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Did past pandemics change the urban fabric? Yes

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Bicycle paths, pedestrian walkways, street terraces: are these changes temporary or will the coronavirus pandemic change the face of cities for good? The Rumour Detector examined how past pandemics influenced urban planning.  
Cleaner cities 

Past epidemics influenced the development of great metropolises. Historians even attribute the emergence of the science of urban planning to the infectious diseases  of the past two centuries. 

It took a long time before scientists understood that these diseases were transmitted by microbes invisible to the naked eye. But the measures to purify what was then called “bad air” (“miasmas”) still had impacts. The 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia gave birth to that city’s waterworks services. It gave the public access to drinking water and rid the streets of garbage, mud and excrement. London implemented the 19th century’s best sanitary facilities, including its sewer system, after being ravaged by cholera. In the same period, the new city of Toronto gave itself powers to build sidewalks so that its citizens no longer had to walk in muddy streets. Paris also built sidewalks and moved the gutters to the side of the street, away from the centre. Urban designers would prefer orthogonal grids. Long straight lines make it easier to supply water and evacuate waste. They also prevent wastewater from accumulating or stagnating.  

In New York, around the middle of the 19th century, cholera and malaria pushed the city to implement better public transportation and impose residential construction by-laws. This phenomenon accelerated with tuberculosis in the early 20th century. The rural exodus and the rapid growth of the number of factory workers led to overcrowded housing. Along with poor ventilation, this favoured disease transmission. New York’s architecture would continue to be shaped by the response. The presence of indoor courtyards and ventilation shafts changed the appearance of many neighbourhoods. 

Greener cities 

The idea of “bad air” carrying diseases was incomplete. But it drove cities to also put the emphasis on creating parks and green spaces. In New York and Boston, large spaces like Central Park were intended to be the “lungs of the city”, where residents could breathe “clean” air. These parks also contributed to make cities healthier because they were designed adequately: well-drained land, non-stagnant watercourses, and sanitary facilities. One of the great architects of these parks, Frederick Law Olmsted, also served as a member of the United State Sanitary Commission for two years. These parks also gained popularity when tuberculosis struck the United States in the early 20th century. That’s because the recommended treatment included fresh air and sunlight. 

In Paris, the construction of wide boulevards after the cholera epidemic was also a public health measure conceived to “air” the city. 

What about the future? 

There’s no guarantee that the current pandemic will trigger as many changes as those of the past. Certainly, in response to the current health crisis, some cities have promoted active modes of transportation. They have widened bicycle paths, closed streets to cars or developed more outdoor living environments. Vienna built a “social distancing park”.  But it’s too soon to know if these initiatives will be fleeting or lasting.  

The crisis also put the focus on the importance of buying locally and on food independence. Cities like Singapore want to encourage urban agriculture. The crisis could also represent an opportunity to integrate climate actions into urban planning. For some cities, the brief slowdown of the real estate market could have been an opportunity to accelerate the purchase of land for construction of social and affordable housing. Finally, because city dwellers are working more from home, some architects are already considering how to rethink urban infrastructures to promote a more local lifestyle

Some of these ideas had been in the air for a long time, but the pandemic gave them a new life. For example, the coronavirus statistics suggest that transmission isn’t facilitated so much by urban density as by overcrowded housing. The most vulnerable cities (or rural communities) continue to be those with limited access to water and sanitary facilities.  

Finally, biology teaches us that urban sprawl, by encroaching on natural environments, contributes to diseases jumping between species

This article was originally published on the website of L'Agence Science-Presse (French only).


Photo: The vision of architect Vincent Callebaut / SmartCitiesWorld


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