Our most insightful urban commentators generally agree that the liveliest cities are those with greatest diversity. Diversity of activities, diversity of people. Jane Jacobs long ago highlighted the link between economic diversity and social vitality; how the former fuels the latter, how economic activity ensures the presence of people, concentrations of people, different kinds of people, who in assorted ways all help keep economic activity afloat.
Henri Lefebvre, in France, made pretty much the same point, if in a different register. He wasn’t so much interested in the economic forces that create diversity as how diversity creates dynamic encounters. Cities, for him, are sites of encounters, dense and differential social spaces in which people assemble. City spaces come alive through proximity, through concentrations of different social groups and activities, gathering in place. Lefebvre said the enemy of encounters—indeed the enemy of urbanisation itself—is segregation and separation, two profoundly anti-urban impulses.
Over past decades, the diversity that Jacobs extols and the encounters animating Lefebvre’s urban visions have had their work cut out. The form and function of our cities have been moving in the exact opposite direction. Jacobs emphasised the need for high- and middling-yield enterprises mingling with low- and no-yield enterprises. Instead, predatory city economies have throttled small businesses: high yield has become the only asking price. Many corner stores as well as corner people have been forced out of business and out of town. Cities have become functionally and financially standardised, predictable and unaffordable, predictably unaffordable, sucking dry their vitality, their Jacobean life-blood.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 assailed world, killing and upending urban life as we once knew it, intensifying those existing pathologies. Economic distancing had been gnawing away at the urban fabric for awhile, executing the separation Lefebvre feared so much. Now, social distancing explicitly breaks into urban densities, crimping cities as sites of physical encounters. Suddenly, our new urban reality is one of de-encounter, a thinning down rather than thickening up, the dispersion and dilution of city life, its fear and avoidance.
As the pandemic raged, the rich who’d hitherto been colonising citadels everywhere, shaping them in their own crass class image, exited fast. Same story the world over: a wealthy urban exodus, a hunkering down by the shore, up a hilltop, at the country estate, anywhere without people. Between March 1 and May 1, the first two months of lockdown, 420,000 of New York’s wealthiest quit town. Manhattan’s Upper East Side emptied out by 40%. Denizens fled to second homes upstate, in Long Island, in Connecticut and Florida. “Farewell Poor People,” said the Daily Mail (March 19, 2020), catching the spirit of London’s select out-migration. Its most well-heeled populations similarly headed for rural sanctuary, paying up to £50,000 per month in rentals. British estate agents have since been inundated with requests for country mansions and isolated manor houses.
In times of plague, the rich outrunning the spread of infection has been a time-served tactic. In A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Daniel Defoe describes the harrowing scenes of the 1665 “Poors Plague,” the bubonic epidemic that struck London, striking it unevenly. The famed author of Robinson Crusoe narrates his tale of the Great Plague through the lens of an alter-ego character, an independent merchant, H.F., who had agonised about whether to stay or flee London like his class peers. Eventually, unlike them, he decides to stay put, even ventures out, and walks the streets and bears witness to the mass slaughter of a terrifying disease few understood.
In 1665, Defoe would have been a five year old lad, so A Journal of the Plague Year is a novelistic invention, if an artistic creation based on historical fact. Like the thorough journalist he was, Defoe did his research, read meticulously around the plague, the books, pamphlets and scientific studies, and H.F. evokes graphic details reliably accurate and believable from the standpoint of an authentic observer: the desolate streets and parishes, the shut-up shops, the over-run cemeteries, the fevers and vomiting, the pains and swellings, the destruction of whole families and the reality of 97,000 Londoners perishing because of a bacillus now known to be a parasite of rodents, transported by fleas.
H.F. is a sympathetic, if eccentric, flâneur, both fascinated and frightened by the disease, compassionate about the calamities afflicting populations that bore its brunt, that suffered the greatest body count. Even the poor’s insurrectional tendencies found an understanding ear. At one point, he distinguishes between “good” and “bad” mobs, between dissenting peoples whose marauding cause seemed legitimate, and those who seemed to be acting because they’re deluded by false propaganda. This sounds oddly contemporary, a refraction of our own COVID-19 crisis moment, with growing economic inequities ripping apart society, cross-cut by ideological battles between mask wearers and right-wing anti-maskers, Black Lives Matter protesters and white supremacists. Separation and segregation here encounter one another. Our public life has fractured into trench civil warfare, even direr than in Defoe’s seventeenth-century.
