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How Coronavirus Will Change City Life

A man wearing a mask tries to catch a taxi at Times Square amid the Covid-19 pandemic on April 30, 2020 in New York City. (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
A man wearing a mask tries to catch a taxi at Times Square amid the Covid-19 pandemic on April 30, 2020 in New York City. (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

This broadcast originally aired on May 6, 2020.

Past pandemics changed the way of life in cities around the world. We look at how city features were inspired by history’s worst disease outbreaks.


Brian Melican, journalist, author and translator. (@melican)

Kimberly Dowdell, architect and principal at HOK, a global design, architecture, engineering and urban planning firm. National president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA). (@knd7)

From The Reading List

New Statesman: “A tale of three cities: the places transformed by pandemics across history” — “At first sight, it might appear an odd undertaking to search for emblematic places in a pandemic. The defining feature of one, after all, is that its effects are felt everywhere. Yet pandemics do have places; places that they hit the hardest, places in which they leave the deepest marks and – encouragingly – places in which they are eventually mastered. Our journey begins in Marseille, which in 1720 suffered Europe’s last major outbreak in what was the worst and longest-ever pandemic to befall humanity: the second plague.”

Infectious Diseases at the Edward Worth Library: “Case Study: Plague at Marseilles 1720” — “This account of the advent and course of plague at Marseilles in 1720 highlights the full impact of plague on this prosperous city, the most important port of France. It likewise echoes many of the elements known from plague epidemics elsewhere in Europe in the medieval and early modern period.”

New Statesman: “How the coronavirus crisis echoes Europe’s 19th-century cholera pandemic” — “As the world struggles to come to terms with coronavirus and think about its possible consequences, not least in the long term, we might ask whether there are any lessons or warnings we can take from the previous history of pandemics. Infections such as the Black Death of the 14th century are so distant in time that it’s hard to find parallels with the present. There have been very few visitations of mass epidemics on modern societies, on capitalist economies in which most people are engaged in waged labour, and on political systems dominated by political parties and elected administrations.”

Foreign Policy: “How Life in Our Cities Will Look After the Coronavirus Pandemic” — “Cities are at the center of this pandemic, as they have been during so many plagues in history. The virus originated in a crowded city in central China. It spread between cities and has taken the most lives in cities. New York has become the world’s saddest, most dismal viral hotspot.”

The Economist: “Perspectives: Covid-19 might not change cities as much as previous pandemics” — “Apart from the occasional wailing siren, New York City is eerily quiet—so quiet that you may be woken by birdsong, says Beatriz Colomina, an architectural historian. The city looks different, too. Pedestrians have taken to the roads, which are almost empty of moving cars. Those widely spaced walkers can look up and see things that they missed before. For Ms Colomina, it is an ideal time to appreciate buildings.”

New York Times: “Can City Life Survive Coronavirus?” — “It’s becoming harder by the hour to find the new normal. We need each other in a crisis like this, but we rightly fear congestion. France and Spain have ordered all cafes and restaurants shut down. In New York, it’s the same, with museums and Broadway theaters on hiatus. Mosques have closed in several countries, churches have canceled masses, and the pope prohibited the public from Holy Week celebrations.”

The Guardian: “Cities after coronavirus: how Covid-19 could radically alter urban life” — “Victoria Embankment, which runs for a mile and a quarter along the River Thames, is many people’s idea of quintessential London. Some of the earliest postcards sent in Britain depicted its broad promenades and resplendent gardens. The Metropolitan Board of Works, which oversaw its construction, hailed it as an ‘appropriate, and appropriately civilised, cityscape for a prosperous commercial society.'”

BBC: “How do you build a city for a pandemic?” — “The pandemic has turned the world outside our doorsteps into a newly formed wilderness. Public spaces are now areas to be ventured into sparingly, except by essential workers, so for most of us our worlds have shrunk to the size of our homes.”

WIRED: “The Pandemic Could Be an Opportunity to Remake Cities” — “Last Tuesday, a Gemballa Mirage GT barrelled into a series of parked cars on a Manhattan street. The driver fled and was arrested. And for a moment, New York seemed almost normal, free of the quiet that has ruled the city for three weeks, since residents were ordered to shelter in place to corral the spread of the novel coronavirus.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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