City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

6: A language in crisis

Written in


Afternoon walk, Stockholm 4 April 2020

How key words, phrases and concepts are being bent out of shape by the coronavirus, shaping how we think about what follows.

Using charts as metaphors is one thing. Treating the virus itself as a metaphor is quite another. It is a literal threat, and its dynamics are tied precisely to the choices we have made about our systems of living and cultures of decision-making. That is where the focus should be. As Georgetown University’s Paul Ellie says, drawing from Susan Sontag, our desire to see virus as metaphor, rather than literal virus, meant that we did not see that our systems were optimised to produce it, to spread it.

“Jetting around the world, we stopped washing our hands.”

Yet the way that our language is bent out of shape at times like this is telling. In inventing new phrases, or reappropriating old ones, we not only describe the situation we are in, but shape what action we take. Judith Butler described how the “reiterative power of (discourse produces) the phenomena that it regulates and constrains”, largely concerning gender, but that could probably describe what is happening with the repeated and already-normalised phrase ‘social distancing’. In a different mode, the designer Hugh Dubberly said “To regenerate, an organisation creates a new language.” And so it is with culture.

There are hundreds of small details of everyday life changing around us. Every day brings more. Again, I feel we should at least be carefully and respectfully observing, logging, and discussing those details.

As well as endlessly washing our hands, Zooming old friends, Home Karaoke Station, and on-nomi online drinks parties, we are inventing new rituals, partly due to this enforced social distancing. And this is deeply cultural, of course. When I lived and worked in Italy, the everyday comfort with interpersonal tactility was a remarkable, and generally quietly joyous, part of the culture. Italy is, as Tobias Jones put it, a very touchy-feely place, but not right now. Sweden is quite huggy, as it happens, but again, not right now.

‘Finding Connection and Resilience During the Coronavirus Pandemic’, Robin Wright, New Yorker, 12 March 2020

Of course with non-verbal communication in question, Bruno Munari’s brilliant 1963 book ‘Supplement to the Italian Dictionary’ (‘Supplemento al dizionario italiano’) immediately springs to mind. I had sketched an updated version, with 21st century gestures built largely around tech’s impact on us. This could now be updated, with a 21st century set for what the virus is doing to us, given the human preferences for touch as a form of communication : elbow bumps, the Wuhan Shake, the East Coast Wave.

Bruno Munari’s ‘Supplement to the Italian Dictionary’ (‘Supplemento al dizionario italiano’) (1963)

But language is a more powerful transmitter, its own particular virus, shaping how we think. Concepts like war and the cost of life, the lure of business-as-usual versus a new understanding of essential goods and services, a sense of sacrifice, and distancing given density, are all current pressure points in our public discourse around the virus. And the role of expertise, including the way we communicate about science-based decisions in complex cultural and political environments, is being played out in public right now, with the highest stakes.

The phoney war

The media is full of politicians and others proclaiming that ‘we are at war with the virus’. Yet despite the death, it feels like something of a Phoney War at this point; or rather, in the spirit of general chaos, we’re at war and we’re not at war, simultaneously.

As my friend and colleague Marco Ferrari pointed out on Instagram, posting from a Milano in lockdown, the war is not a helpful analogy at all, given its easy slide into, or origins in, nationalism. As with the climate crisis, the virus moves across those artificial borders without bothering to show its passport.

Marco Ferrari on Instagram

And unlike a war, the economy is not exactly in overdrive. We are on a war-footing in a sense, with some early requisition of selected industrial infrastructure for public good, yet without the potential of the full mobilisation and reorientation that a war on this scale implies. In fact, quite the opposite. We are largely shut down, or at least in Slowdown.

Front line staff, myriad health workers, other emergency services staff, and thousands of volunteers are at some form of horrible front line. It’s almost impossible to listen to a doctor recounting what is happening in Bergamo, calmly and professionally and yet with such intense sorrow. The thought of it moving through Lagos is also too much to bear. As ever, war, or situations very much like it, affects many disproportionately, and unequally.

