Memoirs of a pandemic: the density divide

I am writing this piece, so I have a personal account on the current situation in years to come, but also to make a critical analysis of the current situation from an urban planning perspective. Designing cities to make them safer and healthier appears to be an imperative conversation despite the complexity of the current situation, the pandemic.

Historically, health and urban planning have been intrinsically linked. In response to the dirt, disorder and pain of the late 19th Century industrial city, the City Beautiful Movement rose as an attempt to ensure cities had better sanitation and improved public spaces. Think about all those nice open spaces in your city which are your only saving grace at the moment. That was a result of the City Beautiful Movement.

At the same time, human beings are also really good at collectively forgetting about things that do not harm them anymore. That’s right, the reason why we end up back in a hangover every other Sunday morning or have another baby or run a marathon. The body does not recall pain. Over more recent years, communities and cities have overlooked the need for healthy urban environments, and matters such as increased connectivity, higher density and better viability have crept into urban planning policies as the key focus.

Around the world as we settle into self-isolation one key question has arisen: how will our cities and communities look after this pandemic? Will things just go back to normal or perhaps we will remember the pain caused by this pandemic for a while? Will habits and policies change?  

What has really resonated with me of late is the amount of people who have opened up to tell me how anxious they currently feel. Especially those who live alone in a small flat in an urban setting. Richard Florida, world renowned urban economist, talks about the density divide that will be caused by this pandemic in his (remote) presentation to the Committee for Sydney last week. He debates that there will be a shift towards remote working over coming months/years, and people with jobs in which they can work from home and isolate away from the virus will maintain their income and wealth. People who can’t work from home (the key services) will not be able to do that.

I’d like to take it one step further because I disagree with Florida here somewhat. The people who can’t work from home will eventually get back to work as these are key services in our communities and the demand for these services will always be there, despite being currently on hold. This virus has reinforced the inequalities that currently exist in society. I hope when key workers do get back to work it will be with better pay, more safety nets and improved benefits.

If there is a shift towards “working from home” in the years ahead I can’t help but wonder how the 30-year old something with emails to check but no one to physically connect with during the day will manage? What can we call this, the single divide? A friend who lives in Sydney but has many friends and his daughter in Kenya recently sent me an article from The Economist by David Brooks about the structure of the nuclear family unit for the past half century. Brooks discusses how this has been a catastrophe for many and it’s time to figure out new and better ways to live. He alludes to some interesting key points:

  1. Hunter gatherers lived in tribes of say, 25 people, not necessarily biologically related but created
  2. This has actually been the case for vast stretches of human history
  3. The nuclear-family unit was established to boost population after the world wars
  4. Values of privacy and individual freedom (brought on by technology?) have gone too far
  5. A new family paradigm is emerging. Economic pressures have pushed people towards greater reliance on family
  6. The most interesting extended families are those that extend beyond biological kinship

There are some entrepreneurial developers and city makers who have responded to these emerging trends in living arrangements. Single mothers can find other single mothers interested in sharing a home on CoAbode. Co-housing projects, in which groups of adults live as members of an extended family with separate sleeping quarters but shared communal areas, exist. Check out Common or The Collective. Both are real-estate companies who have based their models on the co-living concept, and redefining the way people chose to live, work and play. The integrated development model provides a lifestyle where people can live and work in the same place, and which combats isolation for many who move to the city. It also helps with the cost of high rental prices and long commutes in major cities, and chimes with broader planning impacts such as mitigating air pollution.

Nonetheless around the world at large current housing models and weak planning departments have resulted in residential developments with a severe lack of sense of place and connectedness, and unit sizes way too small. If another pandemic happens soon, and with population growing too fast this might be sooner rather than later. How will individuals and city dwellers cope with the challenges brought on with a pandemic in the future?

Lessons learnt from this pandemic must catalyse urban reform in policy and practice. We need to encourage strong local communities supported by stronger local business. Developers must activate residential developments with ground floor affordable workspace. We need to build developments that encourage community rather than self. Contribute to more local pocket parks connected by more walkable and safer streets.

There is a very strong desire for human beings to be connected. In fact, social connection is understood as a core human need, and the desire to connect a fundamental human drive. Check out the work by Brene Brown for further reading on the topic. Social distancing measures, and emotional and social ‘remote connectedness’ will only last a little while longer before the desire to really connect takes hold. I am not sure about you but drinking wine via the HouseParty app just isn’t the same as going over to a friend’s place for a dinner party. In fact, that app makes me even more anxious in this climate. It gives me stomach knots. There’s a totalitarianism feel about it. Thanks George Orwell.

What we need to do is set up healthier ways to live in the first place. Communities and cities that boost immunities and are resilient. Perhaps, from an urban planning perspective this will be a way to ‘flatten the curve’ in the first instance.

While discoursing successful models of city planning and urban development, one can’t help but to refer to our Swedish friends and specially their novel approach to this current pandemic. Early this month, an article in The National Review by John Fund examined how Sweden has to date not endorsed a harsh quarantine, and consequently has not forced its residents into a lockdown. There are in place some national precautionary measures, gatherings of more than 50 people are prohibited, schools are closed, and more stringent social distancing measures for high-risk groups, but the overall approach is to ensure that local communities remain open and people remain connected: preschools, grade schools, bars, restaurants, parks, and local shops.

Emma Frans a Doctor of Epidemiology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute told Euronews, that although nobody really knows what measures will be the most effective approach and that every world city has a different set of characteristics, the approach in Sweden is to implement “evidenced-based medical measures”. This includes not imposing strict isolation amongst low risk groups as unemployed people are actually a great threat to the health care system and strict quarantine across an entire city is unmanageable.

Their approach does seem more sustainable, definitely more Swedish. Adjusting the pandemic to their everyday life. Implementing measures that you can practice for a very long time. Measures that will not crater local and national economies.

There must be ways to better deal with the current situation. As an urban planner I am intrigued how we can deliver this from the bottom-up; how good urban planning can ensure better public health. And perhaps the answer is stronger local communities from the outset that foster connectedness amongst a smaller footprint. Richard Florida discussed in his presentation that it’s up to local community leadership to make their communities great. So, we have taken a first stab.

We are actively doing some field research to see how people are coping with the changes brought about from this pandemic. This approach will be useful to help city planners better understand what we (the users of our great cities and communities) desire to see changed, or perhaps not changed at all.

We welcome everyone’s personal stories from behind the scenes of this pandemic! Contact:

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