A tale of tough cities (Guest essay)
Rather than fleeing from urban areas post-pandemic, our energy is best spent preparing ourselves and our public spaces for the next one
Today, I’m bringing you a guest essay from Alexander Cox, special advisor to former UN Ambassador and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Alex and I met on the first day of freshman year at Harvard, and we’ve been friends ever since.
Post-graduation, while others in our class were slaving away at our first corporate jobs, Alex traveled around Northern Ireland, the Netherlands, and Germany to research public space and social division as a Henry Russell Shaw Fellow. He then spent time advising state and local governments at Smart Growth America and earned an MPA in international security policy from Columbia University.
Ever since the country’s founding, the US population has been moving from rural to urban areas. Amidst a pandemic, with new technologies that reduce the cost of distance, it’s easy to wonder whether this trend will reverse. After all, the virus weaponizes the unique strength of cities—their network effects. The core tool we’ve deployed to reduce transmission is social distancing, which is inherently anti-urban. Alex makes an argument that cities and public spaces don’t just serve an economic purpose, but that they fill social and spiritual needs that, today, are irreplicable with digital platforms. I agree with him, though I believe that we can, and must, innovate on online counterparts of offline experiences and services for the health of both our economy and society during this time. I hope you enjoy this exploration of what roles public spaces play in cities and how they could evolve post-pandemic.
Cities are resilient and will revive and evolve after coronavirus
Through millennia of plagues, wars, and natural disasters, cities have borne witness to and magnified human suffering and death. And yet, people continue to be drawn back to cities as centers of society. Humans are an inherently social species—not only because of efficiencies gained through the concentration of talent and ideas—but because strength in numbers is at the bedrock of human evolution. Hurricane Katrina exposed the obvious flaws of building a city below sea level, yet New Orleans has recovered to 90% of its pre-storm population. Rome was reduced to an insignificant town after the fall of the Roman Empire, yet rose once again to become one of the most vital centers of Western culture. Florence lost over half of its population to the Bubonic Plague in the 1300s, but in the following century became the financial and artistic center of the Renaissance.
At this moment, New York City is besieged by a deadly virus that preys on its dense apartment blocks and crowded trains. Is there any doubt what will happen afterward?
In our daily lives, COVID-19 has palpably shifted people’s use and perception of public space. It’s sometimes subtle: a slight, knowing smile as the person passing by on the sidewalk takes an extra step to the right. Other times it’s less understated: the man along the trail who walks with an arm fully extended, forcing others to give him a generous perimeter. Parks and urban spaces—once sites of spontaneous, unplanned interaction among friends and strangers—are now tainted by suspicion and caution.
Why is public space important?
“Public space” is a sprawling term. In its narrowest sense, it refers to areas that are truly open and accessible: streets, parks, and plazas. But even spaces with some barriers, like stadiums, transport networks, or the internet, can be considered public.
What they all have in common: diverse exchange and coexistence, no control or clear expectations over whom one will encounter, and no strict ownership of the space.
In its ideal form, public space cuts across the class, racial, generational, and ethnic lines that conscribe individual social circles. In cities, public space provides the forum for both active and passive participation in civic life, one that is stubbornly inclusive and egalitarian.
Public space is a barometer of society
Much of my past research has been on the role of public space in the context of conflicts or enduring social divisions, including in Colombia, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Syria, and Myanmar. While urban public space is often ground zero for violence and tension, when the tide turns, it is also the first place people return to to regain a sense of normalcy.
The parallels to what we are facing now are striking: worldwide, our plazas, streets, and subways are now danger zones, made clear by their emptiness and atmosphere of apprehension.
Whether it’s disease, war, economic crisis, or natural disaster, we look out of the proverbial window to see how bad things really are. In early March, even as warnings grew louder from health officials, many people looked to public spaces and saw a contrasting message. In Washington, D.C., hundreds flocked to the paths around the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms (until police closed all access routes). In Milan, bars that had remained open even during heavy World War II bombardments posted defiant signs declaring that this pandemic wouldn’t shut them down (until it did). Public spaces serve as a pulse-check and provide collective assurance: only once they return to their bustling state will we feel safe again.
Digital platforms don’t replace physical public space
As we await a return to normalcy, we’ve turned to video chats and phone calls for human contact. We’ve translated in-person interactions to digital counterparts: Zoom birthday parties, online dates, and virtual happy hours. There are some real benefits to this shift, as distance is no longer a factor in deciding who we see. Watching a movie with a friend across the country is just as easy as with a friend in the next neighborhood. If we gain anything from this period of isolation, hopefully, it’s that we no longer regard physical distance as an obstacle to connection.
Fitness classes on Zoom (The Verge)
But while technology has allowed us to stay connected with friends, family, and colleagues, nothing has emerged that quite replaces physical public spaces. Our sense of community and connection has been so depleted that we have taken to clapping, singing, and yelling out of windows as an uplifting, but imperfect, substitute. Digital spaces don’t replicate the buzz and energy of being in a busy city, the sense of tranquility from people-watching on a park bench, or the fully immersive opportunities for children to play together. In contrast to the richness of the real-world, our five senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch—can’t be stimulated when everything is mediated through a screen.
And while virtual spaces transcend physical distance, they still limit us to our stratified social circles. Unlike physical public space which entails an element of randomness, there is little room in a Zoom chat for the unplanned discovery, discomfort, and debate that leads to personal and societal growth.
This is not the end of city life
A steady stream of articles predicts the end of city life and a post-pandemic retreat from urban living. After all, cities are a virus’s dream. Why, once COVID-19 is finally under control, would we continue flocking to these overcrowded petri dishes?
If history is any lesson, this is far from the end of city life. Despite their risks, cities serve vital functions in the social and economic lives of communities. Unless pandemics become a frequent disruption, long-term changes to urban life due to COVID-19 will focus on infrastructure planning, public policy, health care system reform, and structural preparedness. We may see cities develop more efficient and precise forms of communicating restrictions to everyday life in response to crisis. We may see large civic spaces—convention centers, stadiums, even parks—designed with an eye towards quick conversion to field hospitals and emergency management centers.
NYC’s Javits Center has been converted from convention center to field hospital
A move away from cities towards the ease and safety of digital spaces has been predicted for decades, but, if anything, the opposite has proven true. For example, cities thrived post-9/11 even as their vulnerabilities in a new age of terrorism were revealed. For some millennial families, this period may represent a push from city apartments to more spacious suburban homes, but Gen Z will fill their urban shoes, seeking independence and opportunity.
Cities are the most resilient of human inventions, and countless crises have resulted in cities adapting and rebuilding to enable the continuation of urban life. The option to live digitally is there for the taking—perhaps we just don’t want it.
Take a walk outside, and notice how many people are still out there. Are they being reckless and irresponsible? Maybe. Do they just want exercise and sunshine? A few, certainly. Or are they there because, despite the masks and tense glances, it feels right to fill that vital, empty space once again?