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

9: The restoration

Written in


Afternoon walk, Stockholm 6 April 2020

The coronavirus immediately creates a (partly) restored and regenerative environment, and the Slowdown starts to create new habits.

Clearing the air

One of the more startling early datapoints, amidst a flood of flattening and peaking curves, concerned the impact of China slowing, or turning off, its factories and industrial production in order to prevent transmission of Coronavirus between workers.

‘Coronavirus pandemic leading to huge drop in air pollution’, The Guardian, 23 March 2020

G-FEED (a group comprising researchers from Stanford University and other schools) quickly calculated that the improvement in air quality as a result, over a few weeks of shutdown, will save 50,000 lives this year. Their research was soon augmented by CICERO, in Oslo, which estimated between 50,000–100,000 premature deaths could be avoided.

That’s 50,000 people not dying early due to air pollution, over ten times more than the few thousand that have died from coronovirus in China. Traffic and pollution (nitrogen dioxide) plummeted across American and European cities and industrial clusters, too, according to ESA’s Sentinel-5P satellite show over the past weeks.

NO2 emissions (darker = more) over Los Angeles and Seattle, with March 1–19 2019 (left) and same days for 2020 (right). Source: Sentinel-5P satellite data processed by Descartes Labs, published in ‘Traffic and Pollution Plummet as U.S. Cities Shut Down for Coronavirus’, New York Times, 22 March 2020

Analysis by Carbon Brief made clear the immediate impact on China’s industry and economy, and astonishingly, the near-immediate disappearance of air pollution. Paul Monks, professor of air pollution at the University of Leicester, even noted that the increase in air quality “could reduce the spread of disease. A high level of air pollution exacerbates viral uptake because it inflames and lowers immunity.”

Whilst it’s far from clear that it will be sustained, unless demand-side impacts continue to reinforce that supply-side shut-down, it’s likely that this single datapoint began to change many peoples’ view of what the virus could be doing, shifting the narrative from Spanish Flu, Ebola and SARS to something more akin to the Slowdown.

(The researchers are quick to point out caveats, such as the likely significant health impact of job losses due to switching off the factories. This is certainly likely, yet almost all analysis will tell you that such a transition need not mean economic hardship at all; in fact, a ‘just transition’ enables quite the opposite. This narrative that transition means economic catastrophe is frequently made by powerful Australian politicians and media, and is amongst the most destructive. Transition means the opposite.)

In the context of a virus that awfully put the loss of human life out front, we realise that we had, in effect, ‘designed’ systems to kill those 50,000 people early, from air pollution. Not directly and intentionally, of course, yet we have decades of evidence that our active economic choices have this impact. And yet we move mountains to keep the deaths from the virus at a total fewer than 4,000 in Wuhan, but file the other ~50,000 deaths as ‘business-as-usual’, an inconvenient externality.

So the least understood system — how our patterns of living created, and then transmitted, the virus — is the one that motivates rapid and thorough action, on a global scale, yet the well-understood and mechanistic one does not. Fear of the unknown is perhaps the most visceral of fears, of course, yet this does not excuse our lack of action on the crises we do understand in detail, and more consciously design in detail.

The regeneration

Alongside these broad swathes of technical data, this particular crisis is also changing our individual perspectives and behaviours, and at scale. As noted earlier, this is an unusual aspect of the dynamics of this virus — the similar, linked patterns of the climate crisis, which it emanates from, but almost everywhere, and at once. But as with the ‘potentially saved lives’ in Wuhan above, some of these real time changes, visible out of the window, appear to be immediately restorative.

In Venice, the disappearance of the parasitic tourist industry appears to, within weeks, have restored the quality of the water, and the marine life that lived on for the centuries before tourism. Having lived next door to Venice for a while, I can confirm that the water rarely, if ever, looked like this to me.

‘‘Nature is taking back Venice’: wildlife returns to tourist-free city’, The Guardian, 20 March 2020

In Australia, my friend and colleague Sacha Coles, posted an image of the regrowth already occurring in the scorched bushfire territory. The bushfires are a way that the landscape regenerates itself, with many Australian native trees propagating in fire. As discussed later, indigenous techniques would manage these burns better, yet even these charred landscapes will restore themselves in time.

As well as the clean skies above, and the wildlife taking back the streets, birdsong will be returning to cities, as traffic noise fades.

“Birds sing shorter songs at higher frequencies in cities to compete with traffic noise. Our obsession with car culture is affecting their ability to attract mates.” (Gentry, McKenna & Luther (2018) ‘Evidence of suboscine song plasticity in response to traffic noise fluctuations and temporary road closures’, Bioacoustics)

In one of our many histories with carbon, we sent birds into coal mines to tell us about the atmosphere there, too. Birds are magnanimous messengers, however, and other research suggests that their song has potential for restoration from cognitive fatigue and stress. The virus creates the Slowdown which removes traffic, which lets birds sing, which has restorative potential to help us recover from the trauma of the virus.

