Fall/Winter 2020 /The New (Ab)Normal/

Rerighting the City

The New (Ab)Normal in City Life

CitySecond Home, an innovative co-working space in Hollywood, has garnered a lot of attention due to its design features. Sixty pods, which occupy a large parking lot, are embowered with trees, are fancifully painted, and contain large workable windows that produce a sun-drenched environment for those settling in for a day’s work.

As its designer assured the Los Angeles Times: “One of the best aspects of living in L.A. is to be able to open a door and being surrounded by nature.” The region’s “close relationship with the good weather, hummingbirds and flowers is lost if you have stairs, elevators or corridors in the way. The goal was to work in a garden, where you can be indoors, but the outdoors is just a door away.”

But is Second Home, as has been touted, a sign of our post-pandemic future? The question also might be asked of the al fresco dining craze, in which restaurants and bakeries have crowded out onto sidewalks, or, as in Claremont, commandeered parking spaces and turned them into patios. The same goes for the slotting of bollards into streets to produce instant pedestrian malls in central cities and small downtowns.

Will these quick adaptations do more than provide a rapid influx of consumers and cash to prop up our faltering economy and boost employment? Those two results are essential, but I’m not convinced that the design interventions by themselves offer long-term solutions to the many and enduring social issues that plagued American cities before the pandemic and that have been further exposed by COVID-19’s sweep across the urban landscape.

Start with the novel coronavirus’s fatal power. As of early October 2020, it has killed more than 200,000 Americans, roughly 20 percent of fatalities worldwide. Those numbers have had a decidedly urban framing. Los Angeles, like New York City, has been among the epicenters in the United States, a location concentration that seems consistent across the globe.

Yet within urban America, some residents have been more impacted than others. The data is glaringly obvious in who has died, where and why—in large part due to age, race and ethnicity, poverty, class, education and neighborhood. The pandemic, in short, has exposed the fault lines that run through U.S. society. These fissures—which include spatial inequities, economic disparities and political inequalities—have segmented the urban landscape.

In this unsettling context, social distancing takes on new meaning. Ditto for Second Home’s chic if segregated pods, which only reinforce the fragmented, exclusive character of the modern workplace.

What interventions might we take to alter more radically the inequalities hammered into our built environments? Here are some of the related questions that students in the Environmental Analysis program grappled during the fall semester: Who has rights to the city? Who has unfettered access to a community’s public resources—its politics, policies and services, its streets and open space, its healthy and full life?

Social theorist Henri Lefebvre was an earlier source of some these queries, which he used to directly confront the capitalist state that was busily commodifying social relations and controlling city governments. The only effective antidote, Lefebvre argued, was a concerted effort to rescue “the citizen as main element and protagonist of the city that he himself had built” and the subsequent reclamation of the metropolis as “a meeting point for building collective life.”

His formative concerns have gained greater urgency amid the global pandemic, but whether they will gain traction is another matter. The news is not particularly encouraging, a point some of my students made when I queried them over the summer about what they were observing, thinking and reading. Luba Masliy ’22 sent me a link to architectural critic Benjamin Bratton’s sharp interrogation of the pandemic’s hollowing out of communal life: “As amenities that were once known as places in the city are transformed now into apps and appliances inside the home, public space is evacuated and the ‘domestic’ sphere becomes its own horizon.”

This inward focus has happened even in highly centralized Moscow, Masliy noted of her hometown. Although its downtown contains the majority of its urban functions—jobs, education, shopping and recreation—it has been diminished in one key sense. Before the pandemic, mass-transit rush hours dominated daily commutes. Now, auto-owning Moscovites have clogged the road. She was skeptical whether this gridlock will fuel demand for a more decentralized urban system and greater diversity of infrastructure and services.

Pauline Bekkers ’21 shared Masliy’s skepticism. She spent the summer back in the Netherlands and there observed a sharp uptick in the number of motorized vehicles on highways, despite her country’s longstanding investment in a robust bicycle-and-transit system. “People have such a negative image of public transportation,” she wrote, that “they’d rather take any other alternative.” Her hope was tempered: “As much as this is an opportunity for city governments to make radical changes in the urban landscape, it is also essential that we grab this opportunity to change attitudes.” She’d start with a real commitment to engage with the most vulnerable communities, a goal that requires urban planners “to completely reimagine what their planning process looks like and how they empower communities to build their own post-pandemic cities.”

That same argument is central to a book that Anam Mehta ’21 encouraged me to read: Samuel Stein’s Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State (2019). For Stein, the rise of the “real estate state,” a phenomenon he associates with New York and other global cities, is attributable to a rapid accumulation of real-estate capital since the 1980s. This concentration of wealth, he writes in homage to Lefebvre’s earlier insights, has secured “inordinate influence over the shape of our cities, the parameters of our politics and the lives we lead.”

To break that pattern will require planners and designers to envision a new and healthier urban society. That potential comes with a catch. The real estate state “is most firmly grafted onto municipal governments,” Stein observes, “because that is where much of the capitalist state’s physical planning is done.” This locus means that planners are “uniquely positioned at the nexus of the state, capital and popular power,” and as a result, they “sit uncomfortably at the center of this maelstrom.” The only force that can help these professionals “unwind real estate’s grip over our politics” and give them the freedom to dismantle the social inequities built into the urban fabric is the formation of a series of “mass movements to remake our cities from the ground up.”

Were that to occur, then this galvanizing momentum might finally secure Lefebvre’s imagined community and our collective and embodied right to cities that are habitable and just—an outcome that is as essential whether we are locked down or opened up.

Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History.