How should we live? Density in post-pandemic cities

Considering the impact of the pandemic on city life, Richard Sennett raises caution about the authoritarian control and social isolation “that might outlast it”, and challenges us to re-examine the architecture of density. From Domus 1046.

This article was originally published on Domus 1046, May issue.

In Homo Sacer, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes of the repression which occurs when a state of exception exists; people’s lives are reduced to a biological minimum, as in the Nazi concentration camps. But this reduction can persist once the exceptional conditions pass. The sociologist Alain Touraine long ago showed how wartime conditions legitimated state regulation of people’s lives, long after the end of World War II. Power structures exploit crises and use them to legitimate expanded control.

Panic allows this exploitation to take place. Few younger people in rich countries today have the experience of military discipline whose guiding principle was that soldiers keep their heads under fire; panic in a war zone almost guarantees getting killed. But the media today are drunk on panic, representing the extremes of illness and death as an inevitable fate. When good news appears, as in the Chinese diminution of the disease, it is no longer equal in the media to the excitement of comparing the pandemic to the Black Death of the 14th century – absurd but the comparison excites. In this way, media power serves the state in its normalising project. I’m not at all minimising the present pandemic, just saying that it has to be addressed without panicking, and that it presents an “opportunity”, if that is the right word, for exploitation.

This is the just the prospect cities face today: rules of control over cities will outlast the pandemic. In particular, rules regulating public space, dictating social distance, dispersing crowds, will persist even after we have the medical means to suppress the disease. We have a near historic reminder. After 9/11 regulation restricting public gatherings, controlling access to buildings, and the specification of how bombproof buildings should be constructed, stayed on the statute books. “Social distancing”, which is necessary during the current crisis, threatens to become a norm enforced by the government even after people, thanks to an effective vaccine, no longer have a compelling reason to fear proximity to others.

Concentration of people is also a good ecological principle in dealing with climate change, by saving on infrastructure resources

The pandemic challenges us to think about issues in the city, however, which will outlast it. The first of these is social isolation, the grim cousin of social distancing. The pandemic – particularly in Europe, where I’m writing from London – has raised in people’s minds the problem of how to deal with the large number of elderly people living alone. In London, 40 per cent of the elderly live alone, in Paris 68 per cent. They are already experiencing social distancing; loneliness does nothing positive for either their physical or their mental health. Governments, in my judgement, are incapable of writing laws that overcome the loneliness which the imposition of social distancing creates. This is a challenge instead for urban civil society, one for which we are going to need new concepts of community.

The pandemic also challenges urbanists to rethink the architecture of density. Density is the rationale for cities; concentration of activities in a city stimulates economic activity, e.g. the “agglomeration effect”. Concentration of people is also a good ecological principle in dealing with climate change, by saving on infrastructure resources. It is also a good thing socially, people being exposed to others unlike themselves in a densely diverse city. Yet to prevent or inhibit future pandemics, we may need to find different physical forms for density, permitting people to communicate, to see neighbours, to participate in street life even as they temporarily separate. Chinese urbanists long ago found such a flexible form in the shikumen courtyard; architects and planners need to find its contemporary equivalent.

A more challenging issue for density is transport. The benefits of public transport consist of efficiently massing numbers of riders together, but that isn’t a healthy form of densification. Thus, planners in Paris and Bogota are exploring so-called “15-minute cities” in which people can walk or cycle to dense nodes in the city, rather than travel mechanically to dense centres. But it would require an economic revolution to bring this about – especially in developing cities in which factories are located, as in Bogota, far from the barrios and informal settlements where workers live.

This is a time to fear the opportunity the pandemic offers the ruling powers, to reject the theatre of panic staged in the media, to find ways to counter the widening gap between a safe middle class and an exposed working class

This flags up a big issue: how to reconcile and integrate the healthy city with the green city. There are some obvious smallgrain meeting points – such as figuring out ways the poor do not have to burn garbage, and so contribute to pollution – but the larger relation between healthy and green requires us to do a radical rethink about density.

The pandemic is, in my view, a natural experiment in class inequality. Work which people can do at home is largely middle-class labour, whereas you cannot do garbage collection, plumbing or other manual service work online. If the current pandemic leaves a lasting trace in the world of work, I fear it will be one of widening the gap between manual and mental labour, with the working class more likely to be exposed to potentially unhealthy conditions.

That said, the pandemic might on the other hand humanise the use of technology in cities. The “smart city” models of a generation ago were all about regulation and control – the state online. What’s emerging in this pandemic, however, are good programmes and protocols which create community. I’m particularly impressed in London by the number of mutual care networks which are spring- ing up in communities like mine, which is very diverse but without much of a community until now.

In sum, this is a time to fear the opportunity the pandemic offers the ruling powers, to reject the theatre of panic staged in the media, to find ways to counter the widening gap between a safe middle class and an exposed working class, to explore forms of diversity which could relate the green city and the healthy city, and to use technology to affirm the power of community in the city.

Richard Sennett is the Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and university professor of the Humanities at New York University. Sennett is known for his studies of social ties in cities, and the effects of urban living on individuals in the modern world. He currently serves as senior advisor to the United Nations on its Programme on Climate Change and Cities.

Opening image: detail of the Karl-Marx-Hof in Vienna, designed by Karl Ehn, 1927-1930, in a 2008 photo. An example of perimeter block housing, it accommodates 5,000 inhabitants and many communal services. Despite its density, the large courtyard encloses green spaces. Photo Viennaslide/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

Latest on Architecture

Latest on Domus

Read more
China Germany India Mexico, Central America and Caribbean Sri Lanka Korea icon-camera close icon-comments icon-down-sm icon-download icon-facebook icon-heart icon-heart icon-next-sm icon-next icon-pinterest icon-play icon-plus icon-prev-sm icon-prev Search icon-twitter icon-views icon-instagram