The coronavirus has disrupted the most basic element of city life: coming together. The question now is, When social distancing is done and we’re allowed to go back outside, will we want to? In the history of cities, there’ve been moments where illness or the fear of it have helped drive people apart physically. And after 30 years in which higher density was the central ideal in city planning, there is a possibility that urbanism will start spinning outward once again.
Whether that happens will depend on how we think of cities and of public space. In truth, people can ride out COVID-19 just as well in downtown Montreal or Vancouver, with their excellent medical care, as in suburban or rural places. But do we believe that? Will some of us fear being around other people?
This isn’t a technical question; it’s a cultural one. Today our society is mostly suburban. Most North Americans live in places that are physically spread out, and need a car to comfortably cover the distances. But why do we prefer this? It has something to do with ideas of illness.
Disease was a real factor in shaping the physical form of cities. First, around 1900, came the concern for “overcrowding” among the poor in industrial cities. This began with outbreaks of airborne illnesses such as tuberculosis. Urban reformers and public officials, including those in the newly powerful field of public health, saw danger: big households living in dirty and crowded conditions.
“Today, we want to create social distance,” says Richard White, a historian of urban planning who teaches at the University of Toronto. “This is similar to what the health officers wanted in the 1890s, except they called it ‘reducing overcrowding.’“
Their ideas were based on the new science of germs, but also on pseudo-scientific and racist ideas about behaviour. In Toronto, the young William Lyon Mackenzie King wrote about the immigrant hub of St. John’s Ward for The Mail and Empire, The Globe’s predecessor. Speaking of a group of Syrian immigrants, he wrote in 1897, “The men are lazy and inclined to be dirty and quarrelsome.”
Being physically dirty and being morally compromised were the same thing. This kind of thinking was common, and it forms a dark prehistory of urban planning. “Slums” were part of the past. The 20th-century future was in modern buildings surrounded by light and air. Sometimes that meant social housing.
But more often it meant private housing in suburban neighbourhoods. Since the 1940s, the basic pitch of suburban housing has been that it offers plentiful green space, light and fresh air. This comes with a corollary: distance from other people.
These ideas are tricky to unpack, especially because they are now buried behind more polite language. As late as the 1970s, politicians used the term “blight” to describe urban problems. We don’t talk that way anymore, outside of talk radio, but the sense that the city is sick is still with us.
And now that idea might push us apart. We’re at a moment in Canadian urbanism when more of us are learning to enjoy living together. Urban density is ascendant. In our most expensive cities, we’re building more apartments than houses. The entire planning profession believes – or at least claims to – that we benefit from living closer together, in neighbourhoods with a mix of things within walking distance. For the climate, for more efficient public services, for better options, “dense urbanism is clearly superior,” White says.
City life – or the version of it that suburban cities such as Brampton, Ont., and Surrey, B.C., are trying to deliver – relies on shared space. It thrives on public transit, in busy parks and libraries, in bustling shops and crowded restaurants.
There will come a time when COVID-19 is under control, and when public health officials tell us it’s safe to go out again. But we’ll need to choose to do so.
If we don’t do that, the effects of the coronavirus could be with us for years and decades to come. The marks of the virus would be more highways and more houses, fenced off from each other and scattered apart, a landscape that’s alive but not entirely healthy.
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