he futures of cities worldwide are currently being contested, and calls to “imagine urban futures” have come to mean reimagining life in relation to a range of ongoing and anticipated crises.  We are living in a global moment in which the imagined future of most places — in both the global North and South — is one of conflict, characterized by ecological crises, anticipated terror attacks, and unprecedented flows of refugees and migrants.  Together, these forces have led to a global restructuring of geographies, now characterized by border walls, cages for unwanted populations, and more recently, the hoarding of vaccines by wealthy countries leading to an increasingly uneven distribution of COVID-19 deaths.  While the imagined futures of modernization have long been premised on a fictitious condition of unending progress, the multitude of crises faced by the world today poses an intellectual crisis for urban planners.  How do we think and plan for the urban future when the teleology of modernism, that the field of urban planning is premised upon, is riven and unraveled by such profound contradictions?  Yet, as someone who has studied the effect of expected crises on present planning (Bou Akar, 2018), the pandemic still came as a surprise. It was a crisis that could have been anticipated, but one that few saw coming.

Figure 1: A Deserted Times Square, New York City. Photo by author, April 19, 2020.

My reflections in this essay are based on collaborative work I have been engaged in with students at the Columbia University Urban Planning program ever since New York, the city we live in, became a COVID-19 hotspot, with deaths rising to nearly 1,000 per day in March/April 2020. The bustling streets of New York City came to standstill (Figure 1). At that time, in the face of uncertainty and isolation, we started collecting, organizing, and summarizing research materials that addressed the pandemic as it related to urbanism, urban planning, architecture, and the built environment.  Our goal was to learn, share, and build a community in the face of extreme isolation, and our work has resulted in a reading list that now covers topics ranging from the urban history of COVID-19 to a study of pandemics in relation to racism, urbanization in the global South, conflict urbanism, colonized and neo-colonized spaces, as well as architecture and big data.  We envisioned and developed the document, “Pandemic Urbanism: Praxis in the time of COVID-19“ (Bou Akar et al, 2020), as a living one, and we have encouraged people from around the world to add to it, update it, and engage with it. 

Figure 2: A pop-up bubble tent in the middle of the sidewalk on the UpperWest Side, NYC. Photo by author, November 9, 2020.

Since we began this work, a number of Columbia Masters and Ph.D. students under my direction have also done research on the pandemic geographies of New York City, and we are currently working on a project entitled “An Archive for the Future: Pandemic Urbanism of NYC” examining and mapping how the city has been changed by COVID-19. This project should provide a valuable reference for the future, since previously, the most relevant documentation of how cities respond to pandemics came from the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918-19.  As part of this work, we are now in the process of documenting changes in thinking about issues of informality/formality, public/private space, disparities in access to Open Streets, and other city programs in New York that have, among other things, begun to analyze the material and labor involved in outdoor dining (Figure 2). What is emerging from these inquiries into pandemic urbanism is a vivid portrait of the tensions and contradictions inherent to our ability to respond to a multitude of other future crises.

In what follows I will reflect on three main areas of controversy that have been illuminated by these studies.  These have to do with disparate modes of urbanization, lessons from the pandemic with regard to climate change, and changes in conceptions of public and private space.

1. Modes of Urbanization

It is obvious to even a casual observer that modes of urbanization are not the same everywhere; nevertheless, global policies aimed at mitigating the pandemic seem to have assumed that they are.  Such policies have overwhelmingly been based on an imaginary of nuclear families, individual dwelling units, and discrete conceptions of public and private property.  But only a fraction of the world’s population inhabits a geography in which such structures are the norm.

Across the globe, we did not need the pandemic to highlight present inequalities in wealth and resources.  Nonetheless, it has, and it is now abundantly clear how the pandemic has affected people differently depending on the communities, cities, countries and regions they inhabit. Pandemic-related studies are already showing how differentiated availability and access to critical infrastructure have influenced infection transmission and death rates at the neighborhood level (Kawlra and Sakamoto, 2021). Pandemic inequalities and vaccine apartheids now have highlighted how the rich and racially dominant are more able to save themselves, while the working class and the poor are often left to die from lack of hospital care, oxygen, plasma, or medications.

