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