For many, the pandemic has been a catalyst to compare the urban life that was to what it now seems to be. Yet, that is not an easy task, because in a world of moving targets, balancing priorities, and mixed messages of fact and emotion, each day’s news has a new gloss. For me, during two months of renewed writing, one conclusion has remained constant: when we write about cities, sometimes it is helpful to take the metrics away.

San Francisco, 2011

Almost 10 years ago, amid a visit to San Francisco and just back from Africa, I offered some thoughts about cities as the stage-sets of intangible socio-cultural phenomena.  

That short piece was one of the first times I explained why we write about and photograph cities worldwide. Then, as now, I concluded that, in combination with numbers, qualitative inputs contribute to an understanding of cities amid an economic boom, or bust, a political revolution, or while facing or remembering the challenge of reconstruction. I now add the repercussions of a pandemic that is evolving at different stages from place to place. Further, as David Brooks recently implied in his summary of America’s current five crises, we are, in effect, trying to understand and address all of these things at once.

While data and catch-phrases are important, so are tangible examples of where people live, the justice and injustice in their lives, and propositions about how places differ from one another.

In ordinary times, witness the frustrated commuter complain when transportation modes conflict. To the war on cars, now add a battle against public transport passengers who do not wear masks. Similarly, outside of a pandemic, people will earnestly talk about neighborhood safety, a sense of economic well-being, or concerns about a child’s education. Now, even more so.

The fundamental reason that successful cities resonate is that they are the venues that ideally address or complement some very basic human needs, often related to mental and physical health: congregation, safety, and the four “e’s” of equity, education, environment, and economy. In our policy and regulatory discussion of such urban settings, discussion of these core needs is now even more critical.

In such settings, qualitative and interactive experiences and comparison can be more important than documenting rates of disease, carbon emissions, census data, rankings, or ratings. Only after acknowledging the fundamentals—and pausing to watch and listen— are we qualified to address the perennial balance of who gets and who pays.

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