The fields of architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, and city planning have seized on the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to speculate about what it bodes for cities and for designing their future. While there is an understandable urgency to act immediately, it will first be necessary to understand what the current crisis truly means for cities.
Deeper reflection and more serious consideration can lead to a much-needed new story about cities that better grasps the complex reality of the pandemic and its repercussions. The new narrative will better understand the histories and geographies of cities and how they are an integral part of nature. And it will understand the pandemic as part of social, economic, and political relationships—that is, urban ecologies—rather than only as a biomedical phenomenon to be managed by biomedical experts.
This new story will also consider the power of cooperation and mutual aid as rife with potential. This capacity has allowed cities of the past to play vital roles in pandemics, especially during the period of recovery. Cooperatives and other mutual-aid organizations have been key community-based actors in responding to previous public health epidemics such as AIDS (e.g., in Swaziland, Vietnam), as well as other crisis recovery initiatives, such as reconstruction efforts after natural disasters (e.g., in Japan, Australia) and in postconflict settings (e.g., in Sri Lanka, Rwanda).
Another example of building solidarity in cities is an effort that I led to better grasp, confront, and mitigate urban inequality and gentrification. My colleagues and graduate students at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom developed collaborative (rather than competitive) methods for transforming urban environments. Working with community and political leaders, we created design strategies that incorporated community land trusts, cooperative housing, transit corridors, and public pavilions with the goal of building a more equitable city.
Other efforts to transform cities have been underway worldwide for decades. For example, as private, profit-driven housing projects have failed, there has been a movement to develop more collaborative housing models that incorporate community land trusts and housing cooperatives. These models are meant to ensure long-term affordability and to foster community through shared spaces such as community gardens and community kitchens. Experiments are also occurring at the intersection of public health and urbanism, such as meeting the increased need for public spaces that encourage people to walk and bicycle and provide them with fresh air on a regular basis.
Artist-activists are meanwhile harnessing their creativity and visual skills to produce public art that is participatory and emancipatory, as citizens rediscover their identities and reconnect to their sense of place in a rapidly changing world. For example, the American artist Theaster Gates created the Rebuild Foundation in Chicago, providing a platform for art, cultural development, and neighborhood transformation. Its projects support artists and strengthen communities by providing free arts programming; creating new cultural amenities; and developing affordable housing, studios, and live-work spaces.
A particularly potent source of ideas that are often left out of mainstream policy discourse are the cities of the global south. This region contains the vast majority of the world’s population, and its cities are the world’s oldest, largest, and fastest growing. Without romanticizing the very real challenges of persistent poverty and resource constraints in the global south, one can learn from its cities’ successes and adapt accordingly. For example, several decades ago the city of Curitiba, in Brazil, pioneered a number of urban innovations, including devoting more streets to pedestrians rather than cars; introducing public buses that are faster, carry more people, and are affordable; implementing a widely used recycling program that uses food as an incentive for users; and introducing many new urban parks.
Moving ahead, we must focus on a much more multifaceted and sensitive approach to urbanism, one that will feature democratic processes and equitable systems, and in which lower-income communities will have a basic human right to effective public transit, a multitude of parks, well-designed affordable housing, and access to health care facilities. There are countless examples worldwide where marginalized groups have taken it upon themselves to initiate real change, sometimes in partnership with governments and private investors, and sometimes in opposition to them. Ultimately, designing a future of cities beyond COVID-19 will require both a deep understanding of how cities actually work and an attitude of compassion toward their citizens and the vast potential they represent.