Public space is a menace, a threat to public health, not only because of the spread of virus, but also because it is fraught with violence: “I can’t breathe,” is one expression, immortalising George Floyd’s dying words on a Minneapolis street, as a white cop pressed his knee into the black man’s neck. “Don’t shoot!” is another, after Michael Brown’s valedictory plea in Ferguson, Missouri, just as the police opened fire, heralding a spate of police killings of young, unarmed black men (and women). Such homicidal tendencies beget a few questions: What remains of the public realm? Is it for population-level wellbeing, for public safety? Or is it for individual liberty, the right of a person to freely express themselves?
Right-wing libertarians say forcing people to wear face masks in public is an assault on individual freedom, an infringement of personal liberty. It’s a perverse logic, another instance that unfettered self-interest is best; that a greedy drive for profit maximisation and unregulated consumer choice brings about a healthier, more robust society. It doesn’t. It’s a big lie, a foil for a selfishness that bears no responsibility for how it hurts others, economically or otherwise. The mask isn’t only a personal protective equipment: it’s there to ensure other people’s health isn’t put at risk. There have to be limits to what is deemed acceptable individual behaviour in public. There’s more need than ever for a social contract, for a democratic covenant in which everybody recognises duties as well as rights, accepts that our inner selves are constructed through a social identity.
It’s a touchy subject, to be sure. Yet it’s an agenda Jean-Jacques Rousseau set himself over two and half centuries ago, forty years after Defoe’s Journal, and its basis remains instructive about what we still lack: “a form of association that defends and protects the person and goods of each with the common force of all.” “I had seen that everything is rooted in politics,” Rousseau said, “and that, whatever the circumstances, a people will never be other than the nature of its government makes it.” “Great questions as to which is the best possible form of government,” he thought, “seems to me to come down in the end to this one: what is the nature of the government most likely to produce the most virtuous, the most enlightened, the wisest, and in short, taking this word in its widest sense, the best people?”
These days, people are far from virtuous, enlightened and wise. As presidents and prime ministers bully, lie and peddle misinformation, stoke up hatred and division within society, they’ve rendered us stupid. They’ve destroyed our ability to judge truth from falsehood, good sense from (social) media nonsense. Some describe this as a denigration of our “cognitive immunity,” the destruction of our mental defence system, the ability to ward off pathological ideas, just as our immune system might ward of a pathological disease. We’ve got what we deserve, an anti-social contract, a model of government that has hoodwinked its populace into believing it is free, that it is upholding its individual liberty, when in actuality we’re enslaved.
Past pandemics—from plague in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire’s Plague of Justinian, to Europe’s bubonic epidemics in the Middle-Ages and eighteenth-century, passing through typhoid and cholera outbreaks in the nineteenth, onwards to “Spanish flu” in 1918 and the latest COVID-19 epidemic—have all revealed underlying crises in their respective societies. Plagues sparked terrible tragedy, yet were often outcomes of crises, not initial causes, a symptom of something lurking within the culture, about to give, a growing malaise, soon to worsen. COVID-19 isn’t so different, exposing structural defects in our economy and politics, our encroachment into the natural world, our destruction of it, and how zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 now more virulently jump from animals to humans. When COVID-19 struck, our mix of under-funded public and for-profit private healthcare systems proved woefully inadequate to cope. The virus spread like the wildfire and flash-flooding evermore frequent in our midst. Another hurricane had hit, hitting our urban system particularly hard, which had long been in an endgame crisis.