“I see everything through the prism of health inequality. With climate change, what happens in rich countries has a disproportionate effect on low and middle income countries. They will also suffer more from the pandemic because they have a poorer health infrastructure.”—Sir Michael Marmot, Professor of epidemiology at University College London

Alongside the executive orders enabling governments to direct the private sector, there are other elements of wartime life emerging — most obviously, the horrible toll on human life — but also sheltering-in-place, tentative universal payments, and no doubt we will see some rationing of basic goods at some point. But otherwise, this is a long way from a war condition, thankfully.

The virus has the opposite impact of the bombings, bushfires and floods, more akin to that hoary old myth from our childhood science fiction: the neutron bomb that wipes out people but leaves buildings standing, streets emptied but physically untouched.

Again, it is closer, in this respect at least, to the initial impact of Chernobyl. Life is normal, and absolutely not normal, at the same time.

“When we were going home, it seemed strange that the city shops were open: women were buying stockings and perfume. We were already attuned to military thinking. It all seemed much more natural when suddenly there were queues for bread, salt and matches. Everybody rushed to dry out bread for storing. We washed the floors five or six times a day, sealed up the windows. We listened constantly to the radio. This way of behaving seemed familiar to me, even though I was born after the war. I tried to analyse my feelings and was amazed how quickly I reoriented my whole way of thinking. In some unfathomable way, I found I was remembering the experience of the war. I could picture myself abandoning our home and going off with the children, deciding what things we would take, what I would write to my mother. Even though ordinary peacetime life was continuing all around, and they were showing comedy films on television.” — Excerpt from ‘Chernobyl Prayer’, by Svetlana Alexievich (2016)

That quote captures this feeling of war, and not-war. This feels more like an examination of our collective capability to address systemic challenges, more like a kind of ‘mock’ paper before the true examinations — ‘the finals’, as we say in the UK — of the accumulated effects of climate crisis, biodiversity loss, chronic health crises, and rampant inequality. It’s a difficult examination, for sure, but perhaps still only a time-limited test before the real challenge of those combined existential crises. That’s the career we’re training for.

People will call this a war, nonetheless. Yet, briefly dwelling on far more damaging previous wars, we must see that this particular ‘war’, on the virus, simply highlights systemic, or cultural, issues that were lying there all along. CS Lewis, speaking in 1939, put it thus:

“The war creates no absolutely new situation. It simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life’. Life has never been normal.” — CS Lewis (“Learning in War-time.”, 1939)

“Life has never been normal”. If we take this positively, it enables us to think beyond Solzhenitsyn’s “petrified” mental armour. Life not being normal enables a richer, more diverse set of responses. It activates that hyper-aware, continuous horizon-scanning sensibility that humans evolved with.

The cost of business-as-usual, the cost of saving lives

As well as learning from the immediate environment, local or community, we can also take stock of the wider system as it was. Before we snap back to business-as-usual, firing up the engines again, let’s pause to review what that system was actually doing.

This is neither the time nor place to dwell on the United States of America’s litany of structural issues, nor am I the person to do it, but the USA provides perhaps the pre-eminent example of how the virus reveals patterns that were already present within the system, quickly laying bare a lack of immunity to this and other systemic challenges. The virus is a message that enough is enough. It is clearer than ever now, with every horrifying day that goes by, that there is no real public health system in the USA.

Astonishingly, it gets worse. Having reduced its health system, the USA became a system reducing health. For example, Atul Gawande describes how the USA’s death rates in recent years have been horrifyingly bad, not because of the virus but due to structural inequality. He describes Americans “dying from despair”, and that the last time those numbers were this bad was after the 1918 influenza epidemic. Given the lack of coherent records at that time, we don’t know which deaths were structural, “from despair”, rather than virus-related, and lost in the fog of death around 1918. Let’s remember now, before COVID-19 dominates the mortality stories for 2020, that these deaths, due to structural issues within the ‘American model’, were happening before the virus.

