Rethinking the city: urban experience and the Covid-19 pandemic

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Whilst the full effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are yet to be seen, the near-global lockdown of urban centres has been a jarring experience for city-dwellers. The optimisation narrative has been stopped in its tracks. The speed, number, and efficiency of available urban experiences are now fixed somewhere close to zero. And even the things we do to escape this logic of urban gratification — to calm the pace of everyday life — are now increasingly unavailable; without culture, community, and recreation, people are beginning to wonder what they’re actually doing here, squashed into crowded cities across the world. But, as the peak of the pandemic approaches in many countries, there are more profound forces at play beyond just the individual’s loss of activity and communication.

To be isolating in the city is to embody an agonising contemporary paradox: that, although the coronavirus is now moving rapidly through regions like New York State and London, the connectivity, medical resources, and infrastructure in these centres means that local health prospects may actually be higher than in less infected areas. Having already spread along the avenues of globalisation — holidaying, business travel, and international supply chains — the virus is now recreating a familiar Western narrative: that of the city under siege. Whether via cabinet-war-room style depictions of central government, or makeshift hospitals in the triangle of London, Birmingham, and Manchester, cities will inevitably emerge as defiant symbols of human endeavour and resilience, irrespective of the harm their cramped organisation may also have caused.

But what of this desire for an active city? In Urban Revolution (1970), Henri Lefebvre uses a rough axis (marked from 0 to 100% urbanisation) to imagine the city space. It starts with the political city — marked by bureaucratic power — before progressing through mercantile and industrial phases. Postindustrial society is termed ‘urban’, at which point the city undergoes a process of ‘implosion-explosion’ as it approaches the end of the axis. This rampant expansion of the ‘urban fabric’ which Lefebvre describes will evoke nostalgia to anyone living in a major hub, but unable to enjoy it:

the tremendous concentration (of people, activities, wealth, goods, objects, instruments, means, and thought) of urban reality and the immense explosion, the projection of numerous disjunct fragments (peripheries, suburbs, vacation homes, satellite towns) into space.

For Lefebvre, these ideas were both a loose historical commentary and a starting point for his own socialist reimagining of ‘complete urbanisation’. This is apt given the current lockdown; the current pandemic may well be an acid test for society’s infrastructure and economic model. Watching from behind closed doors as they mobilise in tandem offers an historically unique, often painful perspective. Flaws are revealed gradually, and with great cost to human life. However painful these may be now, in time they could offer a unique opportunity to remake society with the lessons learned.

Perhaps most relevant to our current situation is Lefebvre’s broad understanding of the urban fabric; he includes vacation homes, motorways, suburbs, and even countryside supermarkets in his definition. In normal circumstances, these structures are self-sustaining and peripheral, but what we see in the current crisis is the power of individuals to balloon the city by flocking to its fringes — often at the expense of fellow citizens. When movement is coded with infection, urbanisation suddenly becomes a form of domination. Under this kind of siege, it’s better to sit tight than to flee.

It’s interesting to see this being acknowledged by some sections of the media, even if the socio-cultural consequences remain largely unexplored. The New York Times states that to make meaningful per capita comparisons for Covid-19 cases, its data focuses upon ‘metropolitan areas’ rather than cities or countries, as they more accurately account for ‘the regions where the virus might spread quickly among families, co-workers or commuters’. The statistics for the New York area therefore include nearby suburbs in Westchester, Long Island, and northern New Jersey. And although there’s no immediate way of determining whether people are moving out of necessity or choice, a fairly obvious distinction can be made between displaced workers moving from Delhi, for example, and those in prosperous Western centres — where movement is contingent on financial stability. The pushback against needless migration is mostly anecdotal, seen through viral images of angry placards in British seaside towns, and local news stories of overwhelmed health services. The pandemic has caused a retreat into the familiarity of nation states: not just in the literal sense of repatriation, but also as a means of civic organisation, internal governance, and statistical monitoring. What some call ‘de-globalisation’ reveals what we already know: that not all nations, governments, or health services are created equal — and that this applies to sub-national groupings too. Spatial inequality will play a huge role in determining the eventual death map of the pandemic.