While entire populations were called to stay home and self-quarantine (to stop the spread of the disease), the pandemic has also illustrated how an ethos of individualism may itself present a public health crisis — especially with regard to an infection that demonstrates our biological interdependence.  Thus, at a moment when it became common to hear people say “We are in it together,” it became clear people were not — at least not in the same way.  In New York, essential workers (mostly poor people of color, and especially women) were expected to be on the front lines every day, while those with resources were free to exit the city to seek refuge in second homes.  As a result, people of color in underserviced, lower-income communities have died in much larger numbers than residents of well-off neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn (Correal et al., 2020) (Figure 3).

Figure 3: A Times Square memorial of 2500 red and white roses: the red roses stood for Black people who lost their lives to the pandemic and police violence; the white roses stood for possibilities for healing. Photo by author, June 1, 2020. 

This trend has not been confined to New York, nor to other single cities.  It has appeared across world populations.  Pandemic responses in well-resourced urban regions such as Northern Italy, New York, and Madrid (as they took turns becoming infection hotspots) differed greatly from those in less-resourced ones such as Mexico City, Beirut, and more recently, Delhi and Bombay (Kaymakamian, 2021).

This condition demonstrates how individualism and collectivity, and their necessities, look very different in the global North than the global South.  On the one hand, residents of New York were able to celebrate new forms of solidarity that emerged during the pandemic: the mutual-aid associations, food-distribution programs, mask-making groups, and communal kitchens that became lifelines for many people, especially the sick and the elderly (Freytas-Tamura, 2021).  Many residents of the city were also able to rely on (and expect) federal, state, and city governments to handle other aspects of the crisis—for example, by providing emergency medical care, unemployment assistance, and supplementary food aid.  Many also benefited from the privilege of occupying their own homes, and were able to extend their support outwards from them to others through collective effort.

On the other hand, the lifeworlds of most people across the globe are not so individualized; they are built on a continuous collective form of existence.  AbdouMaliq Simone (2004) has thus observed how life is sustained in most urban areas through informal, ad-hoc structures that are maintained and managed according to systems that rely on “people as infrastructure.”  Everyday life is rarely sustained by postcolonial governments and their infrastructures, entities that remain strapped for resources and funding.  In the face of the pandemic, it is more apparent than ever that people are not even counted in the same way across uneven geographies of privilege and dispossession (Simone & Bou Akar, 2014).  Indeed, billions across the world do not have the opportunity to self-isolate from one another in the way that has been promoted by international institutions as the ideal living arrangement to halt the pandemic.  In many neighborhoods around the globe, people live in collective units, and the very notion of individual or nuclear family-only dwelling units does not apply (Simone & Lancione, 2020).  Likewise, there are no resources with which to establish public-funded open spaces, nor is there funding to hire park rangers, police, or social workers to monitor adherence to rules about social/physical distancing.  There is also not enough clean water to wash one’s hands for twenty seconds every several hours; enough broadband infrastructure to facilitate Zoom calls; enough room within houses to create private work and study areas; or even enough work that can be done without coming into physical contact with others to maintain necessary levels of household income.

Nonetheless, what was promoted globally by entities like the World Health Organization (WHO) has been a one-size-fits-all policy: stay at home; quarantine by yourself or with your chosen household; maintain a six-foot distance in public areas; and trust local, regional, and national governments to do their jobs and make wise decisions based upon the input of experts (World Health Organization, 2020).

Ironically, many governments with authority over urban areas of the global South, while ordinarily incapable of governing many aspects of public life, have attempted to address this extraordinary situation through formal powers and top-down policies.  In the process, they have ignored prevailing economies, the informal subdivision of houses to provide shelter, and the social infrastructures through which people access services, medications, and jobs.  Their decontextualized pandemic-mitigation policies have thus often resulted in abrupt steps that have aggravated already dire conditions of disease and dispossession.  The world watched as thousands upon thousands of Indian migrants took to the nation's highways to return to their home villages on foot after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a lockdown without considering its impact on millions of informal urban workers (Slater & Masih, 2020).  Similarly, his government's decision to ease the lockdown and open up the economy before the population could be adequately vaccinated has now led to millions of deaths (Chandra, 2021).  And in Lebanon the sectarian religious-political organizations that run the government by appeasing their clients-followers, announced on January 6, 2020, that a lockdown would begin a week later.  However, in preparation for the lockdown, people predictably crowded into grocery stores, restaurants, and offices, causing a disastrous spread of the disease that resulted in the death of thousands two weeks later. 