Gawande’s article is based on research by Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, in their book ‘Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism’. They describe the deadly American assemblage of opioids, firearms, automation, globalisation, the lack of safety net for displaced workers, capital taking a larger share of the gains, a dysfunctional healthcare system … Again, the virus is likely to exploit that set of conditions, horrifyingly. That is enabled, and in turn exacerbated by, the dissolution of the idea of public in America: what the great Toni Morrison described as the shift from citizens to consumers, or Robert Reich describes as meaning only “a sum total of individual needs, not the common good.”

These fissures have been cut so deeply over the last few decades, and have been so profitable for a few, very powerful Americans, that despite being hung out to dry in the most appalling way by the virus, it’s hard to see how the United States fits back together in any other way. It’s horrible to think about, but it may simply be a function of how long the virus lasts that dictates how much resistance emerges, and how much transformation is possible.

But this is not simply America. In the LRB, reviewing Wolfgang Streek’s ‘How Will Capitalism End’, Adam Tooze describes the EU’s current resting face as the purest expression of the three inventive yet entirely makeshift fixes put in place — 1970s, inflation; 1980s, public debt; 1990s, private debt — each an attempt to distract from the fundamental flaws within globalised democratic capitalism. Streek’s critique of this strain of capitalism, quoted by Tooze, is useful:

“What makes capitalism toxic is its expansiveness, its relentless colonisation of the rest of society. Drawing on Karl Polanyi, Streeck insists that capitalism destroys its own foundations. It undermines the family units on which the reproduction of labour depends; it consumes nature; it commodifies money, which to function has to rest on a foundation of social trust. For its own good, capitalism needs political checks. The significance of 2008 and what has happened since is that it is now clear these checks are no longer functioning. Instead, as it entered crisis, capitalism overran everything: it forced the hand of parliaments; it drove up state debts at taxpayers’ expense at the same time as aggressively rolling back what remained of the welfare state; the elected governments of Italy and Greece were sacrificed; referendums were cancelled or ignored.” — Adam Tooze, ‘A General Logic of Crisis’, London Review of Books (2017)

Yet that expansiveness, its “colonisation of society” has now perhaps hit something even more expansive and relentless, in the shape of the virus and the climate crisis. Both will colonise thoroughly, and at planetary scale. Technically speaking, both crises could be defeated, or at least successfully adapted to, by people — but not working under a system predicated on ‘destroying its own foundations’, a system that strips away its own deeper sense of humanity. There, the ceremony of innocence is drowned.

This is never clearer than in language of the populist leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro pleading for normalcy, and therefore the chance to start the engines on the economy again. Immediately, there was much debate about the ethics of keeping an economy running versus stopping it to stop the virus, or in other words, suggesting there may be an ‘acceptable amount’ of deaths.

“Our lives have to go on. Jobs must be kept … We must, yes, get back to normal.” — Jair Bolsonaro

This awful calculus of balancing the number of lives lost (including the untold emotional trauma for their families and communities) with the swift return to business-as-usual implies there is some acceptable level of ‘collateral damage’, the phrase that emerged in the Vietnam War, that we must accept.

In a telling aside, Elon Musk told employees at one of his companies, SpaceX, that “the risk of death from COVID-19 is vastly less than the risk of death from driving your car home.” Thanks, Iron Man. Musk is, in case you’d forgotten, a carmaker.

You can hear echoes of Musk’s rhetoric, and this is not as improbable as it may initially seem, in one of President Donald Trump’s inimitable ‘sideways glances’ at the cost/benefit calculation of dealing with the virus, articulated via an analogy with road deaths. Trump said, last Monday, that:

“We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself …. There will be tremendous death from that. Death. You’re talking about death. Probably more death from that than anything that we’re talking about with respect to the virus … And you look at automobile accidents, which are far greater than any numbers we’re talking about. That doesn’t mean we’re going to tell everybody no more driving of cars. So we have to do things to get our country open.”

