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What Past Pandemics Have Taught us About Urban Planning

Source: Stefan Falke / laif / Redux

From small villages to sprawling metropolises, urban planning is crucial to all types of human settlement. No matter where you go today, you will see the influence of urban planning  – even in chaotic cities like Dhaka, Jakarta and Sao Paulo. Throughout history, mankind has planned urban areas based on a variety of factors – size, requirements, environmental conditions etc. 

However, there is one factor that has drastically changed how we think of urban planning: pandemics. From the black death to the Spanish flu, pandemics have played a critical role in rethinking urban spaces. From London to Florence, and Canberra to Philadelphia, many cities have been reborn after a pandemic. 

Now as COVID-19 grips the world, the question is what we will learn about urban planning from this particular pandemic? Whilst we cannot predict the future, we can look to the past for some clues on what cities could look like in the future. 

Link Between Disease and Urban Centres

Many infectious diseases we are battling today can be traced back to the close interaction between man and nature. The price for our ancestors’ discovery of farming is the outbreaks of diseases of animal origin, like measles, smallpox, anthrax and yellow fever. Our interactions with wild animals have led to diseases like ebola, plague and even COVID-19. Through our close contact with both wild and domestic animals, viruses and bacteria have adapted to jump from animals to humans, sometimes through intermediaries like mosquitoes and fleas.

Take for example COVID-19. This  global pandemic has killed more people in urban centres than rural. Cities like New York, London, Mumbai and Los Angeles are major epicentres for the disease. That’s not a coincidence. As an article in the World Economic Forum put it: “Precisely because they are hubs for transnational commerce and mobility, densely populated and hyper-connected cities can amplify pandemic risk.”

times square showing lots of pedestrians
New York City’s Times Square pre-pandemic. Now the crowds have largely disappeared. Image by Roel Helios from Pixabay

Urban centres, especially in the 21st century are key conduits for diseases to pass between nations. COVID-19 became a pandemic exactly because of how easy it is to travel between urban centres, and within these centres. That’s why urban planning is vital. If done the right way, cities can be designed to prevent diseases from spreading. We have seen this happen before, like Philadelphia in the 1800s, Paris in the 1850s and New York City in the 1900s. 

In all 3 cases, the addition of large public spaces and the implementation of city-wide codes helped contain brutal epidemics – yellow fever in Philadelphia, cholera in Paris and tuberculosis in New York City. 

Urban Planning for Sanitation

Improvements to sanitation are closely tied to disease outbreaks. Even before germ theory was an accepted idea, a number of doctors and civic planners felt that there was a link between sanitation and health. A good example of this is the yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793. Dr Benjamin Rush, one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence, was one of the many doctors to blame the sanitary conditions of the city for the outbreak. 

Not many believed him though. There was no consensus on how the disease spread, making it harder to fight it. However, Rush’s theory did prevail, and in the end cleaning the streets of the filth helped the city combat the epidemic.  


Read More: The Urban Poor have been Hit Hard by Coronavirus. We Must Ask who Cities are Designed to Serve


As a result, the city drastically changed how it approached sanitation. Not only did it become important to clean gutters, but many American cities saw the creation of alleyways for garbage removal. Today, these alleyways are a standard part of American cities. 

Moving over to the UK, there is a prominent example of urban planning as a result of the need to improve sanitation: Victoria Embankment. This new space was born as a result of the need for a city-wide sewage system. Prior to this, the Thames had been an open sewer and the smell was so bad it was called the ‘Great Stink’. Embankment, which covers a purpose-built main sewer, was designed to clean up the highly polluted Thames River. Although primarily designed to get rid of the awful smell the secondary effect was to reduce several water-borne diseases like cholera and dysentery.

Urban planning in London led to the creation of a city-wide sewage system in the 1800's
Cross-section of Victoria Embankment, engraving, 1867. Published in the ‘Illustrated London News’ dated June, 1867. Source: Museum of London

At much the same time a cholera outbreak was raging through London. In a remarkable feat of detective work, one Dr John Snow traced the outbreak back to a public water pump in Broad St which was contaminated with raw sewage. Snow’s methodical and scientific approach gave birth to what we know today as epidemiology and helped cement the germ theory of disease. His discovery reinforced the importance of sanitation in preventing disease and added extra justification to the construction of the city-wide sewage system. What you may not know is that as you stroll along the embankment, below your feet, millions of cubic litres of wastewater are being transported in pipelines.  

