Historically, pandemics have changed the way cities are built from the yellow fever and cholera outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793 to polio in New York during the mid-1900s. Both infectious diseases circulated because of zero to minimal sanitization practices within cities, as municipal garbage services had yet to be implemented, and germ theory had yet to be discovered. To combat yellow fever, the mayor of Philadelphia authorized emergency funding to clean city gutters and remove garbage that had piled up over the years in the streets. This simple urban planning initiative created alleyways in the cities to allow residences and business owners to place garbage to be picked up for removal. Urban development has played a massive role in resolving pandemics in the past and COVID-19 illuminates new obstacles for city planners. Specifically, to rethink cities for another emergency, the environmental crisis.
Cholera, a waterborne disease, swept over the U.S., during the 1850s, through contaminated water, which forced public health and urban planning to collaborate and enforce regulations through New York City’s Board of Health. NYC’s Board of Health developed the first public park in the nation with the hypothesis that open urban spaces can improve human and environmental health. This development led to the creation of Central Park which housed reservoirs to deliver fresh and clean water for the growing city from the U.S.’s first great aqueducts. After this, NYC’s first housing development was planned when more funding was given to sewer and water lines. Residences were then planned around these lines to deliver clean water to homes to avoid contaminated water and the diseases resulting from it.
NYC’s development directive initiated the U.S.’s first citywide zoning code in 1916 to “ensure air and light could reach city streets”. Cities everywhere followed NYC’s patchwork by controlling and strategizing their land use, which helped to vanquish both waterborne pathogens, cholera and polio, by the mid-1900s. Philadelphia and NYC’s initiatives are great historic examples of how the circulation of infectious diseases is proven as “one of the reasons urban planning was first established as a practice” according to Future Cities Canada. With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting countries hard again through a second wave, “this time will be no different”.
How Do Cities Play A Role?
The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted cities and raised fundamental questions regarding sustainable and symbiotic urban development according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The pandemic’s multidimensional nature has left a lasting mark on city outlook, resulting in the rethinking of cities’ development through different dimensions. Although it can be hard to recognize, all aspects of social, cultural, economic and environmental settings build upon one another and play a critical role within cities. COVID-19 has shed light on how they interact with one another and their importance. Therefore, cities play a central role in responding to the ongoing pandemic.
COVID-19 has given cities the opportunity to transform in significant ways to “not only protect vulnerable people from immediate threats but also build resilience for the looming climate crisis and other emergencies” according to UNESCO. UNESCO stresses that the work in transforming cities should be guided by the Sustainable Development Goals, focusing on Goal 11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable”. Goal 11’s purpose is to help cities “rethink their urban policies to strengthen their risk preparedness and response capacity by making cities smarter and greener”.
Figure 2 Öberg, Björn. “On Why We Must Continue to Be Vocal on Affordable Housing”. (Image Source: The Fifth Estate).
The Fundamental Shift Within Infrastructure Upon the Climate Crisis (The Problem)
As much as COVID-19 has sharply disrupted our lives, it provides a unique and rare window to rethink urban development and how it shapes cities to become more resilient, inclusive, dynamic and greener for the future. Shayla Love from VICE NEWS explores issues within the current organization of cities and their resources in her article “Our Infrastructure is Being Built for a Climate That’s Already Gone”. Love understands that cities will soon be faced with a daunting problem: the environmental crisis. The environmental crisis provides a great challenge for urban planners and how they design cities for the future. Urban planners and engineers plan, design and build cities and infrastructure based on historic events that provide predictions for the future. This concept is called stationarity.
Stationarity is the notion that “statistically, the past can help you predict and plan for the future—that the variations in climate, water flow, temperature and storm severity have remained and will remain stationary, or constant”. Love highlights that “nearly all the infrastructure decisions with which we live have been made with the assumption of stationarity”. However, the issue is that we have changed the planet to such an extent from our CO2 emissions and other human activity that urban planners and engineers can no longer rely on past infrastructures, organizations, and frameworks to plan for the future.
Additionally, predicting the kind of infrastructure its size, the type of material it needs to be made of, and the “ kind of climate it needs to be able to withstand” has become impossible. Giulio Boccaletti, the Chief Strategy Officer and Global Ambassador of Water at The Nature Conservancy states that “when people say stationarity is dead they’re saying something pretty straightforward, which is [that] the past is no longer a good guide to the future” to put it simply. With COVID-19 disrupting our daily lives and the environmental crisis on the rise, we are seeing non-stationarity circumstances. Non-stationarity is when “we live in a world where there is no such thing as ‘normal’, where every new year comes rife with uncertainty and the threat of extremes we’ve never seen before. And stationarity cannot be revived” according to Love.