An increasingly rare voice of reason — not so much the face of the current administration’s expert team as the face-palm — Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, presented another view:

“That’s totally way out. That’s really a false equivalency … I don’t think with any moral conscience you could say, ‘Why don’t we just let it rip and happen, and let X per cent of the people die?’ I don’t understand that reasoning at all.”

And yet, 40,000 people die on American roads every year. We know full well that cars are, as Alison Arieff put it recently, killing machines. That number does not include those dying early from air pollution, or the many other health problems cars cause. But only now this debate about whether to place human lives above the economy? Could it be because the virus is killing people and closing the factories?

We have been here before, and not in wartime, but every single day before the virus, in all our towns and cities. In a different context, the question of ‘acceptable deaths’ can also be detected at work concerning road traffic deaths and accidents: that the cost/benefit calculations underpinning the development of a car-based society mean that we must endure some amount of loss of life. This externality would be the ‘cost of doing business’ in return for a modern lifestyle.

Sweden’s Vision Zero may have its flaws, but its great achievement was to reject this premise out of hand. It has shifted the political agenda towards the ambition that no death or major accident from road traffic accidents is acceptable. That was an ethical position put forward by engineers at the national traffic agency, which essentially states that, “No, it is actually not acceptable to have any level of ‘collateral damage’ from a car-based society”.

Whose children should die, as a result of the way that system has been designed? Yours? Mine? The answer has to be none. No-one.

“Saving human life has to go ahead of everything else.” — Claes Tingvall, Swedish Transport Agency

Previously in Sweden, as elsewhere, there was effectively an unspoken, tacit agreement that some level of collateral damage, due to car- and truck-based transport and road systems, is acceptable — despite no-one ever admitting that publicly. (These short essays get into how and why that happened, in Sweden and elsewhere.) Vision Zero’s great achievement is to shift ethics above technocratic objectives for efficient movement; in effect, to say that it’s not enough to have wealth creation, from which we can take a cut to pay for hospitals which deal with the “externality” of traffic accidents.

Vision Zero has been hugely successful. Deaths from traffic accidents have halved in Sweden since it was implemented in 1995. It has spread to numerous cities, regions and countries worldwide. In Norway, not a single child was killed in a traffic accident last year, for the first time ever, and no pedestrians at all died in Oslo and Helsinki. (Norway and Finland have both deployed Vision Zero).

This Vision Zero logic can be usefully applied across almost any arena, indicating that externalities are not external at all, but part of the (tacitly) designed system. As everything is connected there is no such thing as an externality. Although it shouldn’t take a global pandemic to highlight this, that logic indicates that we should not have accepted those 50,000 deaths due to air pollution in China, as if they are simply a terribly unfortunate externality of the system.

As Deming implied, systems always work perfectly. They produce the outcome they were intended to. Dresden was optimised to burn, when combined with an optimal way of burning it. New South Wales and Victoria were designed, by us, to burn, when our systems of urban sprawl, land clearances, over-consumption, fossil-fuel dependency, and resource extraction combined ‘optimally’. The Coronavirus showed us how 50,000 Chinese people were previously allowed to die early from air pollution, as the system optimised around globalised industrial production. It also shows us how widespread ecosystem degradation, multiplied by climate crisis, chronic health issues and social inequalities, is likely to produce pandemics.

Outside of pandemics, people die for numerous reasons. Death is part of life. Yet the way we have designed our infrastructures of everyday life is prematurely killing millions of people, and often with appalling ends of life. Approaches like Vision Zero, with their ethical foundations overriding simplistic economic cost/benefit analysis, can inspire us to design systems otherwise, not accepting loss of life as some externality of our choices about our way of living. It demonstrates that there is no such thing as an externality at all. That would be a truly meaningful cure to the greater problem, by actually focusing on prevention in the first place.

Privilege over sacrifice

When George H.W. Bush declared, at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, that “Our ‘way of life’ is not up for negotiations”, he was right. Neither a virus or a climate bothers to negotiate.

