Cities are Epicenters of Economy and Innovation as well as Social Interaction–characteristics that are being under attack by Covid-19 by Wail I. Bakhit

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Cities are Epicenters of Economy and Innovation as well as Social Interaction–characteristics that are being under attack by Covid-19 by Wail I. Bakhit

 

A planet under the siege! It sounds like a new Hollywood’s movie or a latest science fiction novel about the invasion of aliens. Unfortunately, it’s not!  It’s rather the brutal reality that we’re facing during a non-forgettable moment; the novel Coronavirus (or Covid-19) outbreak. No doubt that infectious diseases and pandemics have continuously been part of our planet history, nevertheless what makes a difference this time is the uncontrollable spread of this contagion despite our high degree of technological advance and far-reaching medical improvements!

Apart from the public health consequences, the most terrible thing in this new wave of scary global crisis is the prospected impact on urbanism and urbanization. To delineate differences between these two terms especially in this article, urbanization refers to the tendency of moving from rural to urban areas, thus increasing the total urban population of a country at the expense of the rural population. Whereas urbanism means the lifestyle of urbanites starting from living in higher density and close proximity to institutional infrastructure and social behavior that emanate from living in cities. Urbanization is seen to be the most rising phenomenon since the second half of the twentieth century. Both urbanism and urbanization reflect the most advanced stage of the humankind evolution from one hand, and an inevitable driving trend for the future from the other hand. Since 2007, we live in a world that is more urban than ever[1], and urban population is expected to account for two third of the world population by 2050. Current and future prosperity for nations is highly linked to and attributed with urbanization, however this trend is strongly affected by the unprecedented Covid-19 in a way that has never been witnessed before.

Urban life is about living in dense areas based on close proximity, which brings huge benefits to both firms and individuals; and is about building social interaction through the use of public spaces, which constitute the heart and soul of cities. How these main characteristics of ideal urban life are deeply attacked? Let us take a snapshot of the current situation. Wherever you turn your eyes around the world you’ll find that entertainment facilities are abandoned, educational premises are closed, shopping centers are directed to downsize their services and eventually to shut down, and attractive plazas and boulevards are empty. It would be sad enough if that was all, nevertheless the scene is much darker; public transport is turned out of service, countries are totally disconnected by closing airports, whole cities and regions become subject to complete lockdown, and people are strictly requested to stay home by enforcing total curfew. In summary, a perfect scene of a scary ghost city! So, what could be the worst, and what remains from the known urban life?

Under the attack of Covid-19 cities are becoming nodes of risk, and face to face contact is turning to be a threat. This is happening amid global agenda to promote cities as venues for opportunities and engines for economic growth and prosperity. formal Initiatives and societal efforts are growing rapidly to celebrate concepts such as livability and placemaking by encouraging more in-depth social life in continually active public spaces. Economies of scale, agglomeration economies, and knowledge spillover are economic concepts underlying the existence of cities, and justify the crowdness of people in urban areas. Without these principles, living in cities will turn to be useless or not valid!

Public health was a major driver for the emergence of modern urban planning at the end of the nineteenth century. Prolific urban growth associated with density and declining built environment in the industrial communities stimulated wide health and social reforms that culminated in urban and architectural ideas targeting a better urban life. Throughout multiple decades, our health improvements have stepped far beyond expectations, however we paradoxically find ourselves unable to confront Covid-19. This challenge is escalated by the fact that the pandemic is hitting the majority of the world; defeating the top developed countries and overburdening the most sophisticated healthcare systems. It’s widely agreed that cities existed before a very long time, however they were unattractive due to the miserable health conditions back then, which exposed people living in dense areas to diseases that spread easily in a deadly way. So, is it turning again to the idea of avoiding cities, since they are becoming a transmission platform rather than an epicenter of innovation?

The UN and its various agencies concerning development such as UN-Habitat and UNDP, as well as other related international and regional developmental organizations, are striving to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs 2030) as well as the New Urban Agenda and Paris Agreement as an integrated roadmap to protect our planet by 2030. Among the seventeenth goals of SDGs, the eleventh one is calling for inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements. Nevertheless, the advent and wide outbreak of Covid-19 may seriously urge for a redefinition of how a safe or resilient city looks like! Looking for safety from traffic or violence perspectives, or thinking about resilience to recover from floods are something that may totally be different from anticipating, controlling and mitigating a cross-border and fast-transmitting enemy. Perhaps we need to reframing the SDG 17 to call for healthy cities and settlement!

Urban planning, as a field concerned with the planning and management of urban areas, is now at crossroads and facing a critical turning point that may completely reshape this interdisciplinary field that does not receive proper attention nor adequately respond to the escalating urban problems. Following are aspects that may take much of the discussion and eventually lead to changing the conventional domain and approach to urban planning.

