“Today Cities aren’t horrible. Cities are fundamentally unhealthy.”

More than half the world’s population lives in cities, hubs for transnational business, and movement with the potential to amplify pandemic risk. Cities with a high congregation of urban poor and deep disparities are potentially more vulnerable than those that are better resourced, less crowded, and more equal. The Points of reflex in today’s urban city planning management includes humans living near animals, overcrowding, lack of green areas, hectic work life, Irregular living conditions, Cramped up living areas, air and waste pollution, all of these add up to unhealthy fundamentals of the citizens.

Runner-up | RTF Essay Writing Competition April 2020

Category: Medieval Cities VS Modern Cities
Participant: Aditi Jain
Profession: Architect
University: School of Architecture, IPS Academy, India

Over the past 50 years, the number of people on the planet has doubled the number. This means more human beings get contaminated and in turn to infect others, especially in densely populated cities. We also have more livestock now than we did over the last 10,000 years of domestication up to 1960 combined, and viruses can leap from those animals to us. This worries that the threat posed by the COVID-19 virus will cause cities to be seen as sites of fear and for densification to fall out of favor. Despite worries that the momentum behind compact cities, smart growth, and density writ large might be lost due to the pandemic, it has been difficult to predict the potential impact because the relationship between hygiene concerns and density perceptions is poorly understood.

The response to it has to be both hyper-modern – and practically medieval.

The modern way is to surrender to the power of the pathogens: Acknowledge that they are unstoppable and to try to soften the blow with 20th-century inventions, including new vaccines, antibiotics, hospital ventilators, current urban situations and thermal cameras searching for people with fevers. The medieval way, inherited from the era of the Black Death, is brutal: Close the borders, quarantine the ships, and put people under complete isolation to pen terrified citizens up inside their cities. Indeed, many efforts to control the spread of the virus have explicitly focused on strategies of “de-densification.”

“Public’s perception of cities as sites of squalor, and suburban environments as bucolic and safe”

In the late medieval times, wealthy residents of European cities often retreated from cities during plagues. Following a similar pattern, in the present COVID-19 pandemic, the wealthier are fleeing cities for rural holiday properties or second homes.

 “To take on the current Pandemic world, Go Medieval on It”

Although pandemics have long been a tragic scourge on our cities, they’ve also forced architecture and city planning to evolve. The bubonic plague, which wiped out at least a third of Europe’s population in the 14th-century, helped to inspire the radical urban improvements of the Renaissance. Cities cleared squalid and cramped living quarters, expanded their borders, developed early quarantine facilities, opened larger and less cluttered public spaces and deployed professionals with specialized expertise, from surveyors to architects.

Likewise, the field of urban planning has also used public health to advance its ideas in the 18th-century yellow fever and 19th-century cholera and smallpox outbreaks helped to catalyze innovations like broad boulevards, citywide sewer systems, indoor plumbing, disease mapping and the early suburbs, and if the spaces are purposefully designed, they can assist in the prevention, containment, and treatment of infectious disease, including COVID-19. In the 20th century, tuberculosis, typhoid, polio and Spanish flu breakouts prompted urban planning, slum clearance, tenement reform, waste management and, on a larger level, Modernism itself, with its airy spaces, single-use zoning (separating residential and industrial areas, for instance), cleaner surfaces (think glass and steel) and emphasis on sterility. “We have to return to this kind of medieval spatial response to disease control, which means that architecture and urban design suddenly become medical. Something is fascinating about that—that we can use the built environment as a way to control epidemic spread.”

The Intersection of Urbanization and Infectious diseases can further change the design of our current city planning by introducing modular constructions, more of green and healthy buildings, lightweight architecture, Walkable neighborhoods, Responsive development,  Adaptive reuse and ephemeral development for the reconstruction of low-density settlements with telecommunication and small city livings to be more responsive and healthy. “It doesn’t mean you have to have acres and acres in every neighborhood, but it does mean you need to have spaces that are connected, that are part of a system so that people can move through the system, not a little park here and a little park there. You need parks of different scales and different uses.”

Rethinking about densification and ultimately fostering a more equitable and sustainable urban future.

One important lesson we can learn from the pandemic is to think more strategically about future, predictable crises. Not only by building sewer systems and providing clean water, urban planners historically tried to prevent the spread of disease by reducing the high population density that defines cities. In some places, decongestion campaigns could be brutal, as when Baron Haussman razed poor, cholera-plagued neighborhoods in Paris in the 1850s, displacing thousands of poor Parisians as he built wide boulevards, water and sewer systems, and parks. In New York, where tuberculosis was a leading cause of death in the early 1900s, social reformers like Jacob Riis documented the squalid, overcrowded conditions in tenements, leading to the passage of laws that set space requirements and mandated air shafts, windows, fire safety features, running water and indoor toilets.

Therefore rethinking density management is a key for deep rooted survival in a pandemic world and the relationship between hygiene and attitudes toward density.  This gap was particularly interesting because there is a substantial body of fascinating tangential evidence that suggests people’s attitudes to urban density might be influenced by hygiene concerns. Historically, for example, dense settlements have been associated with increased risk of disease and modern planning and civil engineering were born out of the mid-19th century development of sanitation in response to the spread of malaria and cholera in cities.

“The spatial choices we make today, during this emergency, might make or break our ability to survive both this crisis and the next one.”

Developing cities in a way were they can quickly switch to a different use in the case of an epidemic or another type of disaster and to think about cities and their connectivity as a fundamental factor and their coexistence, Moreover redesigning public spaces so that they can also work as logistics and treatment areas in cities for pandemics like this, and strategically for the future predictable crisis.

More holistic approaches to make cities and buildings healthy can also impact following pandemics by making it less likely that people get sick, and more likely that they avoid the most serious consequences. Considering design initiatives like;

  • Modular construction
  • Adaptive reuse
  • Walkable Neighborhoods
  • Lightweight architecture
  • The healthy green building
  • Telecommunicating and small city living
  • Building for responsive cause

There are two aspects that we need to focus on. “One, we need to grab where disease outbreaks occur and how they relate to the physical, spatial, economic, social and ecological changes brought on by urbanization.”

Generally, urbanization plans should account for fighting racism and intercultural conflict. Pandemic planning also falls into this category, and it’s more important than ever for cities to also consider this. The ongoing pandemic of COVID-19 is a strong reminder that urbanization has changed the way that people and communities live, work, and interact, and the need to strengthen systems and local capacities to prevent the spread of infectious diseases is urgent. As a global community, we must collectively invest in and build strong preparedness systems that are better adapted to increasingly urbanized settings.

Cities are hotspots of transformation and solution-finding, but they can also be hotspots of infection spread. From cities, we will find both our solutions and our biggest problems. COVID-19 isn’t the last global outbreak we will have to face. Hopefully, the world’s cities will rise to the challenge.


Rethinking The Future (RTF) is a Global Platform for Architecture and Design. RTF through more than 100 countries around the world provides an interactive platform of highest standard acknowledging the projects among creative and influential industry professionals.