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  • D. Pataki

COVID-19 and the return of the sanitary city

Outbreaks of disease in the19th and early 20th century shaped the design of modern cities and parks. Now that infectious disease is back, will cities and their greenspaces be transformed once again?


The environmental impacts of the COVID pandemic are widely discussed. The shift to working at home, for white collar workers at least, has been changing traffic patterns, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and even quieting urban noise.


These changes are probably temporary and they come with significant economic and personal costs, including the rising threat of poverty and economic and racial inequality. Still, some say the widespread disruptions to the status quo are an opportunity to rebuild our economy and its cities in a more sustainable way.


I don't personally think there are "opportunities" or "silver linings" to this situation, given the tragic losses of life and livelihoods caused by COVID. Rather, there are different possible pathways of change, and some of those pathways lead to better outcomes than others.


This recent post touched on the idea that nature influences our actions in ways we don't always realize. It's long been known that infectious disease - one of the more frightening aspects of nature - shaped the way that modern cities were built, sometimes with unexpected consequences. Many types of urban water pollution, for example, are caused by the concentration of stormwater and sewage into waterways designed to transport water-borne pathogens out of cities as quickly as possible.


Now we're facing airborne pathogens that are renewing long-held fears about over-crowded cities. There are a few different pathways we could take from here, and they have very different consequences for cities, greenspace, and the environment.


Greenspace as the "lungs" of crowded industrial cities


I've learned about the history of greenspace in U.S. cities from my long-time collaborator Stephanie Pincetl, a UCLA geographer who has extensively studied the land use history of California. She has drawn on the concept of the sanitary city chronicled by environmental historian Martin Melosi at the University of Houston.


During industrialization, urban living conditions deteriorated as workers faced crowded living quarters, worsening air and water quality, and outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, and other diseases. In response, cities developed standardized and centralized infrastructure systems planned and designed by a new class of urban and engineering professionals.


They also created new urban parks and greenspaces to improve the physical and mental health of the growing urban population. While the wealthy could escape urban conditions and flee to the countryside during epidemics (just as they're doing today), this option was not available to the working class. Instead, urban parks were thought to offer some of the same health benefits to provide "a cost-effective antidote for epidemics."


The 19th century science behind the metaphor of parks as the "lungs of the city" was largely just that: a metaphor. Industrial-era ideas about the health benefits of parks can be traced back to medieval notions of the influence of "bad air" on disease that are more or less unfounded. But today, there truly is evidence that outdoor social activities in greenspace are safer than indoor activities during the COVID pandemic.


So will COVID usher in a new era of urban greening?


Health at the intersection of humans and nature


Noah Diffenbaugh at Stanford University led a recent paper examining the cascading effects of the pandemic on the environment and the earth system as a whole. The rapid reductions in pollution following the spring lockdowns showed the close coupling between human actions and the earth's atmosphere. But they also showed how human perceptions of the environment affect the earth system. In essence, the dramatic decline in travel, economic activity, and vehicle emissions was caused by our fear of nature - or one very specific aspect of nature. Our relationship with this virus and its pathology was enough to grind the world's economy almost to a halt.


Cities are the outcome of our efforts to make nature a little more hospitable for human existence. We use them to stockpile food, water, and resources; pave the way for easier travel; moderate the climate; and re-plant the landscape to our liking. But sometimes cities turn on us - or so we believe. Our perceptions of what make cities safe and hospitable change over time, and the way we do or don't build and occupy cities changes with them.


The depopulation of U.S. cities in the 1970s was driven, in part, by perceptions of crime rates that are not always well correlated with crime statistics. With regard to greenspace, when nature was considered wild and treacherous in the early history of urbanization, we walled off cities from the wilderness and left them devoid of vegetation. The rise of urban greenspace in the industrial era coincided with current ideas about venerating and preserving nature as integral to human health and wellbeing. Nature itself didn't fundamentally change over this time period - at least not at the scale it's changing today - but perceptions of the environment are enough to drive widespread and large-scale shifts in human actions.


21st century cities at the crossroads


There are several different ways we could go from here. Fritz Kleinschroth at ETH Zurich and Ingo Kowarik from TU Berlin studied Google Trends in online searches related to urban greenspace before and during the pandemic, and found a rapid increase in search terms similar to "go for a walk." Many are arguing that this surge in interest in outdoor spaces reiterates the importance of greenspace, and should lead to efforts to expand and improve greenspace design and access.

Or, our discomfort with crowded indoor spaces could lead to exactly the opposite outcome. While many people are taking advantage of parks during the pandemic, many others have fled cities altogether - if they have the means. This could be the beginning of another wave of anti-urbanism and demographic shifts away from dense, walkable cities. The shift to remote work may become a permanent feature of the economy, and there's even been a recent resurgence in discussions of violent crime, similar to the perceptions of U.S. cities in the 1970s that drove millions away from the urban core and into the suburbs.


Urban greenspace could become the sanitary infrastructure project of the 21th century, complete with the reordering and restructuring of urban institutions and governance that's needed to implement and manage this type of infrastructure. Or cities and their parks and greenbelts could become the new derelict monuments of 21st century cities - neglected and ultimately abandoned like the ruined retro-futurist pavilions I grew up with on the site of the old World's Fairs.


These decisions won't be insulated from nature or the environment. Housing, transportation, and commuting patterns leave an enormous footprint on the atmosphere, natural resources, biodiversity, and pollution. But our decisions are also influenced by nature, and whether we perceive it to be helpful or harmful. We can rebuild 21st century cities to wall us off from environmental hazards and disease, flee cities altogether for an expanded and sprawling suburban landscape, or we can reshape urban areas to give people fair and equal access to the aspects of the environment that benefit physical, mental, and social wellbeing.


Is the pandemic changing your ideas about how and where to live and work? How do you think it's changing for those with more wealth and power to shape the outcomes for cities, and those with less? How will we democratize these transitions?

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