Densification, Social Distance and the City

And The City | Prima Abdullah

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At the time this article was written, most of the world was under a global quarantine, either self-imposed or mandated. It is hard to see how the future will be the same as before. Having the benefit of hindsight from past pandemics, we can characterize two outcomes to this current event. First, the social implication will be a permanent condition: the new normal, where we will have to rethink the shape of our society and its most slowly affected derivation, urban design. The second possible outcome might be no change, either because the pandemic is not significant enough, or the changes are already ongoing. In the second outcome, quarantine is merely a hindrance. We will look into two cases: the 1846 Broad Street cholera outbreak and the 1918 Spanish flu.

The paper will look into each pandemic and attempt to infer what outcome is most likely to happen for this current pandemic.

The London Cholera Outbreak

At the time of the outbreak, with limited knowledge of how diseases spread, the working theory was bad air pollution or miasmas. Is was only after one doctor, John Snow, investigated how all the sick were getting their water from a single pump that the prevailing theory was slowly replaced. The water pump turned out to have been contaminated by feces from surrounding residents.

In 1846, London had no city sewage system. All household waste was contained in individual buildings. Landlords hired night-soil men to empty overflowing cesspools.[1]

The Broad Street cholera outbreak was considered to push the improvement towards sanitation facilities and helped usher in revolved around density, capitalizing on the advantages of dense urban living while minimizing the dangers. The district crowded two hundred people per acre, more than Manhattan today– even with its skyscraper, which only housed 100 people per acre.

Today, we see density not as a possibility, but as a necessity. Fresh water supply, drainage, and wastewater systems, analogous to blood vessels found in an organism, allows cities to grow. The city sanitation that we take for granted today, was a response to the cholera outbreak.[2]

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[1] Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World, Riverhead Books, 2006.
[2] Johnson, Steven. “The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World”, New York, Riverhead Books. 2006.
[3] Valentine, Vikki. “Origins of the 1918 Pandemic: The Case for France”, NPR. February 20. 2006. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5222069
[4] Mamelund, Svenn-Erik. “Geography May Explain Adult Mortality from the 1918–20 Influenza Pandemic”, Epidemics Volume 3 issue 1, March 2011, pgs. 46-60.
[5] “In 1918 Flu Pandemic, Mortality in Urban and Isolated Rural Areas Varied”, Infection Control Today. April 27, 2011. https://www.infectioncontroltoday.com/infections/1918-flu-pandemic-mortality-urban-and-isolated-rural-areas-varied
[6] “In 1918 Flu Pandemic, Mortality in Urban and Isolated Rural Areas Varied”, Infection Control Today. April 27, 2011. https://www.infectioncontroltoday.com/infections/1918-flu-pandemic-mortality-urban-and-isolated-rural-areas-varied
[7] McNeill, William H. Plagues and People, New York: Anchor Press, 1976.
[8] Tanxi, Alexander, “New York City's Population Is Shrinking: Demographic Trends”, Bloomberg. April 18, 2019. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-04-18/new-york-city-s-population-is-shrinking-demographic-trends
[9] Belcher, Erica. “Here are five maps showing how London’s population is changing”, CityMetric. August 28, 2018. https://www.citymetric.com/politics/five-maps-showing-london-s-population-changing-demographics-languages-immigration-4154
[10] Tan, Theresa. “Fewer births, more deaths as Singapore population ages”, Straitstimes. July 13, 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/fewer-births-more-deaths-as-singapore-population-ages
[11] Harris, K Schwedel, A, Kimson, A. “Spatial Economics: The Declining Cost of Distance”, Bain.com. February 10, 2016.  https://www.bain.com/insights/spatial-economics-the-declining-cost-of-distance/
[12] Shenker, Jack. “Cities after coronavirus: how Covid-19 could radically alter urban life”, The Guardian. March 26, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/life-after-coronavirus-pandemic-change-world
[13] Chen, Stefanos. “The Decade Dominated by the Ultraluxury Condo”, NYTimes. Jan 10, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/10/realestate/new-york-decade-real-estate.html
[14] Burdett, Ricky. The Endless City: The Urban Age Project by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank's Alfred Herrhausen Society (ARCHITECTURE GENERALE), London, Phaidon Press, 2008.
[15] Meredith, Sam. “Two-thirds of global population will live in cities by 2050, UN says”, cnbc.com, May 17, 2018.