Urban density and city size. High density is a solid doctrine espoused by urban planners to promote sustainable development against one of the most enduring problems in cities; the urban sprawl! Being promoted in numerous agendas and policies, this tool is advised not only to stop horizontal stretch of cities that overburdens the costly urban infrastructure, but also to support the ever-needed public transport and to adopt livability in dispersed unsocial communities. Although some urbanists raise the negative sides of high-density communities, and others argue that density is not an absolute but a relative factor associated with land price, nevertheless densification is still a dominant practice in contemporary urban development. Unexpectedly and in favor of opponents, high-density development becomes a major suspect responsible for the wide and quick outbreak of Covid-19. Moreover, the size of population that a city can accommodate, without affecting its quality of life, has always been controversial. Megacities are becoming the new rising trend in this evolving era of urbanization, especially in the rapid growing developing countries. Although this tendency is being criticized due to some problems associated with the huge size, nevertheless, the economic principle that promotes ‘bigger cities for better opportunities’ is a major driver for people to move from rural or small and medium cities to the bigger ones. Wuhan, the source of Covid-19 and one of the global megacities that accommodates around 11 million inhabitants, reaffirms again the high risk of huge agglomerations obviously apparent in the quick and wide transmission of this contagion.  Both density and city size are core to the definition of cities! So, in reaction to this disturbing health crisis, are we going to revise what constitutes a city in terms of size, or waiving the density condition, or even promote de-urbanization?

Land use and urban-rural continuum. The link between urban and rural has long been under examination, perhaps since the emergence of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, which aimed at creating a mix of city-rural community. Transect model has further introduced the gradual transition from urban core to natural environment; implicitly pinpointing the unbroken relationship between urban and rural that becomes more efficient by sophisticated network of public transport. The need to have rural areas adjacent to urban zones for food security is well-acknowledged, nevertheless this link is attacked again. It’s being argued that the emergence of Covid-19 started from a peri-urban area in Wuhan, and transmitted to semi-suburban tertiary-city Bavaria in Germany[2]! The transmission was made possible by the strong connection of globalized airports. Contact between humans and animals is also another source of infectious diseases. Just to remind that not only Covid-19 which was firstly reported from animals-related market, previous diseases such as Bird flu, Swine flu and Ebola are also originated from animals. This inevitably urges for reconsidering the relation between urban and rural in the whole continuum from one side, and the contact between humans and animals within urban areas from the other side. Moreover, the complete lockdown of cities that obliged people to stay home, restricting access to basic necessities to only nearby shops, requires a balanced and equitable distribution of services. However, the dominant land use pattern doesn’t cope with this and people almost always need to drive their cars to large shopping centers concentrated on prime locations. It’s time to rethink decentralization of services in a manageable way that enhances livable small communities with sufficient services.

Smart city concept. One of the most prominent, and even controversial, concept in urban discourse nowadays is the notion of smart city. Although the concept is still vague; focusing narrowly on the use of technology in city management, none the less, the use of technology in urban management is proved to be crucial in the ongoing battle against Covid-19. China, as a world’s technology pioneer in ICT, took great advantage of its superiority and devoted this power to impose full surveillance, of course with strict punishment rules, in the process of locking down millions of people and tracking the nodes of spread. This experiment, as witnessed by the whole world, did succeed in flattening the outbreak curve, however it raises a critical question of ethical legitimization, as well as whether this dictatorial strategy can even be implemented in democratic countries! Technology has also revealed a great shortage in confronting global crisis in terms of smart city infrastructure. The majority of the world people, who are being locked down and requested to stay home, find themselves obliged to perform their work duties remotely, including school and university students. Again, this triggers a legitimate question of who is ready for this smart transformation! No one city can be counted out of this challenge, even the U.S cities which received a considerable blame of lacking basic technology infrastructure such as high-speed internet[3]. Smart cities are urban centers capitalizing on technology that connects people in terms of infrastructure and applications, not just an authoritarian tool for watching their people!

