Could the medieval cities have fought the pandemic better than our modern city planning?

Our history manifests that epidemics powerfully influence the “physical fabric” of cities around the world. Part of the history of urbanization is building and managing your way out of infectious diseases. Some of the most iconic developments in urban planning and management, such as London’s Metropolitan Board of Works and mid-19th century sanitation systems, developed in response to public health crises such as cholera outbreaks. 

Honorable Mention | RTF Essay Writing Competition April 2020

Category: Medieval Cities VS Modern Cities
Participant: Palak Bhatia
Profession: Student
University: Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, Punjab, India

Urban city planning plays a major role in preventing, controlling and ceasing the spread of pandemics. While thinking of pandemic solutions the first thing that comes to mind is “de-densification”. Rethinking density management is the key for long term survival in a pandemic world. One of the orthodox and myopic solutions includes the spread of city rather than densify, that would have to go with much better connectivity of public transport.

But we must remember that we will be weighing such changes in the context of climate change and sustainability as well. Even Le Corbusier, who prized efficiency and movement, understood the value of people bumping into each other. It gives cities their energy and cosmopolitanism its effect. Density is what makes cities work in the first place; it’s a major part of why they are economic, cultural and political powerhouses. Therefore a decentralized city like a London of villages or mayor Hadalgo’s 15 minute Paris is unfeasible. Rather than “de- densification” urban centers should focus on healthy density. As a matter of fact, density is the precondition for effective urban service provision, and far too many people in cities today lack access to basic services. It’s the lack of access to essential services such as water, housing and health care, that has exacerbates the challenge of responding effectively to pandemics in cities. Poor access makes lockdowns orders impossible to comply with in some places.  On this account, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has proposed decentralizing or “deconstructing” her city so every neighborhood has a mix of stores, homes, office buildings and other uses, and residents can satisfy most of their needs within a 15-minute walk. If you create more walkable neighborhoods and put services and jobs in those neighborhoods, then perhaps you can alleviate the extreme density and crowdedness you have in various systems” such as public transit. Policymakers can focus on creating more affordable housing to prevent chronic stress caused by housing instability and long commutes, as well as rental assistance programs. With stable housing, residents have a place to hunker down when ordered to shelter in place during a disease outbreak and people who would otherwise be homeless can avoid the risks from staying in crowded temporary shelters. Another paramount problem is that we have made public health all about specific diseases and germs. We should not try to think of some peculiarity of the certain pandemic that would change the way we think about cities. That would be a mistake because the next epidemic is going to be something different. There is a lot that city planning can do to make people healthier, and it’s mostly on side of immunity.

For example one of the few places that have seen a surge in traffic during COVID-19 lockdowns (at least as long as they remain open) is urban parks. A new approach to city planning should bring open spaces, watersheds, forests and parks into the heart of how we think about and plan our cities. A more holistic approach to planning that combines gray, green and blue infrastructure supports better health, better water management (flooding contributes to many epidemics and diseases after natural disasters), and climate adaptation and mitigation strategies will benefit the city population in the longer run. Besides, larger open spaces within the urban fabric can help cities implement emergency services and evacuation protocols. Among other urban planning concerns, cities can also work to make sure they have enough hospitals with surge capacity to handle disease outbreaks, moreover, there is a digital response. We can develop apps that can tell you who is sick in your neighborhood, and people make a lot of decisions based on the whole digital infrastructure. 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. Digital infrastructure might be the sanitation of our time. 