And regarding ‘ways of life’, things can change within two weeks. Even in a country where the concept of lifestyle has an almost existential quality, Australia’s most iconic of locations, Bondi Beach, has been shut down. A fairly direct police statement included the following:

“This is not something we are doing because we are the fun police. This is about saving lives. If the community does not comply with the regulations and the health warnings then this is going to become the new norm. We will be closing down the type of iconic activities that unfortunately we’ve come … to love and adore about our lifestyle.”

Right now, the virus dictates that response, quite rightly. But the language of sacrifice need not continue into addressing the climate crisis, which will also necessitate changes to ‘ways of life’.

During World War Two, Franklin D. Roosevelt, as related by Jonathan Safran Foer in his book We Are The Weather’, points out how sacrifice was not the right concept at all. For Roosevelt, beating the enemy on the home front meant change, and struggle — but it would not be a sacrifice.

“But there is one front and one battle where everyone in the United States — every man, woman, and child — is in action, and will be privileged to remain in action throughout this war. That front is right here at home, in our daily lives, and in our daily tasks. Here at home everyone will have the privilege of making whatever self-denial is necessary … As I told Congress yesterday, ‘sacrifice’ is not exactly the proper word with which to describe this program of self-denial. When, at the end of this great struggle, we shall have saved our free way of life, we shall have made no ‘sacrifice’.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1942

There is some difference between Roosevelt talking of ‘saving a free way of life’ in 1942, five months after Pearl Harbour, and Bush talking of ‘our way of life not being up for negotiation’ entering into climate negotiations.

Roosevelt’s ‘we shall have made no sacrifice’ is a powerful way of thinking about what we have to do now. Our goal must be a better life than before the virus, not snapping back to saving a business-as-usual that has proved increasingly costly, in every sense.

Attaching strings to bailouts

Suddenly, as soon as the indiscriminate and systematic nature of the virus was unquestionably clear, financing was made available. Fiscal conservatives like the European Central Bank released self-imposed shackles, encouraging governments to “spend as much as they need”.

Those of us working directly with climate crisis (in my case, with sustainable cities) will remember, only a matter of days ago, that the general tone of all fiscal conversations in the context of grand challenges was quite different. A transition to the next economy — even for those that were on board — would be very expensive, and thus should take decades. Compromises to solutions would have to be made to ensure a reasonable profit which would warrant investment. It was to be a very gentle, very flat curve, as if we had the time. Now, not so much. (As usual at times like this, that concept of the Magic Money Tree, whose very existence was much derided during the British election, turns out to be not only real, but blossoming, ripening fruit to be showered imminently, and in fact, there’s a whole bloody orchard of them.)

As I mentioned at the start of this, it’s not easy to consider much at all, strategically-speaking, when tactics is the game. When people are dying, health services are facing surges, and with entire sectors in trouble economically, it’s extremely difficult to discuss placing conditions on bailouts, even in the context of ‘never wasting a good crisis’. (Note the reaction when Rahm Emanuel tried reprising that line a couple of weeks ago.)

Nevertheless, in terms of overlapping curves, or even being aware that some of what we are spending on bailouts could be entirely consonant with our other grand challenges, we must find a way of discussing this.

Bill McKibben quickly suggested conditions such as, “any bailout depends on your industry promising to meet the targets set in the Paris climate accords, and demonstrating in the next few months what that plan looks like.”

This isn’t enough, as McKibben knows full well. This could be the time to raise the bar to where it ought to be set, whilst, as Mariana Mazzucato states, the government momentarily “has the upper hand”.

What makes this possible is that citizens are now directly engaged in this battle, in ways unimaginable to the 2008 Great Recession. Then, most of us were helpless victims or bystanders to a largely opaque process of high finance bailout. Now, recalling Roosevelt’s understanding of these terms, we are on the home front of the front line, or on the front line itself, and many are increasingly becoming aware of the wider issues around this particular battle. That kind of engagement opens up the possibility of more transparent steering, and mass participation in more difficult decisions: how to deal with the virus and the deeper crises at the same time.

