No doubt that urbanization has been a messy business. The rapid pace of development over the last couple of centuries has led directly to life-threatening conditions in a rush to mechanize every aspect of life. People were packed into camps to harvest forests of wood, mountains of granite, and every available mineral with trade value. For thousands of years, absolute command over the environment has been the central organizing force, from tribes roaming the prairies for fruits, grains, and meat to the construction of massive urban towers to sustain these endeavors across the globe. I am therefore comforted with the knowledge that it has only been fifty years since we noticed the mess and began efforts to make improvements.
Whenever infection has taken a life, it did it wherever people gather. In strict epidemiological terms, the more significant the diversity of people in a natural gathering area, the more likely the subtle protections of the human immune system will protect all. Concerning human medical history, this is relatively new data. Today, more people know the biology of DNA finds all humans to be identical. They are learning that physical differences are unique, beautiful, even exciting but fundamentally meaningless. In just the last few decades, this knowledge is filtering an entirely new value system into American culture and mostly in urban areas.
There is no stable connection between urban areas and coronavirus impacts. What is significant is how cities manage an infection with compact actions and resource preparedness. Dense cities such as Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore, and Berlin have contained COVID-19 very well. Where greater preparedness is needed, suburban cities such as Detroit, Michigan, Macon, Georgia, and New Orleans, Louisiana, suffer right alongside dense areas like New York City with a similar impact.
In past attempts to solve urban social problems, the focus has been on eliminating inhumane physical conditions, it also had a tendency to place blame on people trapped in them. The effort to uproot the causes of their plight and poverty was intellectually criminal because good people did little on the larger issue. The failure to criticize the social and economic order as a principle reason continues to this day. It was fully expressed by the inhumanity of two world wars. The enormous successes of the nonviolent anti-war revolution for civil rights through the end of the 20th century reveal the courage of ordinary people. It also exposed an increasingly reactionary American culture due to the mere tinkerings from the top down on the edges of greatly needed reform.
Only recently, has relief from the view of urban life as unhealthy begun to fade. Hundreds of new and exhilarating urban places found expression in cities like New York throughout the country. For decades the history of urban success builds on the city’s capacity to identify and resolve the causes of potential disorder. These causes can be intense or subtle actions, but all are well-studied and tightly defined by deeply funded social science institutions and economists. Leadership and the flow of information in urban areas through interagency communication efforts allow course corrections and rapid policy changes in response to community demand. While many of the city’s top leaders have been taught hard lessons over the years, they remain well served by the deep structure of nonprofit city-wide and community-based institutions throughout the city. Without this structure, the distribution of essential resources during a city-wide emergency of any kind would be impossible to deploy.
The deep structure of urban governance produces trust in its diagnostic capacity for defining problems and then acting to get solutions. The city has taken its lessons in neighborhood economic disinvestment to create new kinds of banking institutions. Other social innovations help purge deterioration in rental housing before it spreads or in the case of the city’s public housing stock expose the failure of city and federal commitments in exquisite detail. Most recently, the city has focused on the depth of its communications resources to slow the spread of a pandemic with efficiency. Holes in its safety net are recognized with laser-like first responder precision and with this exposure repaired with the substantial institutional depth the city can muster.
Public institutions produce solutions to attacks on the quality of life by helping us to understand in highly sophisticated ways how and why we attack one another. The lessons through decades of urban crisis at various levels of impact continue to reveal the need to prevent and respond dramatically to the “tragedy of the commons” problems. The shared commons of the city are easily recognized by residents as our public health, education, open space, and transportation systems. On this point, there are futures all dense urban areas must carefully evaluate in the aftermath of every crisis.
Public Health and Education
There is no doubt, improvements in human health and education systems occur by fully defining the health concerns produced by commonly used environments. With this responsibility, a deepening in our common understanding of the issues depends enormously on the quality of public education. Today the practice of investment in health and education is grounded in policies to eliminate inequality and build better pathways to equity. We know as an undisputed fact this eliminates a long list of the health and economic disparities in life for all people. We have benefited from previous generations who also demanded reform with a noble cause. Nevertheless, we also know that many of the actions for transformation failed by forcing displacement and rehousing few. In the last fifty years of the 20th century, attempts to demolish homes, cultures, and the economies of entire neighborhoods produced a valuable urban institutional resistance defined by two words, “never again,” but as political leaders (as all of us) admitted to errors and vulnerability, the entire city learned to accept a new kind of strength.
Parks, open spaces, and transportation networks of the urban public realm are assets of the reform movements and business interests of previous generations. The so-called ‘lungs of the city,’ expressed by an extensive park system, and tree-lined streets are also like the city transportation infrastructure. Neither is a static or unchanging system, and both desperately need to improve as a safe, seamless, and unfragmented component of urban life. The well-tended park reminds us of the self-cleaning capacity of nature, the same role for mass transit can occur with the same principles of self-protection.
The Way Forward
The COVID-19 crisis offers many opportunities for reflection on the importance of national moral leadership and responsiveness, but there are more pressing issues. First, this recent crisis brings to the world a second major challenge to the quality of life on earth. Second, the vast landscape of human knowledge is at our fingertips. Third, this should make us all reasonably pleased, and this is why.
The science of geology states with confidence that the earth is about halfway through its 18 to 20 billion-year life cycle. For all the analysis of all the other “x-ologies,” we value; this alone should give people good reasons to take a deep breath and reflect.
New pathways for the growth of humanity in cities we are building all over the earth for the next few thousand years are here today, waiting for continuous improvements. Long waterfront parks will expand urban resilience as each reaches to extend its pleasures in an unfragmented, linked urban park system from the hills of the wilderness into the valleys of every neighborhood. All the massive structures constructed by our forebearers for public education and health await reinvestment and re-invention as centers for learning. We can make them all cleaner, brighter, and more beautiful than ever before. For access to these exciting new resources, we will move with confidence onto the swift, super-clean, and revitalized mass-transit system. Every crisis tells us just one thing, we have more work to do.