Urban planners have been quick to imagine the historic changes in urban development the COVID-19 pandemic will bring about. Alexander Jachnow shares his view on the issue, suggesting we look at how much urban planning has changed after previous pandemics.
What will be the “new normal” for urban planning and development? As the Centre for Strategic Urban Planning and Policy at IHS, Erasmus University of Rotterdam, we had initially joined, like many others, the optimism regarding post-COVID city planning. However, after considering what we have learnt in the past about learning from the past, we come to a rather unanticipated conclusion: little will change in the making of cities.
Lessons from the Past
To begin with a positive example, hygiene was among the urban conditions that were actively addressed and improved in the past. As urban planners, we need to recall that our modern discipline had emerged in 19th century London, desperately seeking solutions to open sewage befouling the atmosphere and affecting the health of many. The conditions were severe and literally omnipresent: it was hard to breathe when moving through the capital of the world’s greatest empire, at any time, for everyone.
The solutions were as eager as straight forward: building a covered sewage network, improving the layout of streets and public spaces, and establishing rules – and sanctions – for household connections and water usage. To be able to do so, a new planning authority was established to guide the changes and support the local government in enforcing them. This example illustrates a core prerequisite for introducing change: there must be a socio-political system in place that is capable of and determined to establish strategies, plans, and laws that contribute to a transition from a given status quo into a new spatial constitution. But will the learnings from this pandemic be institutionalised?
The conditions for solving the, occasionally colossal, problems of urban areas, are to be considered as well. The broad support and urban stakeholders’ consensus on the planned reforms are as essential as financial and human resources are. However, a critical look at many cities reveals that a lot of the features which urban planners and municipal administrations would principally be able to design and execute – such as sustainable and efficient transport, adequate housing, mixed use and diversified densification – are generally absent or inadequate.
New Goals, Unattainable Visions
Now, new goals are promoted for the post-pandemic city, which include the functional division of space, safe mobility within its physical environment, and other, already existing mantras of healthy cities. However, though all these desired developments are promoted worldwide, they often remain unattainable visions, especially for the fast-growing cities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Many urban areas might be as far from being healthy cities as they are from being sustainable, spatially just, or economically resilient.
But why is that? First of all, common sense often does not equal common practice. The knowledge of what might work well does not directly translate to its application. Given the massive global responses to COVID-19 at present, this might sound too sceptical at first, but evidence from historical pandemic events such as the Spanish flu imply a return to the previous path rather than changes in the layout, organisation, or functions of urban areas. Only waterborne diseases, such as cholera, can be tackled through the improvement of infrastructure and urban layouts – as happened in London, Hamburg, and Marseille after waterborne pandemics.
With COVID, there are significant global differences regarding the ongoing actions of (local) governments. The probability that these will be further pursued after the pandemic varies from country to country. Some countries will certainly develop new tools and apply further precautions, most of which will be sophisticated and costly. However, it is rather unlikely that there will be an intended, immediate impact on the socio-spatial organisation of cities globally. This is specifically due to the fact that health requirements are conflicting with other, long-term requirements of urban development, namely social distancing versus urban densities.
What will Remain?
Economies require urban densities, making them a prominent feature that actively and often permanently shapes the organisation of cities. To exemplify and simplify the use of space; cities are like buses – they only function economically (and socially) if they manage to maintain a certain level of use and density. This condition will persist in the future unless the entire system is changed, which is highly unlikely, because system change is not in the core interest of current urban stakeholders.
Decisions in cities are increasingly based on multi-level governance models, where different sectors apply both bottom-up and top-down approaches in steering urban development, making it a complex affair with unpredictable outcomes. As the current responses to the Corona-crisis prove: health is the most recent priority, but might not remain that in the future.
So, will nothing of the current concerns remain part of the collective memory once a vaccine is discovered? Most likely a diffuse fear will prevail, as people will be afraid of different scenarios, ranging from getting infected by one’s neighbour to fearing further restrictions to one’s freedom. Current reactions of urban dwellers are already globally diverse and contradictory, such as further voluntary distancing versus social defiance. Moreover, the various kinds of fear can be abused for many purposes – for example to enhance xenophobia, or to convince citizens to carry on in isolation. If fear “of the outside” prevails, we will have to expect an increase in the digitalisation of our lives, including online shopping and remote socialising. This would then have severe and unintended impacts on urban life as we know it, eventually leading into the dystopia of obsolete urban spaces.
However, to end on a positive note, it is ultimately the citizens, not the planned and built physical environment, who are the main elements of urban areas. Our behaviour as individuals will manifest in space and make changes possible where we might not expect them yet.