“It is important to resist simply handing out money. Conditions can be attached to make sure that bailouts are structured in ways that transform the sectors they’re saving so that they become part of a new economy — one that is focused on the green new deal strategy of lowering carbon emissions while also investing in workers, and making sure they can adapt to new technologies.” — Mariana Mazzucato, The Guardian

The bailout process in the US will likely be gamed by battle-ready lobbyists who know exactly how to exploit a flawed system. That tends not to include those lobbying for Green New Deals.

For example: this is a chance to impose more stringent conditions on the polluting cruise ship industry, to pick just one example. Cruise ships emit more sulphur dioxide than all of the passenger vehicles in Europe combined, as well as directly polluting the oceans by dumping waste, often ‘legally’, rarely paying tax or employing workers appropriately or ethically, and contributing to over-tourism.

And yet President Trump, his vision permanently obscured by the smudged glass of his demographic’s own personal Overton Window, thinks the cruise ship industry a “prime candidate” for a bailout.

But perhaps McKibben, or Mazzucato, will find a way to shift that. I personally fear that the USA is too far gone, in this respect. It will be hard enough for policymakers to resist bailing out Europe’s polluting industries, even with a far greater mandate to do so.

“In an ideal world, we’d use this moment to quickly enact a Green New Deal, employing all the suddenly unemployed Americans in building out our renewable-energy system and laying the high-speed rail tracks that would help curtail the need for short-haul aviation. “ — Bill McKibben

The Green New Deal harks back to the New Deal of course, with intended echoes of the creation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), as a way of moving out of the Great Depression. Just as the original WPA paid for unemployed workers to lay the ground, literally, for the carbon-intensive transport modes of 20th century America — alongside airport projects, over $4 billion was spent on highway, road, and street projects — this version of a 21st century WPA must lay the ground for zero-carbon, healthy and accessible transport instead. (My former employer SITRA quickly produced a short proposal along these lines.)

This probably means not simply attaching strings to bailout packages labelled ‘Paris 1.5’ (for many countries) or Green Deal (Europe) or whatever equivalent the US can get its hands on, but specifically also asking where are the new jobs being created, rather than the old jobs being preserved — specifically, where multiple kinds of new value is, for thriving and resilient communities and ecosystems within planetary boundaries.

The emerging discourse around ‘essential’ versus ‘non-essential’ sectors is clearly difficult, confrontational, and dangerous. The cultural sector is essential, in my view, but would be shouted down by the oil sector, say, which should be non-essential, in my view. The aviation sector is essential, but perhaps at half the size, in my view. Policymakers are not used to having to make that distinction.

Nonetheless, it gives us an understanding of how to frame bailouts. Those non-essential sectors — let’s use the cruise ship industry example above — should have plenty of time to come up with a strong vision for a Green Deal-flavoured version of itself, before any kind of bailout emerges for them. Stack it up against the cultural sector, never mind the health sector, and it is non-essential, no matter how much money it makes. In the meantime, financial support can be aimed at the front line first, and ‘essential sectors’ second.

Distancing and density

The phrase ‘social distancing’ did not exist before March 2020, at least according to Google Trends. It is perhaps the clearest example of a new phrase associated with the virus, a core principle underpinning the slowdown, and in only two words, something that feels like a fundamental challenge to humanity itself. As social animals, keeping your distance from other people just feels wrong.

The distance may vary subtly from place to place — six feet here, two metres there — but adding all those social distances up, cumulatively, presents particular difficulties for our urban age. Urban experience is predicated on density, enabling the collisions of community, conviviality, culture, and commerce that are largely the point of cities. As a result, the last thing one would want to add to that list would be a new coronavirus.

