The City After the Pandemic

Originally published as ‘Will We Want To Go Back Into The Crowd?’, New York Times (5 May 2020)

Of all the media images that the Covid-19 crisis has generated in recent weeks, it is the city devoid of crowds that has perhaps been the most affecting. It doesn’t matter whether it’s New York, or Rome or London — it is the empty public space that most clearly signifies something is wrong. There ought to be crowds, and there aren’t. It is the classic horror movie trope. Closer to home, it is what most disturbs and compels us about contemporary Detroit — except we are all Detroiters now.

But the idea that cities ought to be crowded is really quite new. We’ve learned to like density in the Western world of late, but in cities like New York and London, the equation of the urban crowd with urban success has fluctuated, and its recent ascent is one of many oscillations. In New York, its recent history can be traced back to Jane Jacobs’s 1962 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” which made the then-incendiary argument that cities were, in effect, their public lives: What happened on the street corner was the city, and, crudely put, the more of it the better. Ms. Jacobs was a lonely voice at the time against the postwar trends toward urban decentralization and suburbanization, and for the human life of the neighborhood and its streets.

Things really got going, however, in the Catalan metropolis Barcelona, via politician-planner Oriol Bohigas. Between 1981 and 1987, under his guidance at the Office of Urban Projects, the city built or remade some 160 public spaces and filled them with people. Few Western urban leaders were unimpressed by the spectacle, especially when they saw its mature form at the 1992 Olympics. How attractive urban crowds could be! And how much money could be made when you gave them the space in which to eat and drink!

In “The Human Condition” Ms. Arendt wrote that the human world was the life lived in public, the “space of appearance” as she called it. In the hands of leftish advocates of public space, like the American sociologist Richard Sennett, that meant the literal return to pre-modern public spaces, with people living their whole lives in them. (Needless to say, architects loved all this. What better rationale for public architecture?)

Following the Barcelona example, public space became a defining part of the global city and urban crowds filling public spaces began to seem like both an economic and a moral good. “The Great Inversion,” the journalist Alan Ehrenhalt called it in 2013, a process whose architectural emblems were the spaces wherever a crowd might gather: the street corner, the public square, the park. What Mr. Ehrenhalt and others described was partly demographic, partly symbolic: People really were coming back to live in cities, but they also wanted to see and be seen in them.

But however much that process looks like common sense now, it was itself a reaction to the midcentury urban decline in the West. That process wasn’t all to do with Detroit-style industrial decay; it had just as much to do with a planned dispersal that was ultimately about the fear of urban disease in the 19th-century city. To understand that fear, there’s no better source than Friedrich Engels’s “The Condition of the Working Class in England,” published in German in 1845 and of extraordinary and durable influence worldwide. Its account of industrial Manchester was also an account of its sickness and, by proxy, its density. The city’s lightless, airless streets teeming with the poor became a figure of long-lasting architectural horror; so much of modernist planning was a reaction to places like it.

If density was disease for modernists, it followed that their cities were about keeping people apart. Look back at the utopian schemes for cities of the first half of the 20th century, and the same hygienic preoccupations come up again and again: There must be light and space and fresh air. The Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier wrote about these things in his book “Vers Une Architecture” (translated as “Towards a New Architecture”). Parts of the book read like comedy now — the author’s attempt to turn his own obsession with hygiene into an avant-garde manifesto. But it was serious when it was published in 1923, the Spanish flu pandemic having just run its course.

In his first venture into town planning, Le Corbusier designed the imaginary Ville Contemporaine, a city of vast empty spaces. My copy of his book “The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning,” published in 1929, has a perspective drawing of the Ville Contemporaine on the cover, showing in the foreground a sunlit cafe terrace looking out toward vast cruciform towers in parkland; it is all light and space and greenery, and apart from some tiny specks in the far background, entirely free of human beings. Its emptiness has been the source of endless critique; it has been cited as evidence of modernism’s moral bankruptcy in general, and Le Corbusier’s inhumanity in particular. But place it in its post-pandemic context, and it begins to look different.

The Ville Contemporaine inspired plenty of real-life experiments, and perhaps the most closely related is Bras lia, the modernist capital of Brazil, which turned 60 in April. The French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir complained of its “elegant monotony,” its lack of streets and crowds and anything resembling a traditional urban life on a grumpy visit in 1960. Her view set the tone for most subsequent perceptions of the place by outsiders. She was mostly right about the crowds; more space than building, the city is the opposite of what we have learned to expect. But it’s an important reminder that there are different ways of making an urban environment. The residential wings sit in lush parkland, and the life in these parts is airy and relaxed.

The dense city might not turn out to be responsible for the virus when all is said and done — but as it did a century ago in relation to the Spanish flu, it might well start to feel like a cause. After months of social distancing, are we going to want to go straight back into the crowd? Even if we are allowed to, I doubt it.

So what kinds of images are we going to make of our cities now? If we’re no longer dreaming of Venice’s Piazza San Marco (so packed in 2019 you were no longer permitted to sit down), what are we going to want? Might our love of the urban crowd take a break? Might our public spaces necessarily become quieter, more introverted, less social? Might we not more readily accept gaps and voids in our cities, and perhaps even start to value them? In a chastened, post-coronavirus world, images like the Ville Contemporaine or Brasília might really start to seem attractive again.

That fantasy has started to look like it has something to it now, doesn’t it? You can be part of the metropolis, but you can avoid physical proximity. You can see and be seen, while avoiding the closeness that has lately become so problematic. Social distancing? No problem. You’ll be lucky if you can get anywhere near your neighbors. And with all that space, you can do as much jogging as you want. It is of course by contemporary Western standards antisocial, even misanthropic. But if we’re going to have cities and the coronavirus, maybe the future is 1922, not 2022.

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