These global policies raise an important question: Which geographies inform entities like World Health Organization when they attempt to craft policies such as those involved in stopping the spread of an infectious disease?  As we have watched people suffering in the streets of Mexico City, Beirut, and Delhi, it is clear that the de-facto imagined geographies behind these policies are those of the global North, whose current excess of resources was enabled by a long history of colonial extraction.  Now that 70 percent of the world population is expected by 2030 to live in cities in the global South, however, it is imperative that we push back against “global” one-size-fits-all public health planning that does not address the situation of most of the world (UN-Habitat, 2020).  When large portions of the world's population cannot identify with such policies and are unable to act on them, they may simply ignore them.  In Beirut, people tried to stay at home at first, but as the economic crisis deepened, they realized this meant not being able to provide for their families, a form of slow death that seemed worse than the pandemic itself.  They thus decided to ignore most of the global policies, which resulted in a tragedy of mass death.

What we have also learned from cities in the global South is that forms of collective action involving informal networks are frequently more essential to people's survival than the enforcement of government edicts.  In times of crisis in many cities of the global South—as well as in marginalized communities in the global North such as Indigenous reservations and Black communities in the U.S.—people rely on community in times of crisis, not individual action.  In Beirut (and I was told the same practices surfaced in Delhi) people thus volunteered to set up lists of oxygen providers, organized to find hospital beds for the sickest people, and set up WhatsApp groups to exchange up-to-date information on which pharmacies had obtained which COVID medications (personal communication with Gayatri Kawlra, 2021).

In Lebanon, these networks were, of course, not a spur-of-the-moment creation; indeed, they were built on the networks that people formed during the October 2019 uprising against the government's corruption (Saab et al, 2020).  And, after coming to the rescue of coronavirus patients, they were again mobilized in the face of the government's total lack of response to the August 4, 2020, port of Beirut explosion that killed at least 218 people, injured more than 6,500, and left around 300,000 homeless (Human Rights Watch, 2021) (Figure 4). These structures are also not solely the modus-operandi of urban residents of the global South.  In New York, for example, the networks that developed during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement were quickly mobilized to save lives after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 (Feuer, 2012; Bou Akar and Moumtaz, 2013) and it would be interesting to see if they played a similar role in organizing mutual-aid groups during the pandemic.

Figure 4: Panorama of Beirut’s port explosion site. On the left, the Christmas tree memorial to the 218 people killed by the explosion. The scarred city looms in the background. Photo by author, December 25, 2020.

Such networks, which are intrinsic to the survival of people around the world, are, however, not even considered when international entities develop guidelines for policy action.  As a result, in their recent efforts to stop the spread of an infectious disease, they have marginalized two-thirds of the global population.

2. Climate Change and the Pandemic

Another aspect of the tensions and contradictions that confront contemporary planners involves the different temporalities that govern different crises and that must then be used to devise policies to address them.

The field of urban planning, the one I teach and speak from, has for decades been promoting certain urban practices and policies to mitigate the effects of climate change.  These include limiting sprawl, increasing urban density, and promoting the use of public transit.  The goal is to encourage urban densification, energy efficiency, recycling, and the shared use of resources.  However, within one month of the arrival of the pandemic in New York City, it became clear that, for many, escaping the danger meant running in the opposite direction from most of these climate-change mitigation strategies.  Overnight, many people with the means to do so deserted the city, searching for safety in nearby suburbs and distant rural areas (Quealy, 2020).  The resultant population migration extended from upstate New York to rural Connecticut and Massachusetts, pushing the market for single-family homes drastically upwards and creating what some have called “Zoomburbs” (Fulton, 2020). 

Meanwhile, pundits began to decry or celebrate (depending on their place in the political spectrum) the “end” of cities (Kimmelman, 2020).  In particular, they discussed how the drive for safety behind a picket fence was undoing decades of progressive urban planning, which had sought to retrofit suburbia and encourage inclusionary zoning.  Yet, the experience of Hong Kong and Singapore, two of the most densely populated cities in the world, showed that density itself could not explain COVID infection rates (Beech, 2020).  Far more important, it now turns out, have been disinvestment in public health infrastructure, histories of racism (including slavery, segregation, and redlining), the creation of food and health-care deserts, and the general lack of a safety net for the poor (Hamidi et al., 2020).  These factors have now been shown to be far more important predictors of COVID mortality than settlement density.

