When we think of modern urban planning, it tends to be focused on improving efficiency in where we live and work, and how we move from place to place. But it should also be about keeping us healthy. The concept is neither a knee-jerk reaction to COVID-19 nor some nod to corporate social responsibility and eco-friendliness. The fact is that trying to prevent and mitigate medical crises has long shaped how our cities have been designed and built.
Mumbai, India, one of the world’s most populous cities, began an important urban planning initiative in the late 1890s, after a horrific breakout of the bubonic plague. “The horrors of the plague prompted the most sustained period of state intervention in the affairs of the city,” wrote historian Rajnarayan Chandavarkar. According to Indian daily The Wire, after British colonial rule had produced overcrowded neighborhoods, a new building standard was put in place, focusing on light and air, “nature’s two great healing elements which everyone might have gratis ad libitum if public opinion insisted on every dwelling room having sufficient open space about it.”
Just a few decades earlier, Paris had battled with a bad bout of cholera that killed over 18,000 inhabitants. As Le Figaro notes, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the urban planner extraordinaire of The City of Lights, believed in airing out the city and bringing in more light by creating wide avenues like the Champs-Elysees and knocking down narrow, densely populated areas where outbreaks were common.
Across the Atlantic, in the early 20th century, polio and influenza epidemics prompted the first New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) projects to be built with an emphasis on “sunshine, space, and air.”
Today, our governments, planners and scientists know much more about the spread of disease than their predecessors. Yet much of their experience resonates with city life in the time of coronavirus. The Healthy Building Movement, a recent trend that originated before COVID-19, is proving even more promising in light of the pandemic, promoting the maximizing of natural light and airy spaces. Instead of simply knocking down slums, it advocates for better ventilation, which would improve health conditions in apartments, offices and hospitals.
Of course, the way people move is also at the center or urban planning — and social distancing is a particular challenge in the crowded spaces of public transportation, as Miguel Jurado notes in Buenos Aires daily Clarin. For the urban planner in 2020, this inevitably leads to new efficient infrastructure models and designs as more people choose to commute in their cars, or on bicycles. But now more than ever, health matters at least as much as efficiency.