Endgame happens when the rich displace the poor from the city’s checkerboard, when they banish all but a few pawns from their isotropic plane of business immanence. The game is up yet we continue to feign the moves. The Irish writer Samuel Beckett wrote a play called Endgame, a prophetic play about the end of the world. There he hones in on his peculiar specialty: claustrophobic confinement—although now, in our case, this confinement is engendered by a space-hungry, market-driven urban expansion. As buildings go up in cities, partition walls move in for millions of people. Speculative space opens up, dwelling space closes down, gets sliced up and subdivided to maximise rents and property values. Wealth for the few resonates as crampedness for the many, little squares for the pawns. Britain’s lack of affordable housing, as elsewhere, has pushed more and more people into tiny shoebox lives, and studies show how micro-dwelling negatively affects our health and happiness—even in “normal” times.
Beckett’s short story The Lost Ones gives us an unsettling sense of those walls closing in, with “one body per square metre or two hundred bodies in all round numbers…The gloom and press make recognition difficult.” Is this a vision of a death camp, or refugees in a transit camp? Or is it just the ordinary everyday madness of multi-occupancy in an unaffordable city, where rents have skyrocketed? Whatever the case, it’s an environment conducive to the spread of virus. Public space on the outside, shorn of people and finance, resembles another Beckett mis-en-scène, Waiting for Godot, with a main street (and its boarded-up stores), a tree, and a few vagrants hanging around. We can almost hear one of them grumble, as Estragon had grumbled: “We’ve no rights any more.” “We got rid of them,” sidekick Vladimir rejoins. “Well? Shall we go?” Vladimir wonders. “Yes, let’s go,” says Estragon. They do not move.
History is maybe on our side, expressive of long-wave good news. Over the centuries, humans have survived tragedy through the incredible stoicism of not moving, of standing one’s ground, of resisting, of engaging in tremendous creativity. Wars, plagues and mass ransackings of cities in Ancient Greece gave us poetry like The Iliad, epic drama like Trojan Women, scholarship like Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War and Plato’s Republic. When bubonic plague hit seventeenth-century Britain, theatres closed and Shakespeare’s plays could no longer be performed. But none of this prevented the bard from writing them, from letting his creative juices flow, in the misery and isolation, penning such masterpieces as King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.
In the mid-1850s, Marx lived through a cholera epidemic in London’s Soho, killing hundreds of people because of a contaminated water pump. Marx was destitute, had several children die before him, lodged in a truly dreadful, cramped apartment—this as economic crisis deepened and workers’ revolt dissipated. Nonetheless, he continued to work, never stopped studying capitalism, never let up writing Das Kaptial. He never stopped hoping, either, telling his comrade Friedrich Engels that “in all the terrible agonies I have experienced these days, the thought of you and your friendship has always sustained me, and the hope that, together, we may still do something sensible in the world.”
In the twentieth-century, disgust with an economic and political order that plunged us into two murderous world wars helped spark Surrealism, a revolutionary movement that affirmed its own extraordinarily creative dialectic. On the one hand came Max Ernst’s brilliant pictorial horror story, “After the Rain II,” painted between 1940-2, a hellscape of hope smothered by petrified and calcified structures, by corpses and decayed vegetation, by deformed creatures in a prehistoric premonition of our own COVID-19 fate.
On the other hand emerged an optimism, an art and literature that celebrated the dawn of romantic love, the primal form of the Surrealist encounter, epitomised by André Breton’s Mad Love. Fascist bombs rained on Guernica and Hitler’s Third Reich was about to stomp across Europe, yet Breton wrote: “I have never ceased to believe that, among all the states through which humans can pass, love is the greatest supplier of solutions, being at the same time in itself the ideal place for the joining and fusion of these solutions.” (Three decades on, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme nodded in agreement. As racial hatred raged across America, its triumphant choruses sought “resolution” through love, as well as the “pursuance” of this love resolution.)
Perhaps what we’re experiencing now is an interregnum that progressives need to ride out, need to struggle through, sustain ourselves by hope, by a love supreme, by friendship, believing there’s light somewhere beyond the darkness, some way still to do something sensible in the world. This too will pass. Hopefully. Perhaps we can use the time alone, in quarantine, to think collectively, to reflect together on how we might reconstruct the public realm of our cities, even the public realm of our lives. Maybe we need to start by thinking up a transitional “public sphere,” incorporating the virtual into the real, developing online links with others, collapsing the social distance on the outside through time-space compression on the inside, via our computer screens, through the Zoom communities that continue to sprout.