Governor Cuomo of New York said in the NYT The Daily podcast, on 18 March, that the reason that New York is being hit particularly hard is that “it’s a function of density.” On Monday this week, the Mayor of Detroit also pointed out the city’s density, after their first deaths. These allusions draw upon a folk memory of older urban diseases, the crowded, unsanitary slum conditions that spread cholera and typhoid.

Yet even if the 1918 flu is any kind of guide, population size and density aren’t necessarily big factors — though air quality is, and social inequality is (and the speed and depth of response to the virus is). While these can be correlated with density, they are not necessarily caused by density. The distribution or spread of the virus is more likely to map global supply chains and distribution routes on the edges of cities, than the core. This was confirmed by a friend in Milano, who noted the virus was initially in the small towns encircling the city, rather than within, mapping onto Milan’s industrial patterning. Michele Acuto, at University of Melbourne, makes the same point: the virus is playing on the suburban and peri-urban landscapes of globalised commerce.

Assessing its impact in our actual urban and regional landscapes, we see the virus tied to globalised production rather than urbanisation per se, though those particular threads are difficult to disentangle. Research suggests that such outbreaks start at the edges of cities, and spread out from there. It appears linked to contemporary patterns of industry and its own particular urbanisation, which is low road suburban business park or high-end tech campus than dense inner-urban slum. At a factory on the outskirts of a city in southern Germany, a major car manufacturer runs a training course for partners from a distributor in Wuhan; that’s it.

“We need to understand the landscapes of emerging extended urbanization better if we want to predict, avoid and react to emerging disease outbreaks more efficiently … The coronavirus travelled from the periphery of Wuhan — where 1.6 million cars were produced last year — to a distant Bavarian suburb specializing in certain auto parts.” — Keil, Connolly, Harris Ali, 2020

So Cuomo may mean well, but is dangerously simplifying. It’s not simply a question of density. Indeed, the places that appear to have handled the virus relatively well so far, in these early days at least — Japan, Hong Kong, China, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan — are often extremely dense by Western standards. Seoul is more than twice as dense as New York City, for example. (In fact, there is not a single US city in the top 50 most densely populated cities.)

The New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman is one our greatest urbanists. Yet he too sees new concerns with the perspective that most serious urbanists share: that density tends to be a key ingredient for a good city. He more precisely than Cuomo makes clear the challenges for urbanism, and the value in density:

“Pandemics prey on this relentlessly. They are anti-urban. They exploit our impulse to congregate. And our response so far — social distancing — not only runs up against our fundamental desires to interact, but also against the way we have built our cities and plazas, subways and skyscrapers. They are all designed to be occupied and animated collectively. For many urban systems to work properly, density is the goal, not the enemy.”

Yet cities are not simply a collision of bricks, or people, per square metre, but more importantly the cultures, politics, and communities which inhabit those things (they are the social, civitas, as well as the built, urbs) and thus density is only part of the puzzle. Kimmelman knows this full well — read his timeless description of a square in Berlin, which I referred to in this examination of cultural value of the Australian public pool.

Yet more pertinently, in the same article, he points to Eric Klineberg’s research on the 1995 Chicago heat wave, indicating that a strong social infrastructure in Chicago — a network of “sidewalks, stores, public facilities and community organizations that bring people into contact with friends and neighbors” — meant that residents died at a markedly lower rate, compared to those in segregated neighbourhoods. The community organisation is as important as the shape of the sidewalk; probably more so. Architecture fails when it doesn’t address what happens in the built fabric it produces — which is generally the case, sadly, no matter how high profile the building or architect.

This is not to say that dense cities will not struggle with virus. Of course a city like Lagos will have issues enforcing social distancing and hand sanitising, and where the phrase ‘working from home’ will take on a quite different meaning, as described in this brilliant, if sobering, piece by OluTimehin Adegbeye for The Correspondent.

