Earlier in the shutdown/pause/lockdown I wrote a blog that argued that the virus would NOT cause urban planners to rethink their propensity for density. My evidence was basically every pandemic in history, with a fun side trip to the history of telegraphy and telephony.
There was a hint at the end of that blog about how the viral pandemic is actually accelerating previous trends in urban planning. The pandemic has slowed traffic dramatically, encouraging a tendency to eliminate cars from center cities. Many towns and cities around the world are planning on closing streets to traffic in order to encourage biking, walking and outdoor dining as areas move to reopen and adjust to the new abnormal. Turns out it is TONS safer to eat outside than inside.
The historian in me says that our cities and our dense human activities have survived a hundred plagues and only come back denser and busier. The historian in me also says beware of those who says “everything will change – these are unprecedented times” because they always say that. They said it after World War I definitively, and even more definitively after World War II and the atom bomb. They said it during plagues and pogroms, during fires and famines and today is always different from yesterday and that itself is the same old story.
Sure, there are paradigm shifts and we may be experiencing one. But the COVID-19 pandemic will not cause that shift. Such events only accelerate trends already underway (closing streets to cars) or illuminate factors that would play out with or without the current crisis (collapse of US hegemony).
I still hear – from respectable professionals – that pandemics change planning. That is partly true. Chicago had typhoid and cholera outbreaks in the 1860s that caused it to raise the entire city in order to build a sewer system.
Paris’s famed rebuilding under Baron Hausmann was cited as an example of city planning driven by pandemic, although in addition to sewage and some hospitals with fresh air, there was a social control/military aspect to the slum clearance as well. Wide boulevards are better for the army.
I would venture that major epidemiological crises are more likely to influence infrastructure than super structure and thus be somewhat invisible. They also influence social practices, and indeed our current pandemic has rewritten many social norms, but again this is not something you can necessarily see in the larger built environment.
But what WILL change?
Leaving the macro level of urban planning, we have seen changes at the micro level. You already have plastic sheeting at the checkout counters of grocery stores and we have seen everything from shower curtains to cubicle-sized sneeze guards going up at restaurants.
UV carpets may sanitize your shoes and mounted temperature scans have already spread way beyond their original habitat, the Chinese airport of two decades ago.
HVAC systems may well be overhauled, and sanitation procedures will be much more extensive for a while. Anyplace you sit still inside for long periods, like airplanes or restaurants are more susceptible to viral load than places you wander through, like museums.
If anything, like the closing of streets to automobile traffic, there will be a tendency to offer less-dense public spaces, while maintaining urban density. There will be renewed interest in public parks, beaches and open spaces which are lower risk for viral spread.
We may well see changes as elements of our architectural landscape that encourage clustering of people for extended periods become endangered, like churches and theaters. Churches and theaters have always been more difficult to preserve due to their large spaces and relatively high costs. Now they have the added problem of people emitting nanodroplets.
With all the working and learning and teaching from home in the last two months we may start to see changes in interior architecture more than anywhere else. The open floor plan office beloved by designers for more than 50 years may give way to private offices or at least much more substantial barriers between workspaces.
Our own office at the Conservation Society is in fact the opposite, which allows us to maintain distance because in our converted 19th century mansion, everyone has an office with a door and no one is within 15 feet of anyone else.
With everyone living and working and doing almost everything from home, there have been spate of articles (like this one) on demand for better home office furniture, home gyms, more clearly defined spaces both within and without, and decluttering services.
People spent more time in their homes in the last two months than ever before, and that will ultimately have an impact on interior design. The open floor plan made possible by central heating and popular by Frank Lloyd Wright may retreat a bit in the coming years as commutes shift from highway to hallway.
The pandemic caused the global economy to calve like an Antarctic ice sheet and expose massive inequalities. Like The Economist, I worry that one policy result of the pandemic will be a renewed isolationism from the teetering old nation states, fostering a decline in productivity, innovation and the promise of a just society. (It will also make it more expensive and difficult for people to collect the photos I have displayed in this blog!)
Here’s hoping we learn a few lessons, if not from history then from our own everyday within the new abnormal.