COVID-19 has shaken up the way we operate individually and has challenged society to collaborate. The effects of our collaboration to confine when the world came to a halt significantly impacted and benefited the environment. The first four months of 2020 saw a decrease in CO2 emission levels, which was the first time rates became close to the reductions required by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. We were faced with uncertainty and unpredictability and came together, so how can we join forces for the uncertainty of climate change? Experts stress building a resilient city to help fight (and survive) the climate crisis, as “we need to undergo an ideological shift in how we think about infrastructure and how it interacts with the environment”. Additionally, we need to discard the idea that history will dictate what we will need in the future, as the climate crisis will bring challenges we have yet to encounter. Instead, we must turn to an “adaptable and flexible version of infrastructure that embraces deep uncertainty”.
Figure 3 French, Hunter. “Our Infrastructure Is Being Built for a Climate That’s Already Gone”. (Image Source: VICE).
How COVID-19 Gave Cities Space to Rethink and Rebuild Resilient Cities (The Solution)
At the 2020 United Nations Urban Economy Forum, Dipkia Damerla, the Councillor of the City of Mississauga, Canada, stressed how greatly COVID-19 has impacted Ontario’s municipal governments. The municipal government’s main source of revenue is property taxes, yet COVID-19 forced Mississauga to defer individuals’ 2020 property taxes, make public transit free and close community centers. Although these factors helped property owners financially at the time, Damerla anticipates a total of 80 million dollars of lost revenue during the first COVID-19 wave. The loss of revenue will significantly impact the city’s ability to provide public services like policing, education and fire protection, which are funded through property taxes. Damerla understands that this is a major concern, as its effects are expected to echo at least throughout the next three years.
Prior to COVID-19, large office buildings made up a lump sum of property taxes, allowing housing property taxes to stay relatively low. The shift to working from home though, due to COVID-19, has emptied and closed these buildings, forcing the city to increase housing property taxes to make up for the lost revenue. This financial phenomenon was already visible in Calgary, as 31% of office buildings were empty even prior to COVID-19, forcing housing property tax to increase to make up for the losses. However, Damerla believes the 9–5 workday will not make a comeback, so these large empty buildings could provide unique opportunities to save public services, housing property tax and be a green initiative for rethinking urban planning.
Damerla recommends reorganizing the space and repurposing these empty buildings to support multiple industries. The buildings can be used as versatile locations for housing, social housing, educational resources, retail space, gyms, grocery stores, offices and clinics. Not only will this approach create space for essential and desirable services and keep property tax low, but the multi-talented organization will also help lower CO2 emissions, as fewer people would have to commute by automobiles.
Figure 4 Öberg, Björn. “A New Kind of Neighbourhood”. (Image Source: Björn Öberg Illustration).
Association Professor of Geography and Planning and Interim Director of Cities at the University of Toronto, Matti Siemiatycki, agrees with Damerla’s approach and stresses that urban planners cannot achieve this greener initiative alone and need government, private and public support and collaboration. Similarly, Siemiatycki sees Toronto as a great first step in turning spaces, such as empty office buildings, into “creative mixed-use buildings” with condos, social services offices, and commercial retail and public spaces. He understands that this initiative can assist cities to “move away from single-use automobiles as the only transportation,” as cities produce 70% of CO2 emissions, and the current commute habits are a large contributor. Siemiatycki is optimistic and believes these initiatives allow us to visualize more solutions between interlaced crises if we think as a group, collaborate effectively and act as partners in urban planning.
Recall how cities dealt with yellow fever, cholera and polio crisis by giving access to clean water and alleyways, historically proved urban planning is innovative, versatile and vital in sustaining healthy cities. Yet, a new crisis is on the rise where our current infrastructure will not be suitable in predicting and protecting cities for the challenges and events ahead of us. COVID-19 has imposed a different kind of crisis across the world but represents an opportunity to stop, reevaluate and reset our priorities for the rising environmental crisis. Although this article does not cover every aspect of rebuilding our cities for a greener future, it illuminates the need to rethink how urban development could be a massive turning point in creating one.