In our private households, we can plot another public world, do it together, from the underground, as it were, where dissidents and activists have traditionally hidden out when the political going has been rough. There we might reframe the notion of “intimacy,” tweak its meaning in the interim. With Zoom, after all, not only can we look into people’s faces: we can enter into their homes, too, into their personal spaces, see the art on their walls, the books on their bookshelves, the family photos, share a strange sociability and camaraderie that helps us almost touch one another. It’s not ideal, not the same as face-to-face encountering; but let’s use it nonetheless, let’s try and find partial nourishment in this interregnum, by sharing ideas, launching discussion and reading groups, webinars and virtual gatherings, talk and debate and listen to one another, organise one another, forge solidarity in kind, if not in person. It’s a first-cut attempt at scheming a new beginning.
There have been hints of what post-pandemic cities might do to bounce back. Usually this involves smaller-scale design rather than any vaster public planning. The key issue seems to be ushering in fresh air into urban life, creating cities that flourish in the open, in the public realm, making them al fresco playhouses, bringing a touch of Ancient Greece back into our civilisation, when open-air amphitheatres became scenes of mass political and intellectual communion. Researchers indicate that we’re twenty-times more likely to catch COVID-19 indoors than outdoors. So there’s need to reimagine a different open-air public life, more resilient to future pandemic, with different spaces and places, accessible spaces and places, with commercial and recreational activities that not only entice people back into cities, but offer enough to make us want to stay, to feel safe as well as stimulated.
Design initiatives propose squeezing roads to widen pedestrian sidewalks, enlarging café and restaurant terraces; radiant heating and cooling technology can extend outdoor seasonal usages. Future cities will be a lot greener, more walkable and bikeable. Cars and car-oriented infrastructure will get scaled back. Abandoned lots and obsolete multi-storey car parks might flourish as urban farms, using hydroponics, providing cheaper, fresher produce for neighbourhoods, on their doorsteps, minimising food miles and distribution costs. Such innovations now seem de rigueur, standard repertoires in design game-plans. Ditto opening up streets and parkland to vendors and commercial activity, reanimating open-air city retailing, allowing it to be improvised and spontaneous—maybe like it once was.
After decades of “quality of life” campaigns, this would be an enormous volte-face for a city like New York. Since the mid-1990s, during Giuliani’s mayoral years, Business Improvement Districts have waged war on unlicensed street activities, converting Manhattan into a glorified corporate suburban theme park, funnelling people into the chain malls and cleansing the streets of grubby diversity—of food stands and street peddlers, of artists and homeless booksellers, stuff that brought vitality to many sidewalks.
Al fresco city life has always thrilled our most romantic urbanists. Their ideal visions invariably affirmed the outdoors, the street. They sat in cafés, wrote books, fretted home alone; but their real muse was without a roof, amid the crowd, out on the sidewalk—no matter the weather. It was an open-air intimacy, amongst strangers. Poet Baudelaire suggested we embrace the crowd, bathe in the multitude, take universal communion, find ourselves as we get lost in public, merging with the masses, though not too close. Surrealist André Breton recognised his great heroine, Nadja, enjoyed being nowhere but in the street, “the only region of valid experience for her, in the street.” Nadja, the phantom woman who’d chosen for herself the name “Nadja,” because in Russian it marked the beginning of the word hope, and because she, Nadja, was only a beginning.
Lefebvre’s urban encounters were likewise street-based and streetwise. For him, streets were modes of attraction and assembly, of union and proximity, of human co-presence. Jane Jacobs said the liveliest streets have the most dynamic choreographies—“intricate street ballets,” she called them—changing with the time of day, never repeating themselves from place to place. We’ve seen some of these choreographies adapt and change over past months, as dancers dodge and sway, twirl with other members of the ensemble, guarding social distance on city streets everywhere. But Jacobs knew that sidewalks needed more than just urban design to keep them alive, more than a street bench here, a charming park there.
