Architecture: Where design meets a virus
“What does that look like when the thing we have to do is stay apart from each other, when what we need to do is further isolate ourselves?”
We might be questioning the essence of human nature at this juncture. There is a density level in our cities that is destructive. When we see citizens out on beaches together, behaving as if it were the normal sunny spring day, it leads to a feeling of dejection, a belief in humanity dwindling. What we see of ourselves is nothing but a burnt out skeleton of a culture that was once critical, ambitious and devoted to sincerity. A sense of familiarity, togetherness could itself be a Trojan horse.
In a scenario where we are rapidly moving towards a post – urban condition where city clusters are ballooning into the countryside and complimenting the city that it’s counterpart, where is it that we make a stand? This has been a very painful realization for major cities. The affinity of having people around you, the proximity of so many people to one another, is now making them susceptible in such a critical stage of a pandemic. Suddenly, the essence of urbanism, the footbridge to modernism, is bad for our survival, and we are trying everything in our arsenal to dismantle it. Essential services only, groceries shops open in the wee hours of the morning, closed institutions and a dispersed, neglected and often overlooked poor people. These are only some of the weapons that are being brought forth to reduce density. Density beings urban perks, diverse service vendors and flourishing service industries. Rich cultural institutions, new business ideas, diverse restaurants are only some of the benefits.
Density in the right conditions is good for us. It even protects against other kinds of calamities. Density makes mass transit possible. It allows for human data to move easily. It allows affordable housing. It creates and harbours conditions for societies to emerge, for playgrounds to exist. It enables risk pooling. Hospitals can become bigger and safety nets sturdier. Climate emissions get curbed and the social confusion gets eased. Crucially, it enables the kind of redundancies that make communities more resilient during disasters.
“In a scenario where we are rapidly moving towards a post – urban condition where city clusters are ballooning into the countryside and complimenting the city that it’s counterpart, where is it that we make a stand?”
How do we reconcile the benefits of density for an urban condition in a pandemic? Where density makes us groan with anticipation of newer infections and mortalities? The site of these benefits may be ever more in danger than ever more, while we are preoccupied by the harm. Since 1950’s, urban theorists foster dense urban environments, derided historically as diseased, as their shiny objects of desire. By no means, is this to be confused with overcrowded tenements, but urban products where one can walk over and support societal units. Such scenarios present an alternative to sedentary, car-dependent sprawl, an antidote to the growing banes of spatial products. Cholera outbreaks led to the design of modern sanitation systems in our urban products. Respiratory diseases, a by-product of immense demand of mass produced goods encouraged urban centers to prize light and air. A marriage between rural living and urban living is what came into being as ideal urban solutions. Now Covid-19 makes me wonder, this may lead us to fear density, even in the form of how public housing is approached. Earlier history of Indian centers are full of public-health horror stories stemming from substandard housing, production centers and poor sanitation, more recent history tells us of health and resiliency density provides.
Hospital infrastructure is a prime example of density and its practicality. Emergency response times are faster, better staffed in urban centers. Better services for essentials, like couriers, deliveries. The cost for maintaining these services also decrease in much denser areas, thus benefiting business lobbies. When the trains were bombed in Mumbai, people could lean on the bus systems to show their resilience. Now that buses, seem off-limits, the city’s bike delivery service is stepping up (exists due to density).How ever during the rains, Mumbai failed to prove the latter. The floods displaced people to more walk able communities and pocket urban centers. Dense social networks in communities save people, this makes urban products resilient, and it’s what then helps them recover. As of right now it is unclear how we’re supposed to leverage all these dense connections at this time. It will be a shame if we come away from this moment skeptical of density itself, or if some befits of density, like mass transit and bustling commercial corridor, suffers lasting damage. Whether or not we fully appreciate them right now, we may need them in the next disaster.