Throughout history, some urban cultures have focused on clean water without understanding why it is so important for health, however, with Dr Snow and the solving of the ‘Great Stink’ that connection entered the age of reason. In fact, the creation of a clean water supply has been heralded as one of the most significant health advances in human history.

The History of Space in Urban Centres

Having survived a series of plague outbreaks, famed polymath Leonardo Da Vinci designed concepts for a future city between 1487 and 1490. At the heart of Da Vinci’s design were two key concepts: canals and vertical divisions. Both were aimed at reducing crowding and improving sanitation. Long before germ theory was accepted, Da Vinci proved again how he was ahead of his time by understanding the origin of diseases. 

A recreation of Da Vinci’s “Functional City”. Source: Ideal Spaces Working Group

Da Vinci’s ideas may have not all come to fruition, but the concept of space certainly did. Crowded cities with little space were key reasons for the rapid spread of the plague, which is why many renaissance cities chose to emphasize space. 

Of course, space on its own does little to combat disease. The Romans, for all their vast spacious cities, had regular outbreaks of diseases like the Antonine plague, which we now know to have been caused by smallpox. However, space did help. It enabled an early form of social distancing and quarantine, limiting the spread.

In the case of the Black Death, so many people, especially city dwellers, died that it was possible to take up Da Vinci’s ideas on creating urban space. It is estimated that half the population of Europe died during this and subsequent outbreaks that Italian cities benefited from access to more space. The result was the spacious roads and piazzas that modern tourists love so much.

The importance of space also saw the development of garden cities in the UK in the early 20th century. These cities were developed as a direct response to the rising rates of disease during the industrial revolution and the growing scientific understanding of how infectious diseases actually spread. Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City stand today as memorials to the need for space in urban planning. 

Lessons from COVID-19

What the above examples go to show is that pandemics have had a tangible impact on urban planning. City spaces as we know them are constantly evolving and adapting, mostly in response. So how will future cities look like post COVID?

Whether we will see a second renaissance or not is doubtful, but we will definitely see some changes. In early March 2020, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called for “Open streets to reduce the density.” Essentially, Cuomo wants less space for cars and more space for pedestrians. Pedestrianisation of roads could help with social distancing while allowing people to get more exercise, and move around without polluting the atmosphere. 


Read More: Inching Towards Abundant Water: New Progress in Desalination Tech


Sanitisation too will become key. Many Asian and South American cities like Bangkok, Dhaka, and Sao Paolo are suffering from overcrowding without ample sanitation. Access to clean running water, which is yet to become universally available, should be expedited. 

Another key lesson from COVID-19 is the need for adaptable environments. Urban planners will have to take into consideration the need to quickly repurpose spaces to combat diseases. In an article for BBC future, Harriette Constable wrote: “having both the space and capability to create these rapid, temporary structures will be a fundamental part of a city built for a pandemic.” 

view of front of NHS Nightingale Hospital London
The ExCel London convention centre was quickly repurposed as NHS Nightingale, a hospital dedicated to COVID patients. Source: Bob Stewart

The City of the Future

Creating cities that can adapt to future pandemics is not going to be easy, especially given that land and water are at a premium. Major metros like London, Paris, New York and Mumbai have little scope for development. That’s where smaller changes come in. Increased pedestrian space, more surveillance and pop-up sanitizing stations will all become standard in the city of the future. 

Smaller towns though, have huge scope. Since they are just beginning to expand,  it is possible to model these cities on future requirements for social distancing, disease control and flexibility. That’s going to take a lot of willpower from governments, corporations and people. Here, governments can take inspiration from Dubai, Singapore and Taipei. They have shown that urban planning can go hand in hand with capitalism, to build sustainable cities for tomorrow. 

Sources: Chapman University, China Global Television Network, Heritage Calling, National Public Radio, Pennsylvania Centre for the book, PWC, UC Davis

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