In Death and Life of Great American Cities, she noted Baltimore’s embellishments to resuscitate life on the street: “The sidewalk has been widened and attractively paved, wheeled traffic discouraged from the narrow street, trees and flowers planted, and a piece of play sculpture is to go up. All these are splendid ideas so far as they go.” And yet, says Jacobs: “There is no public life here, in any city sense. There are differing degrees of extended private life.” Design alone, she suggests, can only go so far. We need a bolder vision of how to reintroduce public life “in any city sense.” How might we recapture the diversity and vitality dear to Jacobs’s heart? Especially since her cherished small businesses and street corner societies have been heading towards extinction for a while.
Local commerce needs life-support even more than it did pre-COVID. 21,000 British small businesses went under during March’s lockdown. The British Chamber of Commerce fears as many as one million little enterprises might collapse soon, leaving empty shells and boarded up streets across the land. New York lost 3,000 small businesses during its March quarantine. Many Manhattan street corners, even in neighbourhoods like Greenwich Village, are boarded up and graffiti-splattered. Big retail chains have made conscious choices to elope. After years of plundering Manhattan, seeing off little independent competitors, sucking life out of many New York blocks, big brands like Gap, J.C.Penney, Subway, Domino’s Pizza lead the charge out. Cities desperately need a plan, a vision more conducive for the development of small businesses, helping them not only remain in town but also survive in town.
Once upon a time, city governments used to plan. City leaders and planners, as public officials, headed up these plans. There were checks and balances that controlled what the rich did, how they speculated on vital public goods, that they couldn’t speculate on those vital public goods, that city government needed to ensure its poorest citizens could live in safe and stable neighbourhoods. A Hobbesian war of all against all had to be avoided. There were services this public needed, public services—affordable housing, decent schools and healthcare, reliable buses, trains and subways. This public also needed a certain loveliness. Once upon a time, the city itself was never a market: it was a public good, a rich collective works, managed in the public interest, not in the interest of the rich—not managed by the rich in the interests of the rich. This tradition of public planning needs to be reinstated and upgraded.
We need a plan that restricts private interests chomping away at the common wealth. In our largest cities, this common wealth has been squandered by conspicuously wasteful large enterprises, administered by elites who thrive off unproductive activities: they roll the dice on the stock market, dance to shareholder delight, profit from unequal exchanges, guzzle at the public trough, filch rents and treat land and property as a pure financial asset, as another money-making racket. Invariably, too, they dodge their fair share of the tax burden. They leech blood money out of urban territories and underwrite what might be termed “parasitic city” development, antithetical to the “generative city” that any public action plan would now need to reinstigate. (I might add that by public action plan I don’t mean an action plan devised by any costly private management consultancy like McKinsey, who are themselves part of the parasitic problem.)
Accumulated wealth ought to be reallocated to benefit ordinary people and public infrastructure. Top of this plan’s agenda is making city life viable for little businesses as well as little people. There’s need here to impose some kind of commercial rent and business rate control. When urban economies thrive, landlords jack up rents, speculate and inflate property markets, become the “monstrous power” that Marx recognised. “One section of society,” Marx said, “demands a tribute from the other for the right to inhabit the earth.” In downturns, when the economy dips, landlords prefer to sit on vacant property, leave their premises empty until they find tenants able to pay the market rent, the inflated market rent. It’s a double whammy that inevitably works both ways against less resourceful tenants.
A carrot option for municipalities is to offer landlords tax incentives to release space at more affordable rents, making it worth their while to see rents reduced. That might work for a while. Yet there are harder alternatives, too, bolder policies that might be pursued, which necessitate a stick. One could be the creation of a “living rent” program, a landed counterpart to the living wage ordinances already passed in a lot cities around the world. A living rent would be a rent that enables small business owners to earn a living, to pay for a lease in accordance with their modest income streams. In a property market designed not to screw everybody, potential small business concepts might actually become real practical endeavours; little entrepreneurs are encouraged to take the risk, to go for it. A living rent would allow landlords to receive a rent-controlled return, a fair return, not an extortionate, parasitic return, subject to taxation at an appropriate rate. Leases would be negotiated over five year terms. At each renewal, living rents would be recalibrated according to the tenant’s past and prospective future earnings. Refusal of landlords to comply to living rent ordinances would mean that the municipality sequesters the property, procures it as a public landlord.
