People think me foolish when I tell them I caught public transport to Melbourne to get a flushot at my central city workplace. The partial, confusing lockdown had just been instated, whereby everyone was encouraged to stay at home, leaving only for the essentials. My regional service, a three carriage VLocity train, had a maximum of seven passengers for the duration of the one and a half hour trip. It was a midday, midweek service, running with 215 empty seats. The conductors had stopped checking tickets two weeks prior, to prevent unnecessary handling and so help slow the spread of the virus. Those of us brave, or desperate, enough to travel obeyed the social distancing rules and sat spread throughout the carriages. Nobody coughed. Nobody talked. In the seven years since V/Line first introduced the commuter-regulated quiet carriage, I have never seen it enacted so successfully.
When I arrive in the city, it becomes clear to me, urban planners ought to start rethinking a few things. Like, what will be considered a ‘healthy built environment’ in the future? How will we understand circulation and sense of place after this? How will cities design for communicable disease and densification in the future? What kind of new ways of being in public will emerge? What digital infrastructures will consolidate planning decisions and disease management in the future?
A lot of what we teach students about optimal urban planning and design needs to be questioned in response to this crisis. Just as cities and disease have always been joined at the hip, pandemics and epidemics have always shaped urbanisation processes and coronavirus is no exception.
Most people with an interest in urban design and city planning adore Jane Jacobs. Her acerbic, mid-century observations on urban renewal and city life have become mantra to students graduating from urban programs worldwide. At the time she was writing however, her approach was viewed as radically unorthodox compared with what was then entrenched econocratic planning driven by efficiency agendas and the ascendancy of the automobile. Mostly it’s her reflections on the ‘ballet of the good city sidewalk’ that fill student imaginations, catalysing complex design scenarios encouraging street animation and urban encounter.
Jacobs’ celebration of ‘the intricacy of sidewalk use’ has driven many of the built environment transformations seen in recent decades in contemporary global cities. Pedestrian counts are meticulously surveyed, and intercultural interactions researched as a means of finding ways to increase their incidence and thus enhance overall social cohesion in hyper-globalised cities. Public space is militantly defended against consumer creep, while faux-laneways are carved into shopping malls to ensure the flow and fluidity of city street life and pedestrian connections. Service areas are hidden to enhance high quality publicly accessible exterior spaces at street level. Activity is maximised with the strict promotion of active building frontages and the beautification of streetscapes.
In Melbourne, Jan Gehl’s 1994 Public Space/Public Life study focused on ‘taking the pulse of the city’s social life by measuring people-oriented indicators like how and where people walk and spend time, and what else they do in public spaces at different times of the day and week’. It is well known that this study helped to influence the revitalisation of Marvellous Melbourne, characterised by its dramatic increase in kerb-side cafes, a burgeoning inner-city residential population, and the widespread installation of street furniture and kiosks to encourage the ‘right kind’ of loitering and interaction in public space. The City of Melbourne’s recently endorsed Central Melbourne Design Guide would have delighted Jane Jacobs with its focus on regulating for high design quality of streets and public spaces to ensure the ongoing activation of the inner city.
Five pages of Jacobs’ best known text, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is dedicated to describing the minutiae of movements occurring in the space of a day outside her Hudson Street apartment in New York City. Her observations, echoed in Gehl’s chosen methodology, encouraged the pursuit of the right kind of density, or what others now call ‘delightful density’, that would ensure vitality, cohesion and the adequate provision of social infrastructure.
What we’re hearing now in response to the virulent spread of COVID-19, as tweeted by the New York Governor just recently, is that ‘there is a density level in NYC that is destructive’. A news report similarly quotes him saying ‘Our closeness makes us vulnerable, that spatial closeness makes us vulnerable’.
An immediate plan to reduce density is being promoted in New York City, as it is being encouraged in nearly every city worldwide. Social distancing, quarantining, border closures and self-isolation measures are some of the tactics being enforced in an effort to decrease the proximity of people and thus the likelihood of infectious transmission in today’s interconnected cities. In the Australian context we’ve seen in a matter of days the tightening of social distancing recommendations from 500 to 100 to 10 to 2. Density is unarguably an issue when a novel contagion enters the urban landscape, and as Professor Michele Acuto argues ‘Bubbling up are some core questions about what we’ve been told is desirable urbanisation versus what makes sense from an infectious disease perspective’.
One of the more eerie images I’ve seen in the wake of the planetary spread of coronavirus is the digital billboards at Times Square flashing their usual brilliant pinups and advertising slogans to the now deserted streets. In my mind it conjures up those dystopian scenes in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, where the dark cityscape is flanked by skyrise digital geishas selling candy.
Or more complexly, it reminds me of one of Julian Rosefeldt’s video works that was on display at the National Gallery of Victoria late last year. Titled In the Land of Drought, it shows various aerial shots of hazmat clad bodies wandering through the ersatz movie sets of the Atlas Studios near the remote town of Ouarzazete, which have been used and repurposed for countless Hollywood productions. In one scene, the recording drone glides over the towers of a mock-up castle, familiar to viewers of Game of Thrones. The hazmat bodies straggle through the discarded and dilapidated film sets as though on a reconnaissance mission, in search of something, or perhaps warding off the pursuit of something, that the viewer is not privy to.