Crisis management. It’s worth mentioning to say that urban denizens are shocked by the colossal mishandling of governments in confronting Covid-19, which highlight our low capacity to manage crises. Countries, no matter how developed there are, stumbled in taking decisions on national level from one hand and in handling implementation and control on local level from the other hand. Improvisation in outlining a roadmap to recover from this disturbing disease can be seen in the dichotomy approach that is being advised in balancing health-economy interconnectedness. It’s so strange that some countries chose to lockdown cities for long or unknown period, in a justification to protect public health, and forget about the economic side, by enforcing businesses to shut down through this terrible period. It’s thus, a clear manifestation of ‘either-or’ philosophy; either to protect health or to maintain economy, and health is more important than economy! Of course, no one can give us a panacea concerning how those survived people can be safe or even continue to survive in the near future with a falling economy, bankrupted businesses and high rate of employment! Why governments forget that countries exist because of cities, and cities are there because of economy and labor market! Why no highly-balanced approach is figured out? The dichotomy philosophy appears again in the overall approach; governments fell between either underestimation or exaggeration in responding to Covid-19! In this regard, one can raise a question of what possible scenarios have been developed to manage the pandemic spread instead of ‘either-or’ approach? The problem of national decisions and local implementation reveals inadequate handling of crisis management. Local governments are finding themselves in a weak position by having national governments taking the lead in the battle and enforcing decisions that hugely affect the local level with huge absence of urban planners and urban managers!

Public spaces and placemaking. There are tremendous global efforts to promote the role of public spaces in revitalizing city centers and impoverished areas to positively contribute to social, economic and environmental dimensions of the built environment. Both SDGs and the New Urban Agenda acknowledge the importance and call for the provision of adequate public spaces. Placemaking philosophy is rapidly growing and embraced by communities to reinvigorate underutilized urban spaces and bring place governance back to the community. Much of the discussion that took place in the latest global urban gathering in Abu Dhabi WUF10 directed to promote social interaction, livable community, and attractive crowded public spaces. Regretfully, the new slogan imposed by the ongoing Covid-19 and being widely encouraged is ‘social distancing’; not only staying home far from others but also keeping a distance even from relatives and neighbors! This is completely against the global agenda in unimaginable way. Amid these endeavors to bring people together, calls started to endorse segregation and isolation! How this is going to affect public space and placemaking? Probably by redirecting the core focus to be on healthy public spaces and placemaking instead of livable or attractive places. Attention may also be given to the development of small communities that enable manageable public space with controllable people. This may be through reinforcing neighborhood and cluster scales instead of district and city levels. it’s hard to say that beside the growing tendency of internet shopping and the proliferation of social media, the rising health issue is putting a new burden on public spaces and placemaking!

The nature of urban planning. The concept of planning arose from the necessity to intervene as an opposing direction to laissez-faire (free market) approach. Stemming from that concept, urban planning is also being introduced as an interdisciplinary field that incorporates different specialties from a wide spectrum of physical and non-physical domains. Despite these origins, urban planning is still lacking its power as the current practice doesn’t reflect the holistic approach to the planning and management of urban areas! Alain Bertaud in his book ‘Order without Design: how markets shape cities’ argues that urban planners tend to intervene and modify the city order, that is usually and probably shaped by market, through design and regulations although they lack fundamental knowledge about market, or mainly about urban economics. He also contends that urban economists are completely neglected in urban decisions[4]! Between the two divergent concepts of intervention and free market, urban planning falls short of finding the proper way to respond to the escalating urban problems. In some cases, free market philosophy looks more efficient than the intervention made by urban planners or managers! From other hand, and in this fierce battle against the global health crisis, one may question the use of science and the incorporation of research in examining possible scenarios or paving reliable roadmap from urban point of view! This is not about the scientific nature of planning that Charles Lindblom criticized in the mid of the twentieth century, it’s rather about the multidisciplinary nature of urban planning and the role that other fields can play in providing insightful contribution to enable proper decisions for urban areas.

Finally, the tragic outbreak of the global pandemic reasserts the multidimensional complexity of the urbanism phenomenon. Cities are no more a combination of buildings and surrounding landscapes, the simplistic perception of the early twentieth century, it’s rather an ever-evolving complex system in which myriad dimensions are mutually entangled, and surrounded by wicked problems that pose formidable obstacles. Covid-19 is attacking the core values of urbanism in a way that reveals serious challenges underlying cities. The looming threat is not how long this pandemic will last, or the inevitable negative consequences, it’s our low capacity to anticipate and control future unknown contagions that are genetically evolved to destroy our urban life!

 

Wail I. Bakhit is an urban planner with an experience spanning over 17 years in government, real estate and academic sectors. His main areas of interest ranging from national development and comprehensive planning, to the role of urban policy and urban design in achieving a decent quality of life. Currently he works as a senior research associate at the Center for Local Governance, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

 

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/rethinking-urbanism-covid-19-future-cities-wail-bakhit

[1] ) https://ourworldindata.org/urbanization#number-of-people-living-in-urban-areas

[2] ) https://www.citylab.com/design/2020/03/coronavirus-urban-planning-global-cities-infectious-disease/607603/

[3] ) https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-03-14/coronavirus-public-health-government-response

[4] ) Bertaud, Alain. (2018). Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities. The MIT Press, Massachusetts

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