School’s Schwartz Center, blamed inadequate public policy, as the real enemy and not urban density, else how could densely populated cities of Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and Seoul slow the virus. Impractical urban expansion, overcrowding, misplaced policies focusing blindly on smart cities than sustainable -eco friendly urban settings in most parts of the urban world deepened the crisis.   Too much planning to accommodate rising number of cars, sacrificing open spaces for broadening roads …is a perfect recipe for killing the city…wrote Jane Jacob, American urban thinker in 1858…fast forward 2021, we still haven’t learned.  Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when they are created by everybody…she lamented in her book Life and Death of American Cities… planning has to be bottom upwards, both skyscrapers and slums need to be accommodated.

Ultimately, resilient cities do or die initiatives will change the way we reorganize and rebuild our future cities to survive future pandemics.

Dr Harleen Shergill, holds a doctorate in Urban Economics,is a Freelance Author and Researcher.

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