What is common to all the urban centers is their high density. Population density is determined by the number of residents who live within a given land area – usually a mile or kilometer. It is this high density that has contributed to the rise of these cities as economic hubs, cultural centers offering immense opportunities to diverse sets of people from everywhere, writes Author, Speaker and Urban Sociologist, Dr. Binti Singh
Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Ahmedabad are the epicenters of the COVID 19 pandemic. So are London, New York and Paris. What is common to all these urban centers is their high density. Population density is determined by the number of residents who live within a given land area – usually a mile or kilometer. It is this high density that has contributed to the rise of these cities as economic hubs, cultural centers offering immense opportunities to diverse sets of people from everywhere. The dense interactions of people and their activities are what render these cities their fundamental identity. They also serve as major tourist attractions and shopping centers.
Paradoxically, it is this density that acts as a jeopardizing force when it comes to the spread of contagious diseases like the Covid 19 now or the plague, cholera, tuberculosis or Spanish flu at other points in history but in similar city contexts. Indeed, what is a city without its density! The very idea of social distancing forcefully imposed on city life by a contagious disease runs in total contradiction to the dense social lives that city life offers. In the words of John Friedman, place becomes “place” only where and when social life saturates. Everything else, by that definition are non-places. The pandemic has rendered our great cities as non- places, bereft of their fundamental character.
Density also works great for optimal utilization of scarce resources, lowering carbon footprints and contribute to climate resilience in the long run especially true for cities in developing economies like ours. This logic is now turned on its head. Cities are at the crossroads again to choose between becoming socially distanced healthy cities or proximate green cities.
The flight of people to the lower density sprawl (as is becoming more evident in other parts of the world hit by the pandemic) spurs up our dependence on the car. If the post pandemic city curbs mass transit and public transportation systems and steers focus on building on car centric suburbs, cities will be at the crossroads of difficult choices again. All efforts of creating hyper cities, 15- minute cities with proximities between places of stay and work to curb travel time will come to a halt. The shift of priority from public transport to the private vehicle has escalating costs on the environment and social life.
The idea of social distancing versus density also makes cities stand on their head and expose the deep fractures and divisions of our already segregated societies. These include the divisions between mental labor and manual labor, the digital divide, class divisions, and the escalating miseries of migrant populations whom the city has disowned ruthlessly. The pandemic has brought these divisions to the fore. Increasingly the pandemic appears to strip the cosmopolitan and equalitarian character of urban life that our cities cherish and thrive on. Urbanity thrives on non-discrimination, mosaic existence, and a plurality of cultures.
Last but not the least, the pandemic and the ensuing social distancing has had its huge socio-psychological costs ranging from rising cases of domestic violence, anxiety among children and youth, loneliness among senior citizens, greater propensity of violence and strife.
But we live in hope, we live in the power of our great cities and their strength to rebound and recover. History is testimony to that.
Photo Credit: Manoj Parmar Architect