In the last couple of days I have heard or seen several people comment that due to the COVID-19 pandemic urban planners might rethink their approach to density. Cities are of course being hit the worst, and public transit and dense living conditions are ideal for viral spread. Will this cause them to rethink? History says no.
Ancient cities like Rome regularly fell prey to plaques whether viral or bacterial, and they just went right back to building insulae, stadia and other dense forms. The Justinian Plaque (bacterial) killed as much as 40% of Constantinople’s population in two years and recurred intermittently for two centuries, but the built form did not alter significantly. The Plague of Athens (possibly viral) hit in the middle of the Peloponnesian Wars and took out Pericles, causing political repercussions but not architectural ones.
Medieval and Renaissance Paris and London were beset by the Black Death, and still built dense cities. Milan was hit by plague as late as 1630 but they are still building up.
But now we have the internet, and telephones and email and Zoom so we don’t need the density we needed a few hundred years ago, right?
Wrong. Time for another history lesson.
In 1842 a painter named Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph, and all of the prognosticators saw a future of dispersed people, in touch with nature, able to communicate over long distances with no need to congregate together. The urban haters had their technological solution. Cities were OVER.
Except they weren’t. They were getting denser. We even added telephones but a decade after that there were skyscrapers and then more skyscrapers and electric streetcars and subways. The opportunity to work from anywhere did not translate into people working from anywhere. We are social creatures, after all. What are you craving right now, this minute? More Zoom meetings or more face-to-face contact?
That doesn’t mean the dream and the ideal of the sylvan suburban landscape went away. It started with the AJDs in the 1840s (Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing) and continued a century layer with Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright disliked cities and his planning ethos was decidedly suburban. His 1930s Broadacre City embodied the low-slung suburban dream, as did his Usonian automatic houses.
Even though he didn’t like skyscrapers he designed one just a few years after the Spanish flu pandemic. He also drew up a mile-high skyscraper in his final decade of life, just to show he was best.
Density is more efficient, uses less energy and also fulfills another ideal which goes back to before the crowded Roman insulae. People like to be around other people. They are more productive around other people. The Black Deaths which killed a quarter or a third of medieval urban populations eventually led to better sanitary systems, but they did not lead to a rethinking of density. Indeed, the Justinian and later plaques significantly affected the countryside as well. Here is a not-so-short list of epidemics through history.
Dense urban forms were also prone to fire for much of their existence, as Chicago and San Francisco can relate, along with London and Rome itself. Each rebuilt as dense as it was or more so – the 1871 Chicago Fire paved the way for the first skyscrapers just over a decade later. The Great Fire of London (1666) resulted not in a newly planned place but the same place except in brick and stone instead of wood. In the 19th century Paris famously cleared its slums and built boulevards, but that was more defense minded than sanitary.
People like cities, and they are economically efficient. You can do a lot of work on the email and by telephone, but you will be geometrically more productive face-to-face. Plus, take a look at the current pandemic beyond the United States to places that are REALLY dense, like Hong Kong.
Right at the doorstep to China and they didn’t even have to do a lockdown against the virus. Restaurants have remained open. Then again, they have been practicing for almost 20 years.
So, I don’t think COVID-19 is going to affect how we build our cities.
UPDATE: As I was writing this, Milan, in the wake of COVID-19, just announced a plan to make even more of the city car-free. Paris is saying the same. The planning trends pre-pandemic seem to be accelerating rather than turning.
UPDATE: More North American cities are planning to close streets to automobile traffic as well, even car-centric San Antonio!
AUGUST UPDATE: Yes, we are still in the thick of it five months later! And now some researchers at Johns Hopkins have added contemporary evidence to the historic evidence I presented above. It turns out that in a study of 913 counties across the USA, dense or sprawling developments had no effect on COVID-19 infection rate, although sprawl areas had a higher death rate.
Turns out we tend to confuse density with crowding. Crowding anywhere produces more infections. Crowding can happen in dense or rural areas. The counterintuitive fact of higher morbidity in rural areas was explained by researchers through a stronger use of antiviral protocols in urban areas, and poorer access to healthcare in rural areas.
SEPTEMBER UPDATE: Six months later. Hong Kong has had less than 100 COVID deaths. It’s not about the density.
SEPTEMBER 2021 UPDATE: COVID death rates in rural areas are higher than in urban areas in the U.S.