Imagine, in such an incubating culture, what little generative activities might flourish. By themselves, they’d be modest ventures. But scattered around a whole city, they’d collectively add up to a lot. They’d signal the return of the de-alienated artisan in the city, empowered in their labour-process, answerable to themselves as well as their locale. These artisans would pioneer little start-ups the likes of which we’d already begun to glimpse, pre-COVID. In grungy, abandoned areas of town, we’ve seen micro-breweries and distilleries prosper in small-scale fabrication units. Let’s hope they continue to prosper, and have others emerge alongside, post-COVID: bakers and candlestick makers, bookbinders and printers, potters and carpenters, furniture repairers and cheese-makers, welders and sculptors, clothes and craft producers, artists and urban farmers. We can imagine them together, bringing a little diversity and curiosity back into the ’hood, adding vitality to an everyday ordinariness of grocery stores and corner delis, who’ll now equally be able to make the living rent.
Meantime, city officials need think hard about what they’re going to do with the glut of office space remote home-work now betokens, the new norm for the privileged white-collar employee. Much of this office space was speculatively built, produced by over-accumulated capital, colossally unnecessary even at the best of times. Now, at the worst of times, we have it, looming large, a dark cloud hanging over urban space, threatened with devaluation. It’s a lesson in how to kill a city, to make large swaths bland, the kind of blandness only money can buy. But here, again, imagine how vast open-planned floors could be rezoned and converted into individual dwellings and family homes, with real space between partition walls, fitted out with balconies and breathable outdoor terraces. City governments could obtain the leases or the freeholds of these premises, recruit local architectural practices to engage in innovative designs; local construction companies might undertake the actual rehab itself.
Taken together, these initiatives would transform urban life, make it affordable again, busy and exciting, a place for work as well as residence, an environment that produces democracy along with its productive capacity. But to get this far, cities need real decision-making and budgetary power. We’ve heard plenty over recent decades about the “right to the city,” the right of ordinary people to participate in the creation of city life, to be active subjects in their own making rather than passive objects, dispensable and disposable at the whim of the rich and powerful. Maybe now we ought to consider the right of the city, too. The two rights—to and of—plainly go together, would have to go together. We’ve seen around ecological sustainability, particularly around the C40 alliance—the global network of cities committed to deliver fossil fuel reductions as per the Paris Agreement—how city governments have often been more progressive than nation-states, how they’ve taken the lead around climate change initiatives when their national governments have balked. (The U.S. is the prime example.)
A bigger imagining here would be something even more radical, something that bestows greater democratic and ecological powers on cities, powers to act and self-govern, to do so with other cities. Of course, it’s difficult to reimagine cities with more jurisdictional powers, with new empowering rights, if they’re not inclusive, if their resources aren’t accessible to everyone, if all but the privileged are kept out. Under any new progressive status, cities would have to be able to manage and administer themselves differently, be really enfranchised. This new status would involve a “city-state” configuration, like in Ancient Greece, when there were no nation-states as such; identity took on an urban characterisation, got defined by which city you belonged to, and belonging was always portable and transferable.
I’ve little inkling of how any of this might come about. It won’t come about easily. There are few signs anywhere of the civic leadership courageous enough, visionary and intelligent enough, to step up to the plate, to accept the challenge and help us discover this new urban social contract together, to make our minds as well as our cities generative again. It’s probably all pie in the sky. Indeed, I know it’s all pie in the sky. I say the aforementioned not out of any belief it will ever happen, that one day it will come true. Rather, I’m hoping the way Vaclav Havel once hoped, when he founded Charter 77: not as an optimism, not as a conviction that something will turn out well; more because it makes sense, that this is the right thing to affirm, regardless of how it turns out. In a condition of hopelessness, it enables me still to hope for a time beyond the coronavirus, beyond what we have now, beyond Trump, beyond Johnson—to a time when our urbanism will no longer plague us.
*NOTE: I am very grateful to Bill Morrish, at New York’s New School, for helping me frame this discussion. Many of the ideas here are his own put into my words.