The Urban Common: COVID-19’s Next Battleground

By: Jean Trottier

I do not approve your notion of seeing people. By that I mean seeing as opposed to viewing.” – R. Daneel Olivaw

Pandemics, we’re told, are a good time to pick up a book. Having read Albert Camus’ latest bestseller La Peste quite a few decades ago, and with little interest in revisiting it, I turned to the next best thing: Robots, by Isaac Asimov. Nothing like a bit of speculative science fiction to stretch your mind beyond the current horizon.

The Robots series is good old-fashioned crime fun. It’s got a murder (a couple, actually), a gruff detective (Terrian Elijah Baley), an understated acolyte (positronic robot Daneel Olivaw), and a dame (Spacer Gladia Delmarre). But it’s the setting that steals the show. In Caves of Steel, New York City is an autonomous, self-sufficient mega-structure planned, calibrated, and centrally managed to meet the needs of its twenty million people as efficiently and equitably as possible. Density is high, public space limited, and social interaction highly regulated. In Naked Sun, Solaria is a sparsely populated planet composed of vast private estates isolated from each other by extensive farmland and nature preserves. Video-conferencing and robot labour ensure that the small human population can maintain proper social-distancing decorum.

Asimov’s sharp contrast of the mega-technopolis and the patrician non-burb is, in many ways, a sociological study of how the design of cities shapes us, and of the alternatives offered to us. The COVID-19 pandemic should put a nail in the coffin of Archigram-inspired, Caves of Steel nightmares that confuse a city with a giant building (Any takers for a floating or flying city these days?). But it should also serve as a caution against our Solarian isolationist reflex and remind us that cities are, first and foremost, a catalyst for bringing us together; to exchange, create, and find delight in each other’s presence.

Witness the renewed debate around density that currently lights up the Twittersphere. Statements, by officials and pundits alike, that density exacerbates the pandemic really got the ball rolling. The implied correlation between density and disease got a prompt rebuff from urbanists, who argued that crowding, not density, is the real concern. Indeed, as the pandemic progresses it becomes clear that citizens living in denser urban areas are not necessarily at greater risk of catching COVID-19¹.

Nevertheless, the connection between density and disease cannot so easily be disentangled, for Caves of Steel densities will increase crowding – and, consequently, public health risk – in the absence of a proper public common. This, rather than density, may be the real urbanist battlefield of COVID-19. For how we protect and reshape our urban common will determine what kind of society we aspire to be post-pandemic.

In a recent interview in the design magazine Dezeen² the Austrian firm Studio Precht introduces its pandemic-inspired proposal for a “Parc de la Distance”, designed as a circular labyrinth that keeps park users away from each other with 90cm-wide hedges. Such a tongue-in-cheek proposal would provide a needed dose of comic relief if only its designers did not intent to implement it on a vacant lot of Vienna and, more disconcertingly, to accept social distancing as a permanent feature of our city parks. To quote the firm’s founder: “What would a park look like and how would it function if it takes the rules of social distancing as a design guideline? And what can we learn from a space like this that still has value after the pandemic?” How, in other words, should one design to keep people apart while socializing?

A similar dilemma underlies Toronto Mayor John Tory’s response to requests for temporarily closing traffic lanes when he, and the Ontario Medical Officer of Health, argued that “[closing] lanes of traffic to provide more space for pedestrians and cyclists could have the impact of inducing pedestrian and cyclist usage”³ and could thus worsen the pandemic by encouraging social gathering⁴. Fair enough. But more enlightened municipalities across Canada took a different tack, enlisting the public common in a proactive pandemic response by increasing its social carrying capacity in step with that of public health care facilities. In Winnipeg, my own city, the municipal Council elected early on to open popular walking streets to pedestrians and cyclists. Vancouver shut down vehicular use in Stanley park as well as along English Bay’s public beaches. Montreal reclaimed parking lanes on Plateau Mont-Royal’s commercial streets to widen sidewalks and create “sanitary corridors”. The pressure is on other municipalities to do the same⁵ and, if I know Canadians in springtime, they better get a move on it.

Calls for a permanent and more equitable use of public infrastructure are also mounting⁶. As federal, provincial, and municipal governments consider the massive task of rebuilding the country’s economy we must ensure that upcoming infrastructure initiatives reaffirm the centrality of our shared, urban common. Now’s the time to invest in our streets, parks, and urban plazas, in our sports fields and community centres, in our public transit and bikeways. Now’s the time to improve, increase, and celebrate our urban common. For it is here, as Doug Saunders observes, that our resilience is found: “We learn to fight this together by keeping parks open. […] Trust between governments and the governed is at the centre of this pandemic response. What takes place in parks – which, in too many cities, have been shut down by excessively cautious or fearful authorities – tells you a lot about the state of that trust, and how it’s changed.”⁷

Maybe Saunders is reflecting on that other life-changing crisis, almost twenty years ago, when cities around the world responded by hardening their public spaces with anti-terrorism devices, fences, and camera surveillance. Or on the many cities that have since shifted their security and liability burden by encouraging privately-managed quasi-public spaces. Post 9/11 fear began to separate us and undermine our trust in the urban common. Let’s not repeat that mistake.

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