Photography from the series Bariga Nights by visual artist Emeka Okereke, via The Correspondent

She points out ‘flattening the curve’ is only an option under certain conditions, which are simply not available in Lagos:

““Flattening the curve” assumes that the healthcare system has an operating capacity that can make a difference, as long as it is not overwhelmed by too many cases at once. In Nigeria, it won’t matter whether we get 20,000 cases all at once or over the course of a few months; with fewer than 500 ventilators for a population of 200 million, our healthcare system simply doesn’t have the capacity for a pandemic.” — OluTimehin Adegbeye, ‘Why Social Distancing Won’t Work For us’, The Correspondent, 27 March 2020

But the issues that will make Lagos vulnerable to the virus are the same as for New York: a dissolution of social fabric, public goods, and in this particular case, a healthcare system, due to politics and economics. The particular way that density and urban form is articulated in Lagos is an outcome of those those broader questions, not the other way around.

This will change the way we live in cities, and thus urbanism, but our opportunity is to see that our approach to architecture and urbanism needed revising anyway. (I have two pieces in the latest edition of Architectural Design journal about this.) This means a far more diverse, integrated approach to planning, which focuses rather more actively on how we can and could live together in cities, and the cultures, politics, finances, agreements, and technologies underlying those decisions, over and above the patterns of bricks and mortar.

As Cuomo may know, the reason New York is being hit hard is not because it is dense, but because, despite its wealth, its social fabric is not resilient, its health systems are poor, its infrastructure is crumbling and its governance is fragmented. Seoul, it turns out, was better prepared, more advanced; that is not without social cost, but so far at least, its density has not prevented it from reacting to the virus more effectively in terms of saving lives. Taipei, far more dense again, has done so — again, so far — with apparently a more diverse balance of measures, “a fusion of technology, activism, and civic participation”—more on these cultures of decision-making next.

Density will be an issue, of course, but intrinsically so, because it is fundamental to everything. But density is not the biggest problem here.

Slowdown Papers

These are a series of observations, reflections and ideas, emerging from my view of the early impact of the coronavirus COVID–19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, but following the Australian bushfires over Christmas 2019.

1: Writing to memory

Observing, listening and writing, as a way of remembering the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, from within the midst of the slowdown.

2: The pitiless crowbar of events

How will we remember the coronavirus? While we are ‘flattening the curve’, how can we think about the curves beyond?

3: Remember the bushfires to remember the virus

The Australian bushfires and floods as harbingers of the coronavirus, and a world wearing masks and blinkers.

4: We make the virus and the virus makes us

The reversed dynamics of coronavirus and climate, and how the destruction of biodiversity that created the climate crisis probably also created the virus.

5: The curves beyond the curve

Flattening the curve on corona, squeezing the curve on climate.

6: A language in crisis

How key words, phrases and concepts are being bent out of shape by the coronavirus, shaping how we think about what follows.

7: Cultures of decision-making, in Sweden and beyond

Sweden’s ‘Middle Way’ approach to the coronavirus, democracy as a political system for people who are not sure that they are right, and the role of trust, expertise and citizenship, as compared with other Nordics, Taiwan and China.

8: An A/B test on our way of life

The lumpiness of history, how events change the world, World A versus World B, and six questions to prompt reflections about what the coronavirus might mean.

9: The restoration

The coronavirus immediate creates a restored and regenerative environment, and the Slowdown starts to create new habits.

10: Another Green World

Slow cities, flightshame, fast and slow layers, energy use maps the permanent weekend, the acceptance of essential infrastructures and Universal Basic Services, and is the coronavirus forcing us to sketch new forms of governance?

11: Post-traumatic urbanism and radical indigenism

How cities post-coronavirus can benefit from the distributed patterns of post-traumatic urbanism meeting radical indigenism, Wakanda meeting Aalto, and ‘Lo-TEK’ nature-based technologies meeting contemporary infrastructures.

12: Between the roots and the stars

Another green world lying just beneath ours; what our response to the coronavirus can learn from the night sky after Katrina, a 6000 year-old eel machine in Victoria, and a spruce tree in Sweden.


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