It is this juxtaposition of spectacle, abandonment, and protective clothing that, in my mind, links it back to the images of a deserted Times Square; a space central to the western imagination of hyper-commodification now reduced to something similar to a false-front movie set. The spoils of consumer culture forsaken, but left there to blink on and off, unaware of the hollowed-out spectatorship, whilst a masked few wander cautiously by.
‘Emptiness and absence contradict the very concept of the city’, the New Yorker lamented recently.
When I arrive in Melbourne, disembarking from the empty train, I am welcomed by an empty city. What I immediately notice is a different kind of sidewalk ballet taking place. People, when they pass each other, look into the kerb or toward the closed shopfronts, turning their face at ninety degrees to avoid the stranger. Some wear latex gloves. Most wear face masks. There’s minimal loitering and barely any verbal exchange. It’s a subdued dance of hesitance. Street furniture is vacated, shop windows are plastered with closure notices. Trams rattle down the uncongested streets ferrying few commuters. It is like Melbourne in the early 1990s again, before the ‘café society’ was born. And just like in Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem Fragments from Lost Days, I find that the streets have been shunned in this attempt to reduce the city’s density, to keep us all indoors. I imagine that this adjusted sidewalk ballet is now, with varying degrees of difference, a feature of most cities fighting to contain the pandemic.
Passersby in city streets everywhere have become potential carriers of infection and so they avoid each other with wide berths and faces turned. And once again the threat of communicable disease intersects with the way we use public space, just as the nascent town planning movement emerged in the twentieth century as a response to the sanitary impulse developed to tackle the squalid nineteenth century industrial city. Overcrowding and poor sanitation resulted in physical ills that had to be regulated via street layout, building codes, appropriate sewerage treatment, and generous public space standards. These early planning laws were all angled toward minimising exposure to infectious diseases such as cholera, bubonic plague, and tuberculosis, with public health representing the key planning issue of the day.
Urban planning in the twenty-first century, on the other hand, has been in large part conscripted to an environmental sustainability paradigm, as is necessary in a time of uncertain climate futures. However, within the Australian context this has often unfortunately morphed into hyper-densification precipitated by market-driven development. The inner core of Melbourne for instance is increasingly crammed with more and more people in often substandard arrangements of vertical sprawl, where borrowed light and poor ventilation in new developments were commonplace until recently. Concern over planning for infectious disease has not been at the forefront of decision making for some time, and so when I teach students about the antecedents of planning ideals, such as the Garden City and City Beautiful movements, as emerging in response to issues over sanitation, they often look at me as though I’m talking about prehistory.
Public health focus in Australian planning nowadays is on the prevention of non-communicable diseases via the implementation of accessible design, healthy communities, walkability and twenty-minute cities. High density, in the contemporary city, is associated with healthy built environments whereas low density brings to mind obesogenic suburbs, unsustainable sprawl and social isolation. Coronavirus will bring these binaries into new focus.
Freud in his Thoughts for the Time of War and Death, published in 1915, just a few years before the outbreak of the Spanish flu which killed some fifty million people worldwide, wrote:
‘Contemporary man, living in a scientific age in which epidemic disease is understood and to a large extent controlled, is apt to lose appreciation of the enormous population losses in past generations and of the prolonged widespread psycho-social and emotional strain produced by such disasters.’
As we head in to what might be the next three months or more of our lives under lockdown, we begin to feel the burden of isolation while witnessing the decimation inflicted in far flung places by this disease. Once again cities are being confronted by a sense of complacency concerning infectious disease management, particularly those nations that weren’t impacted by the SARS outbreak in 2003. The disruption this will have with regards to urban planning, and the arc of response and altered human behaviour it will catalyse, will undoubtedly last decades. Personal and collective lamenting is required, as Tim Costello has urged. But there’s also a sense that urban planners might need to ease their hubris and grieve over lost ideals, or at least amend them substantially to adjust to our changing viral times.
Michael Sorkin, renown architect and critic, recently died from coronavirus related complications. Of the many legacies he left, his Two Hundred and Fifty Things An Architect Should Know stands out for its crisp, concise numbered tips of varied and beautiful things that those in the spatial professions ought to know. A few of my favourites are: 5. The distance a shout carries in the sky, 85. The smell of concrete after rain, and 247. The depths of desire.
Among these more lofty facts he deemed necessary to the architect’s toolkit of knowledge, and I would add equally to urban planners and designers as well, he added: 122. The health code, 213. The germ theory of disease, and 215. How close is too close.
Of all the things we’re going to find out about how hyper-globalised cities in the twenty-first century respond to coronavirus, of the undermining it will enact on urban life and the novelties planned into the built fabric which have been arduously crafted to support encounter, density and ‘liveability’, perhaps it is a good moment to remember once again urban planning’s conjoined twin, public health, and to study up on communicable disease.