In such strangely out-of-time situations, what constitutes the normal is thrown into sharp relief. Activities normally taken for granted are judged by how easily they can be replicated while upholding their essential values — which in our current time usually means a relocation to the internet. What emerges is a familiar gulf between the professional and the social. Whereas for most office-based employees, work can continue with the assistance of specialised software, communications, and adaptable management structures, the integrity of social relationships suffers far more when human contact is removed.

We feel an acute yearning for companionship, not just because we miss our friends more than we miss our bosses, but because for the most part, the means of reproducing social intimacy online are far inferior to those which ensure the fulfilment of economic roles. That video calling is the go-to for both spheres demonstrates this; it’s somehow the optimal social medium, but exists alongside far more complex tools within the work of work, especially in highly adapted corporate industries. The overlap is somewhat inevitable given that work needs a social element to function, but it’s still grimly remarkable that to evoke all the tenderness and multiplicity of friendships, the best we’ve come up with is drinking a beer while watching someone else do the same on our phones.

It’s tempting to read the digitalisation of work as a direct transposition of the relations of production. This may be roughly the case, but in reality, there are obvious (and often welcome) differences between urban work culture and the current isolation, which speak to Lefebvre’s earlier ideas on ‘everyday life’ (not to mention that work has been at least partially online for decades). By theorising new forms of alienation within modernity — the unpaid labour of the daily commute, for example — Lefebvre in many ways anticipated common qualms about 21st century work life. These are familiar to us, now mostly expressed in the pithy, resigned idiom of being ‘chained to the desk’, ‘meetings that could be an email’, and the general exhaustion of 24/7 communications. The lockdown has stripped back many of these rituals, revealing that much of face-to-face professional life is made up of parade, gesture, formality, and convention — even if there is enjoyment to be found in the structure and atmosphere of the office. Doing more online, and crucially, from not-the-office may be a lasting result from the current changes.

As William Davies has recently suggested, rather than viewing the pandemic as a crisis of capitalism, ‘it might better be understood as the sort of work-making event that allows for new economic and intellectual beginnings’. While this is not the dawning of Lefebvre’s ‘urban utopia’, conceiving of digitalisation as a form of urban progression does point to potential improvements in everyday life, even if the existing internet hierarchy hardly favours citizens. As Joe Shaw and Mark Graham from Oxford Internet Institute argue in a 2017 paper, in order to democratise the city space, we need to understand contemporary urbanisation “as a period where the city is increasingly reproduced through digital information’. They focus on Google’s ability to control the reproduction of urban space through features like maps and email: ‘this is a power to choose how a city is reduced to information, and to control the manner in which it is translated into knowledge and reintroduced to material everyday reality’. Companies are utterly dominant in this area, though the relocation of work and social relations to the digital space — coupled with an overdue revaluation of critical work, a recognition of the service industry’s precarity, and an increase in corporate responsibility — could provide a turning point for some urban hierarchies. The case for universal low-cost internet will be made with renewed urgency after the pandemic; access to accurate information has suddenly become a matter of life and death. If the oft-mentioned global solidarity outlasts the pandemic, then meaningful progress could be made against tech monopolies, resource inequality, and climate breakdown.

For all the difficulties of the lockdown, it does refine our appreciation of what came before. Social existence is naturally incidental and unpredictable — there’s a kind of randomised joy borne of living amongst others. In the city, this effect is amplified. As Lefebvre says of the city’s streets, they are ‘a place to play and learn….a form of spontaneous theatre, I become spectacle and spectator, and sometimes an actor’. There’s certainly a romantic optimism here, but as isolation brings longing, the words feel ever sincerer. A recent Financial Times article contained an amusing vignette on an empty London:

The bankers have disappeared and new tribes with different uniforms have taken over: builders in black trousers and dusty boots; security guards in high-vis jackets pacing outside empty lobbies; and trim young men and women in lycra running or cycling through the empty streets.

The reality, of course, is that these people were always there; it’s just that not everyone notices them. The task beyond the pandemic will be extending this right to the city to all: remaking the structures of everyday life so that they empower all citizens, and harnessing digital urbanisation rather than existing at its mercy. Extending our current social contract — which shows we are prepared to live differently to protect the vulnerable — will be a powerful first step.

Ravi Ghosh is a journalist based in London, focusing on politics, identity, and culture. His work has appeared in Prospect, the Financial Times, Huffpost, the Independent, and elsewhere.