A similar reckoning arrived with regard to public transit.  While most young people would not admit to owning cars in New York City before the pandemic, after it arrived, private vehicles offered salvation for those who wanted to remain on the move and who were privileged enough to not need public transit. It is now clear that private car ownership significantly increased in the city since the onset of the pandemic (Plautz 2021). The crucial question, therefore, is: How can we devise policies and practices that allow convergence in measures to address both the climate and the pandemic crises?

Figure 5: An example from one restaurant's expansion in NYC’s midtown. Photo by author, April 28, 2021.

But even when such measures actually appear to converge on the ground, they may have unintended consequences.  Such has been the situation with regard to the expansion of bike lanes in New York, as revealed through research by one of my master’s students, Danielle Roberts (Roberts, 2021). During the pandemic bike ridership went up significantly, but it clashed, and continues to clash, with the city's Open Restaurants policy, which encouraged the use of street space for outdoor dining (Figure 5). Given that vehicles are still given priority in terms of access to most public space in the city (streets and highways), bikers, pedestrians, and now restaurants must fight over what remains — both in terms of space and funding. The practice of locating bike lanes between the curb and vehicle parking spaces emerged as a space of conflict, and of injury at times, as more and more parking spaces were transformed into outdoor dining spaces and extension of restaurants ​​(Gair, Gair, Conason et al 2020). As a result, bikers have often been surprised to find their lanes blocked by restaurant waitstaff shuttling back and forth to the outdoor sheds erected in parking areas, or by people waiting to be seated in them, leading to verbal conflicts and even accidents.

3. Public and Private Space

The urban history of disease has frequently highlighted the role of governments in devising and reinforcing regulations that affect the physical environment.  In modern times, urban planning initiatives have included the rise of urban parks, and certain elements of modern architecture have even partly emerged in response to disease outbreaks and measures to contain them.  For example, before the cause of cholera was properly identified as contaminated water, it was blamed on miasmas (noxious vapors).  In response, prominent architects and urban designers argued that an important measure to counter its spread (and the spread of contagions generally) was the provision of urban parks — an idea popularized in European cities and exported to the U.S.  The decision to create New York's Central Park came partly in response to a cholera outbreak in the city (Carr, 2021).

Certain building regulations also centered on ideas of airborne disease transmission, and shaped how residential structures were thought to best relate to each other and the street — for instance, through the provision of adequate light and ventilation.  Similarly, modern architectural features like flat roofs, balconies, and roof or garden terraces have been promoted for their imagined usefulness as a means of disease control (Campbell, 2012). Such features were seen to be particularly important to preventing the spread of pulmonary tuberculosis, because they offered people exposure to sun, light, and air.

However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, people lost their trust in the salubrious qualities of public spaces and even came to see time spent in them as a threat.  When any person could be a vector of death, the air, itself, the ultimate collective amenity, came to be seen as dangerous.  This public resource, which had always seemed invisible, was also suddenly made visible through the widespread use of masks and face shields.  As city residents no longer wanted to share the same air, they sought refuge in private spaces.  One consequence is that, as cities emerge from the pandemic, one of their great challenges will be to rebuild trust in the collective use of space and the unconscious sharing of air.  Even then, I suspect that the logic of being six feet distant from others may never be forgotten, and that planners and architects may have to take it into account in designs for future public spaces and buildings. That may continue to hold true even with vaccines that are making some of us forget that recent geographic mandate that shielded our lives from death by COVID-19.

Figure 6: The usually bustling Beirut’s Corniche promenade empty, except for a few people and vendors who decided to challenge the lockdown. Photo by author, December 19, 2020.

At the same time there can be no doubt that during the pandemic public open space has been a life saver for many residents of cities across the globe.  However, this was facilitated in New York by a huge increase in the number of park rangers and police to enforce social distancing and other pandemic-related rules (Southall, 2020). In addition, NYC’s 311 nonemergency hotline witnessed a remarkable increase in number of calls from residents notifying the city about violations of social distancing rules. And in other cities, extensive “authorized-pass” IT systems were put into place to manage the number of people outdoors at once, requiring a broad and costly expenditure of resources (Singer & Sang-Hun, 2020). Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the spectrum and on the opposite side of the globe, government agencies in Beirut decided during COVID-19 lockdowns to close the only accessible public space in the city, the promenade (corniche) along the Mediterranean coast, since they did not have the resources to monitor adherence to social distancing (Figure 6).  This only made it harder for most city residents to leave their apartments in search of fresh air. 