In cities around the world, citizens are rediscovering, albeit for the most awful of reasons, their immediate natural environments, the social and cultural dynamics of the neighbourhoods they live in, the flora and fauna they are surrounded by every day yet usually barely notice. In fact, usually they are actively, if inadvertently, suppressing or destroying it — but crucially, they may be discovering how quickly it might become something else. I can’t think of a historical precedent for this.

The positive impacts of a restored environment will be described subsequently, detailing the pre-virus Street projects I’m helping lead here. (Spoiler: they relate to scaling this approach, for every street in Sweden.) Developing restorative streetscapes — removing traffic, increasing biodiversity, ramping up culture — could have positive impact on everything from increasing social mobility in children to reducing domestic violence in the home, from new governance models to mitigating heat island effects, from revealing cultural diversity to increasing physical health, and ultimately reproducing the biodiversity we will need to both respond to and to prevent pandemics, and to mitigate and adapt to the worst impacts of the climate crisis. The view currently outside the window offers an oblique glimpse at some of that potential.

“For resistance to succeed, two boundaries must be crossed. First, ideas about change must engage people of various backgrounds who do not agree about everything. Second, people must find themselves in places that are not their homes, and among groups who were not previously their friends. Protest can be organised through social media, but nothing is real that does not end on the streets.” — Timothy Snyder, ‘On Tyranny’ (2017)

Right now, in a Slowdown which is a lockdown for many, we can cross the first boundary, but not the second. While we are stuck at home, we cannot change much. But we can think about it, project into it, and engage people, as Snyder suggests. Later, assuming we will be stepping out into the streets again at some point, we must connect physically and socially, and as a form of resistance against snapping back to business-as-usual.

New old rituals

There are, of course, awful personal stories emerging, in almost every sense, from all over the world — and we grimly expect the worse is yet to come. But equally, as Rebecca Solnit documents in her extraordinary book ‘A Paradise Built in Hell’, crises tend to bring out the best in people.

Rutger Bregman, writing for The Correspondent, captured the sense of community camaraderie in the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan and Italy. At that point, some of the stories leaking from Wuhan, combined with the videos of singing from the balconies in locked-down Siena and Naples, provided a deeply heartening sign of human resistance, care, and pride in each other’s resilience.

“We’ve learned how to accept help from others,” writes a woman living in Wuhan. “Because of this quarantine, we have bonded with and supported each other in ways that I’ve never experienced in nine years of living here.” — Rutger Bregman, ‘Don’t forget: disasters and crises bring out the best in people’, The Correspondent, March 2020

As Bregman notes, this is a recognisable pattern, “Since 1963, the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center has conducted nearly 700 field studies on floods and earthquakes, and on-site research reveals the same results every time: the vast majority of people stay calm and help each other. “Whatever the extent of the looting,” one sociologist notes, “it always pales in significance to the widespread altruism that leads to free and massive giving and sharing of goods and services.”

With this positive perspective in mind, the patterns that emerge during a crisis can be meaningful. Many of them, though not all of them, are right in front of us, and feel emblematic of this moment, hence the discussion. For those not directly at the front line, as patients or care workers, this is a Slowdown vicariously lived out on Instagram, Tik Tok, and Twitter as much as the mainstream media, which makes it like no previous global crisis. The following list does not dwell on the many negative aspects of the crisis, referenced several times in these papers—not because I’m ignoring them; it’s just that, as Steven Pinker suggests, they’re covered in depth elsewhere.

