My efforts to document city change over the past several years can suggest this pandemic season does not look much different than what came before. These images are a lesson learned. Any “new normal” must go deeper than dining outside in public space (visible above in 2008 in Italy), more bike lanes, public art, or other band-aids that mask the challenges of a longer view.
Last week, my friend Tim Williams (currently Cities Leader for Arup Australasia) asked on LinkedIn, “who decided ‘the new normal?’ Was I out of the room when the vote was taken?” My answer is we all are deciding as we go as part of a collective emergence from lockdown. We all get to be post-COVID philosophers, and we should not squander the opportunity to think broadly about what comes next for an interconnected world.
Tim is one such very affable philosopher, with a distinguished career in the United Kingdom before a good run as Chief Executive of the Committee for Sydney. He asks tough and thoughtful questions about transport and housing (wisely mixed with stories of his native Wales). I tout Tim as a breath of fresh air in a time of dogma, where trends already underway have been accelerated by the shocking pause to what was customary just two months ago.
Many others have focused on repetitive standard fare, without much reflection, or a longer view. They tout the coming cities of plexiglass dividers, predicting a new age that is defined by ongoing Zoom interactions, walkable six-foot bubbles along paths reclaimed from streets, soon-to-be permanent home offices, bike commutes, and the final death of high streets to insolvency and the evil Amazon. Or, say the contrarians, maybe cars are suddenly safer than masks? Maybe the suburban exodus will begin anew? Maybe temperature sensors will bar our entry to buildings and countries if we register above 98.6?
For urban designers and tactical urbanists, this period of emergence has become a focused frenzy of professional opportunity, a time of marketing, and “stuff-strutting.” Competition for the same messaging is somewhat excusable; locked-down professionals must beckon clients, inventing countless opportunities to attend free webinars about, for example, the scope of the pandemic’s impacts on public space, or retrofitting streets for physically distant walkers and cyclists.
Eminent sociologist Richard Sennett recently shed light on what I think is really at issue, the general human response to sudden, panic-laden events versus the longer-term societal challenges accelerated by a temporary crisis. Ironically, without critical thinking, obsession with advisories and regulations meant to control the pandemic may limit creative solutions beyond the crisis. Sennett suggests that the media has fomented panic and fear without distinguishing the impacts limited to COVID-19 from ongoing challenges–those that will survive the exhaustion of the coronavirus by a vaccine or other means.
One such challenge is how to offset the social isolation of those who live alone, especially the elderly. Another is how to assure urban density that is safe from a public health perspective, and continue to offset impacts of climate change by allowing people to live where they work, or to use safe public transport for their commutes. He calls for a sense of community, encouraged by architecture which fosters a sense of togetherness, even if from a physical distance aided by a more benevolent use of technology.
Ultimately, Sennett frames a unity of green, health and equity:
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
Sennett is right. It’s time to go beyond things we could see before the pandemic arrived. As Tim Williams implies, the “new normal” is not yet defined.