In New York, when the infection numbers started going down over the summer of 2020, the city's Open Streets and Open Restaurants program emerged as a popular initiative to preserve businesses and retain some form of city life.  However, as expected, socioeconomic issues soon appeared as key drivers of where the open streets would be located and how successful they would be.  The program was premised on a community organizing to request an open street (one where vehicle access was restricted) and manage its use (NYC Department of Transportation, 2021).  What ended up happening was that areas with strong community-organizing capabilities — largely those occupied by people with time and resources to spare — were able to create successful open street environments that provided a much-needed break from indoor life.  Meanwhile, poorer communities, where many residents were essential workers or held multiple jobs, did not have the same reservoirs of time and money to draw upon in managing attempts to create open streets.  Their efforts thus often resulted in disputes and police interventions, which made the streets difficult for undocumented residents and people of color (especially Black New Yorkers) to use.  These contestations were documented by the work of my thesis advisee, Sanjukta Hazarika, showing how open streets succeeded where there was a strong civic element of community governance, while others didn’t (Hazarika, 2021).  Hazarika concluded that the Open Streets program, while an important intervention, reproduced existing socioeconomic and racial disparities in the city.  This finding was further reflected by the fact that upper-income communities did not want to open their streets to people from other neighborhoods.  Thus, Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Soho districts, both upper-income areas, did not have any open streets (Panta, 2020). 

The Open Restaurants program has been another interesting feature of New York’s response to the pandemic.  To support business when indoor dining was prohibited, the city gave the green light to restaurants to take over the public parking spots on streets fronting them to establish areas for outside dining.  Since that time, Mayor Bill de Blasio has further announced that outdoor dining is here to stay (Hu & Rosa, 2020).  For those who haven’t been to New York recently, the result has been pretty interesting: miles and miles of shacks constructed with different materials and designs— many of which will soon be enclosed, defying the whole point of the original program.  In an interesting twist, this has allowed the informality that is usually hidden in American cities to be materialized in wood and bricks — and in flower beds and festive lights.  

It is further curious to speculate about the origin of all the plywood that appeared on the city’s streets.  Was it the same plywood that was used to board up businesses during the Black Lives Matter protests of June 2020?  Was the same material used to protect these businesses from the public repurposed to provide outdoor dining that extended the businesses into the public realm, making formerly public space essentially private (Figure 7)?

Figure 7: "We're Open.” NYC businesses used plywood to board up their stores during the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. Photo by author, November 5, 2020.

While the Open Restaurants is often celebrated by those who benefit from it, one way of looking at this program is that it ultimately had the effect of allowing restaurants to take over public sidewalks and parking areas for private income generation. In some places this has actually made it hard to walk down the sidewalk, marginalizing people with disabilities and the elderly in the process (Surico, 2021). As one of my other thesis advisees, Hanzhang Yang, has shown, New York's city government has thus opened the door for outdoor dining to create neighborhood and pedestrian nuisances.  Meanwhile, communities have not been afforded any way to object to individual installations because there is no real mechanism for review and approval.  The Open Restaurants program was simply enacted under the banner of an “emergency response.”  Its permanent presence, however, is now threatening to increase the privatization of outdoor public space (Yang, 2021) (Figure 8).

Figure 8: When the sidewalk becomes part of the restaurant's space, West Village, NYC. Photo by author, April 3, 2021.

In a nutshell, what this and other programs indicate is that planners have a lot of work to do when it comes to thinking through the tensions and contradictions inherent in the temporalities of yet-to-come crises, especially as they play out in the allocations of public resources and spaces. They also raise a cautionary flag for how remarkably easy it is to reproduce conditions for marginalization, racism, and further dispossession, all in the name of emergency responses to a global public health crisis that promotes blanket policies informed by privileged geographies, whether we are talking about privilege on the scale of a neighborhood in New York City or between cities across the globe. 

Works Cited

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Hiba Bou Akar is an Assistant Professor in the Urban Planning program at Columbia GSAPP. Her research focuses on planning in conflict and post-conflict cities, and engages questions of temporalities of urbanization.