  • The airline industry is almost defunct within a month, as millions of trips are cancelled. That, in turn, makes hundreds of new airport projects even harder to justify than they already were. And those clear skies also clean the air, reduce carbon emissions, eliminate noise pollution. Polluting road traffic is way down too.
  • These shifts in mobility make the necessary neighbourhood walks even more pleasant. It is likely people are walking more than they have for decades. Bikes are coming out of garages. This rediscovery of peoples’ immediate environments, on foot or on bike, could suggest an increased engagement with local ecosystems. Wildlife is returning to cities.
  • People are looking at their garden, or apartment courtyard, and wondering about planting food there. In fact, sales of seeds are up 40% in many places. As are sales of live chickens, apparently.
  • We realise we can maintain aspects of a global community remotely, with many calling disparate friends and family more than ever.
  • Many workers have figured out that they can work from home perfectly well, and perhaps might keep that habit for one or two days per week. Less privileged workers are laid off, or still having to go to work in person.
  • These potentially radical changes in working patterns are also being mirrored in a rapid shift to distance learning, from schools to universities to life-long learning—again, for both local and global communities. Aspects of this reorganisation may well continue post-corona, as we A/B test what works best physically versus digitally.
  • Panic buying happened, but not as much as people think. According to Instagram, everyone is baking bread. According to sales figures, they’re not. But there is more happening than before. We’re seeing quick changes in food systems, particularly at the consumer end, which may well ripple through to longer-term changes in food production and agriculture.
  • There is some form of reduction in personal consumption, or consumerism for short. The consumption that is happening is displaced to online delivery, though with something of increase in local goods and services, at the expense of global products (see later for a reference for this).
  • Neighbours are talking to neighbours, checking in on each other. (I’ve talked to our neighbours more in the last three weeks more than I have in the previous twelve months, which doesn’t reflect well.) There have been daily rounds of applause for the efforts of health workers.
  • We are realising healthcare might need to be in smaller chunks physically, super-local and well-distributed, and supported by digital services. Other infrastructures might follow that pattern. We are also realising what state our public health systems are in, generally.
  • There’s also a clear reliance on expertise, and especially science-based knowledge. Broadly speaking, communities are making everyday decisions, based on recommendations from scientists and other experts about systemic challenges, which could also be a continued pattern (with trust tied directly to their performance, of course.)
  • There’s an implicit, though quite clear, reliance on the state, and with a reliance on people from the state, as well as citizens’ reliance on each other at the local community scale (This is the three-way model described previously for Sweden; when it works, like a benevolent version of the standoff at the end of Reservoir Dogs.)
  • Some industries are switching their production, at least temporarily, such as manufacturers switching from cars to medical supplies, or airline workers being retrained as care workers. There has been huge economic impact, and so countries are discovering the state of their welfare ‘safety nets’. There are discussions of essential products, services and infrastructures.
  • There’s an increasing awareness, or at least discussion, that essential infrastructures and shared ‘basic’ services can, and perhaps should, be covered by the state or other public institutions, whilst an increasing appreciation of what community-level organisation can also achieve.

These all seem like small things indeed, in the context of front-line healthworkers and those suffering or dying from the virus. Nor does it represent those cities in parts of the world where few front-line healthworkers are available in the first place, and through which the virus will sweep through, literally like the plague. We can also ask critically how many of these patterns will continue (the singing from Italian balconies has already stopped, though that does not negate the glorious fact that it existed in the first place.) We also know many terrible things, large and small, are happening, from domestic violence to state surveillance.

And of course our general discourse is full of negative verbs: infecting, dying, failing, collapsing, exploiting, warning, chastising and so on, quite appropriate to a crisis.

But look also at the positive verbs associated with those ‘small things’. A vast term extraction project springs to mind, scraping the verbs from the torrent of mass and social media being produced right now. More instinctively, however, the verbs that are also in the air would include: caring, healing, cooking, gardening, baking, preserving, sharing, talking, listening, learning, teaching, walking, making … They describe a quite different world to that of January 2020.

“These simple gestures can bind the world together — throwing threads of love here and there, ultimately connecting us all — so that when we do emerge from this moment we are unified by compassion, humility and a greater dignity. Perhaps, we will also see the world through different eyes, with an awakened reverence for the wondrous thing that it is. This could, indeed, be the truest creative work of all.” — Nick Cave

When we get past the curves, we have another green world within reach, where many of these sudden adjustments could become habits, rituals and lifestyles.

Yet, as a result of this sudden handbrake, we also in a better position to understand what can’t be done in super-local mode. The A/B test suggests we could make active choices about the opposite of this localism, too, whether that’s balancing long-distance travel with video calls, yet in a way that keeps us within planetary boundaries. Or rebalancing the food system towards that which grows within your biome under resilient diverse farming practices, whilst importing true delicacies, or essentials that don’t grow seasonally, from overseas. Or understanding that much work can be done out of the office, offset in time and space, whilst revelling in the patterns of activity that do happen best face-to-face and in intense physical proximity, whether a gig, a design studio, or skolstrejk. Or taking part in your kids’ education, and thus realising that children have always spent more time out of school than in it, which may prompt different forms of school-based education to emerge as a result (listen to Tara Westover on Talking Politics on this.)

Crisis means decision-making. The questions and observations above are intended to prompt these broader thoughts as to what might be happening, and what could happen. In an A/B test, what would World B look and feel like? We should not dwell too much on the likelihood of it at this point, or get into detailed discussions about how it could work — it’s both too early, and inappropriate, to do that. But we should try to grasp and taste the essence of it. So what kind of second-order impacts could we enable, in the curves beyond the curve?

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 immediately creates a (partly) 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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: