The coronavirus crisis stands to dramatically reshape cities around the world. But the biggest revolutions in urban space may have begun before the pandemic, writes Ian Klaus.
The harrowing reach of Covid-19 has prompted a surge in big urban thinking. Some of this has been cautionary in nature — warnings against long-term changes in privacy norms or reactionary rethinking about densification. Haunting images of empty cityscapes seem to embody the fear that urban space will be permanently marked by the ravages of the disease. Others see an equally radical vision of hope: As lifestyle and consumption habits have transformed overnight and governments have committed trillions of dollars of investment in national economies, perhaps the challenges of overcoming the coronavirus pandemic might ultimately foster a more equitable, sustainable urban future.
There are valid reasons to look at historic crises as moments for dramatic urban change. Nineteenth-century pandemics helped usher in developments in water and sewage systems. And there can be no doubt that, in the immediate future, the economic and demographic health of major cities will suffer enormously.
But if we are to look forward optimistically, we must start by grappling with a difficult pattern: Urban history may be more about continuity through crises than about transformation.
Consider a couple of the defining historical events of the last 100 years. Together, the poverty and violence of the Great Depression and World War II shaped two decades of history and created the contours of international relations for the next 50 years. But the urban dimensions of the Modernist movement that did so much to define postwar urban thinking preceded most of that history. Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM) was founded in 1928 and authored its most famous policy statement, the Athens Charter, in 1933. The International Style, with its massive reach in the liberal West after the war, was effectively launched at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932.
We can also look more recently to the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. The Great Recession struck economies around the world but failed to radically change the overall trajectory of most urban areas. In China, for example, Shenzhen’s urbanization patterns proceeded. Dubai’s unique urban experiment was not ultimately derailed or radically transformed. Skyscrapers around the world continued upward; wages in cities like Manhattan continued to grow along with inequality. And as Michael Cohen, Robert Neuwirth and others have argued, the downturn of the 2000s favored the informal sector that already defined, and will continue to define, day-to-day commerce in much of the Global South.
Historical analogies are a dangerous and difficult game, and the combination of a public health crisis with an economic downturn cautions that they should be deployed carefully. The coronavirus stands to deliver big surprises and innovations in policy, politics and space. But even as an imperfect guide, history suggests one should not wait on a dramatic post-pandemic revolution in urban space. Why?
There are a number of explanations for the force of historical inertia in urban spaces. The creative classes and politics that give shape to the built environment require expertise, organization and trusting relationships, all of which take time to build. The bureaucratic institutions that ultimately manage these spaces are, by intention, rarely revolutionary in nature. Even new technology, as the historian David Edgerton has illustrated, rarely ushers in immediate change. And finally, there is the intersection of urban areas and the wider economy. Whether cities are shaped to attract investors or businesses or are shaped as much by them, capitalism has shown itself capable of both adapting to and shaping new forms of space.
For those hoping that we might at this moment be shocked into some historic urban transformation, the story of continuity will not be welcome news. Our path as a species was unsustainable before the myriad challenges, expected and unexpected, that will be wrought by this pandemic. There is also hope, however. The urban story of the last two decades includes a number of developments, from the highly local to the global, that, like pre-WWII Modernism, could rise in prominence and shape our urban futures long after their initial appearance. Consider five continuing developments that will be central to shaping the post-pandemic urban world.
First, leading architects, and the international prizes that champion them, have prioritized new and innovative approaches to affordable housing. Bauhaus is trendy today not only because of the recent anniversary of its founding, but also because of its commitment to style, accessibility and the integration of social thinking into urban design — principles carried forward with important innovations by architects like Alejandro Aravena, B.V. Doshi and others.
Second, new materials and practices developed over the past couple decades, such as ultra-strong timber towers and biophilic design, promise to make cities more sustainable without necessarily sacrificing density.
Third, regional or metropolitan approaches to challenges such as housing and transportation have gained momentum. Michael Berkowitz, the former head of 100 Resilient Cities, recently noted in CityLab that “governors seem to be having much more impact than mayors during this pandemic, because they’ve been able to have a remit across various administrative boundaries.” Local leaders led the earliest and most meaningful coronavirus responses: Before shelter-in-place orders went out across California, seven counties in the Bay Area issued an order simultaneously. Such cooperation, already built and now strengthened, is likely to continue.
Fourth, networks of cities, such as Metropolis and scores of others, are enabling urban voices to be heard collectively on the global stage, while organizing local action against challenges like the climate crisis. These networks have built strong relationships between mayors and are already showing themselves nimble enough to pivot to the coronavirus challenge. They are, in other words, well organized to meet an emergent crisis without totally losing sight of the continuing ones.
Fifth and finally, much of the global urban community in the form of networks, research institutions and civil society has increasingly turned its focus to cities and urban areas in the Global South. The Centre for Livable Cities in Singapore, the African Centre for Cities in Cape Town, and the Indian Institute for Human Settlements stand as three of the premier institutions that combine research and practices; Shack/Slum Dwellers International has over the last two-plus-decades led the development of civil society engagement, knowledge building and urban mapping in informal areas. The history of Covid-19 in urban areas with high levels of informal housing is being written now. Those histories may very well be frightful, but the resilience therein and reconstitutions thereafter will be furthered by expertise already developed.
None of these movements should be breaking news. That is the point. They are potential throughlines from the pre-pandemic urban world to the post. Innovation will no doubt occur, but it is the work of the past decades that must continue and that must find a place of prominence and efficacy in a changed world.
There is something of a paradox to living in a city at a moment such as this. Everything feels to have changed. The city seems suddenly different. Long-standing routines are disrupted. Improvised urban practices and ad-hoc solutions abound. And yet things have also stayed the same. We all already know much of what we will find and have to work with on the other side.