Has the pandemic changed cities forever?

survival of the city
Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation
by Edward Glaser and David Cutler

For those of us who measure status through the vitality of the world’s largest cities, the past year and a half has been challenging. The coronavirus changed the rhythm and diversity of street life by urbanites like Jane Jacobs into something else entirely: social distancing that turned neighbors into strangers, wealthy avenue blocks in rural areas devoid of second homes and office workers in commercial districts Lost from flight. Any perception of the city as a democratic force fell almost overnight, as the shift to remote work separated – and protected – those who could work at home from essential workers who could not.

Then, who better to tackle the question of how and how cities can emerge from the current turmoil than a well-known proponent of urban density and an expert in public health? Edward Glaser and David Cutler’s new book, “Survival of the City: Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation,” weaves together the reflections of these two Harvard economists—one Democrat and the other Republican—with an aspiration to address what in the agenda. sickens our largest cities or, as the authors refer to them, “monsters” that are “with density”. Written in the midst of a pandemic whose end is not yet in sight, the book explains why cities and their economies were so vulnerable to COVID-19, and a way to address vast inequalities in health and economic mobility. The blueprint presents the events that made headlines over the past year.

Despite the “Age of Isolation” in the subtitle, the authors note early on that the book is not about disease but about the problems that can come with “urban scale and proximity”. They divide these into two distinct parts: the mental and physical health of city residents, which include obesity, drug dependence, and a lack of clean water; and issues of wider social and economic welfare, such as education, crime and housing. People like me hoping for a focused package of predictions about the size and implications of the recovery from the pandemic will find something a whole lot more detailed and entertaining.

The first volume of “Survival of the City” tries to put COVID-19 in its historical context. Along with a lack of general sentimentality for their profession, the economist-writer points out that society has historically been resilient to infectious disease. They show that economies have at times been strengthened by widespread fatalities: for example, the bubonic plague wiped out about a third of Europe’s population, but led to prosperity as those who grew, wages increased and gross Domestic product nations and city-states (were they to be counted then) recorded dramatic gains. The Athenian plague wiped out Pericles and tens of thousands of Athenians, but not only Athens. In our own day and age, we have cholera outbreaks in New York and London to thank for the massive public health advances of the 19th century – like sewers and clean water.

These medical time travel teaches us that tackling infectious disease transmission requires two things: medical expertise and “effective” government. Among the most successful regimes the authors highlight are Dubrovnik (then Ragusa), whose timely restrictions on commerce limited the damage of the Black Plague compared to other cities, and Venice, whose pioneering quarantine measures exiled the sick to the island of Lazaretto. saw. Neither city-state would, by today’s measures, be considered a democracy, leading one to wonder how a more “effective” government in a democratic setting could translate into anything other than a more powerful government – ​​a concept altogether. Contrary to the notion of individual liberty which is the basis of much of today’s partisan politics. One needs to look no further than the plight of the world’s richest nation, the United States, which is at times producing effectively enough vaccine to protect its population, but not enough citizens to defeat COVID-19. Unable to persuade to use it.

The discussion that follows about the American health system is a grim one – drawing a gap between its ability to care for the individual and its failure to protect the population as a whole. As the authors point out, the United States spends more on health care than any other country, yet is the only developed country in the world without universal health insurance. The private provision of health services designed to treat rather than preventive care has left millions of Americans more vulnerable to infectious diseases than citizens of countries with national health services such as the UK, and arguably less accepted vaccination – where all Of adults, 90 percent have received at least the first shot of the vaccine.

The second part of the book tackles chronic economic and social issues affecting urban areas – primarily affordable housing, education and crime. Here the authors criticize Glaser’s acclaimed 2011 book “Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier” addressed explicitly—acknowledging that the wealthy and The shaky gulf between the poor (described in the new book as “insiders and outsiders”) has widened in the decade since that book was written. In chapters devoted to social issues such as the future of downtown, remote work, housing and education, and crime, the authors offer a menu of ideas for getting Americans back on the road to urban economic well-being.

To a professor and practitioner of urban planning like me, some of Glaser and Cutler’s ideas are more rooted than others. The authors are appropriately optimistic that downtowns will once again rebound and flourish: remote work may shrink the market for commercial office space, but not the city’s allure for the young and active. Glaser and Cutler see gentrification as a general step in the development of city neighborhoods, instead aiming at the limits of density – particularly in the affluent suburbs surrounding the city, where land-use regulations limit development. and drive housing prices beyond the reach of those who most need the services that cities provide. As a counterpoint to the notion in times of infectious disease, the authors see greater density as a key to ensuring our cities survive as channels of mobility for outsiders.

If there is one weak link in this fast-paced and highly readable journey through the challenges facing America’s cities, it is the inevitable gulf between ideas and implementation, which the authors themselves recognize at points. Some proposals are as simple as reducing land use regulation, which can be done unilaterally by a committed municipality; Ideas such as a new multinational entity to fight infectious disease threats, greater support for sanitation in the world’s poorest cities, and defining and implementing “better” policing are simple concepts, but complex alignments of myriad domestic and global actors. require and thus is unlikely to be realized anytime soon.

Solutions aside, the book serves as a useful tool in an effort to redefine the role of the city in an era of increasingly polarized politics, and remind us that there is urban health – as Fiorello La Guardia wrote in a Bar had commented about cleaning the streets – not a Democratic or Republican issue.

Nor, may I add, is this specifically a big city issue. I’d also love to see this book briefly look at the future of America’s second and third tier cities—some of which have enjoyed the strong demand for real estate that has driven the tax base of Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York. Even before the pandemic, places like Pittsburgh, Detroit and Providence were attracting new residents with lower living costs and more affordable housing. Today, with remote work becoming mainstream, opportunities to find home-work balance in smaller, more affordable spaces are growing rapidly – ​​underscoring a population change that works against our largest cities but makes for a happier, healthier nation. And can lead to a green way of living. whole. If we’ve learned nothing else from the Donald Trump era, it’s that our biggest, bluest urban centers — and the great challenges they face — shouldn’t be the only lens through which we view America’s future.

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