Coming to the question at hand, whether medieval cities could be better at handling a pandemic than our modern city planning .there is a threefold approach to city planning aimed to handle pandemics. The first line of defense is the source of a pandemic. Viruses can mutate and spread almost anywhere, but environments with close proximity to viruses and bacteria are more vulnerable. Medieval cities often had poor sanitation system with open sewers and water source. this dual arrangement caused bacterial contamination of the drinking water supply and repeated outbreaks of typhoid fever and cholera .this failure in town planning often witnessed plagues like the bubonic plague which caused many fatalities. The second strategy is limiting the spread: building firewalls and detection methods to prevent viruses from spreading. This is challenging for our modern cities as global movement of goods and people has given rise to the threat of a pandemic and its proliferation. This is a rich point. It’s easy to look at these major cities and global supply chains, and say of course we have an epidemic — this is how globalization plays itself out. But we are telling a different story — one about non-global cities, tertiary cities and peri-urban areas. COVID-19 is really a story of peri-urban and rural-to-urban connections, in places that are often not on the global map. This is the story in Washington state [where COVID-19 first emerged in Snohomish County], or the Italian story, which is still largely suburban. Secondly, in the medieval times there were lesser places for social contact. In most cases the town planning often had a nucleus (church or market plaza) around which the town radiated and spread. This was the place of the most and sometimes only social contact. Therefore in times of pandemics it would have been easier to isolate public as there weren’t many places for social contact as opposed to modern times where there are innumerable places for social contact which makes it difficult to quarantine. The third and the final strategy is avoidance of transmission. In the event of a serious pandemic, school closings and voluntary and even mandatory quarantines will require widespread buy-in from the public. Yet there is often little discussion in the press to help people understand the measures they can take to best protect themselves. This has architectural and urban implications. In earlier eras, before global travel became an easy option, most people lived in comparatively smaller and more stable communities with those who shared exposure and immunity to the same diseases. This made it essential that most daily needs be provided for within a relatively small geographic area — which also served to limit our interactions mainly to those with whom we had diseases in common. In this sense, membership in a community offered more than a social and economic benefit; it was literally a matter of life and death, since traveling too far away from one’s own viral community made a person both a threat to others and vulnerable to infection. 

The prospect of pandemic, then, spur us to rethink one of the prevailing divides in urban design — the divide between those who envision a high-tech metropolis of global connectedness, on the one hand, and those who call for a return to traditional, small-scale, mixed-use settlements, on the other. We will actually need both the high-tech metropolis and the small-scale settlement. The digital environment will globally connect us while the mixed-use settlement will provide us with the diverse local goods and services we will need in a less mobile future. Approaching architecture and urban design with pandemics in mind will make our cities healthier and more sustainable. Moving bits rather than bodies, increasing the mix of uses in local communities, and reducing the degree of contact we have in the physical environment — all this will not only increase our chances of surviving a pandemic, but also decrease our ecological footprint. These are related phenomena. One of the great worries in the epidemiological community is that infectious diseases will arise because of climate change, and so the more we can do to stem the latter, the more we will do to prevent the former. This gives new meaning to Marshall McLuhan’s idea of the “global village.” McLuhan envisioned electronic media as making the globe more like a village, with the whole planet able to communicate and connect as easily as a local community. We may have to live, literally, in more village-like ways; we may all inhabit a digitally connected globe and, at the same time, live physically separated in our own viral communities. That prospect will surely raise objections — it goes against the expectation of freedom that has come to characterize modern life, especially in highly developed nations. Won’t a globe of physically isolated village-cities return us to a more “primitive” existence, haunted by the tribal conflicts, ethnic prejudices, and the fear of strangers?

Won’t barriers to travel impose unacceptable restrictions on our ability to experience other places and understand other cultures, and won’t it constrain our ability to grow intellectually and socially beyond the bounds of our home communities? These are precisely the questions we need to raise. The deserted reality of our urban fabric today presents us with opportunities for observation. A rare insight into discerning the elemental framework of our urban infrastructure under pandemic pressures and in the vast emptiness. The larger point that the pandemics steer our focus towards is when the outbreak shall be halted and bans lifted and the world resumes as normal, there still needs to be a great degree of research and understanding into the relationship between the spread of infectious diseases and urbanization. There are two aspects that we need to focus on. One, we need to grasp where disease outbreaks occur and how they relate to the physical, spatial, economic, social and ecological changes brought on by urbanization. There is a direct relationship between contemporary urbanization and potential pandemic outbreaks. The coronavirus and its effects over our planet are streamlining our focus towards the evaluation of the present conditions of our cities and its infrastructure, raising planning and contextual inquiries, forcing us to introspect and question what we really learn from rapid urbanization and more importantly, is there a need to catalogue and curate the exploration of emerging urban landscapes?


1 Fisher Thomas: Viral cities (

2 IAN KLAUS: Pandemics Are Also an Urban Planning Problem (



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