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

The world as we know it today has been shaped by its own history generating a global identity that we now decipher as our own. On one hand, we have been fighting our battle with climate change created by our past, driven by the Anthropocene, and on the other, we fight capitalistic and power-driven geopolitics that will shape our future. However, all the above has been put on hold for reexamination and realigning due to the current novel crisis of COVID-19. While politicians all around the world build a polemic about the source, we fight our intra-country battles as well as inter-country ones to assign blame while the world remains caged in their homes, the question of focus, however, is How did we get here?

Honorable Mention | RTF Essay Writing Competition April 2020

Category: Medieval Cities VS Modern Cities
Participant: Sneha Tiwari
Profession: Architect
University: MA Architectural history, criticism, and theory from The Bartlette School of Architecture.
Firm: Blank Slate Studio, Mumbai

We as architects and urban planners have often taken pride in our ability to shape our built environment and in the face of the crisis mustn’t shy away from accepting blame. While the medical aid is being provided to the ailing and sick we could take a moment to unlearn and relearn our design sensitivities and value systems often driven by economic and real estate sensibilities. Just like most of our people and some of our buildings, our cities too, are sick. They are overcrowded, dense, unfit, and desperately gasping for breath, overburdened by our lack of infrastructure, resources, spatial understanding, and growing uncontrolled density. This sickness has proven a lot more fatal in the face of the current virus than ever imagined otherwise. 

Cities, as we know them today, are a result of a growing evolutionary process and an attempt to trace it back through the understanding of historical paths could throw some light on the creation of the current challenges and possible solutions. The comprehension of regional bifurcation as a city began with the migration of people towards certain epicenters of power, trade, agricultural and geographical epicenters. In an urban fabric comparative analysis, one period that comes to mind as the dark abyss full of disease, death, and destitute is that of the medieval times. 

The medieval times and their identity is often clouded by the dark ages and the dark cobwebs of scientific ignorance driven by religious sentiment. Bold warriors and patient craftsmen along with the dominant rise of merchant culture often find their mentions in the narrow crevices of historic documentation. The focus on faulty urban planning and lack of sanitation has led many to believe in medieval times as a period of stench and diseases. Diseases like the plague have taken lives over the medieval period as well as the early nineteenth century. However, we have no evidence to claim that the spread of the plague can be entirely blamed on the urban planning of the town ( if there was any ) or sanitation. On the contrary, the number of lives we can save now can be credited to our advancements in healthcare and technology.

The governance of the medieval city lay mainly with monasteries and other religious bodies making them a powerful apex of social centrality. The city form was dominated by the “urban wall” to bring physical and mental security to its inhabitants. These walls controlled thoroughfare coming into the city and leaving simultaneously. Regular weekly or fortnightly local markets, crowded by fishermen, peasants, and local craftsmen, formed most of the social culture of the times. Even though merchant culture was a dominant piece of the puzzle of a city, it differed highly from how we imagine it today. Markets formed consolidated urban pockets and the countryside remained disconnected and further. As a result, the economies were more insular limited by the underdevelopment and shortcoming of the transport means and systems. Merchants were wealthy members of the society and hence lived in permanent quarters within the city. Since markets were mainly local and merchant movement was restricted by limitations of transport, diseases like the coronavirus found it hard to travel from one city to another.  

On the other hand, cities were mainly located at large distances from the countryside. This not only allowed for large expanses of arable land to aid expansion but also limited the spread of diseases and infections between the countryside and the city. As the towns mainly grew out of the villages, the towns weren’t wholly industrial and the village wasn’t wholly agricultural. The strong rural influence can be seen in early medieval towns and greatness wasn’t measured in terms of expanse or population. High amounts of urban usable open spaces were a common characteristic of medieval towns. Contrary to popular belief the medieval towns didn’t have foul-smelling streets and green pockets allowed for earthy rural scents to overtake. These urban pockets provided buffer zones between various domestic regions and created a physical disconnection between domestic settlements, a form of physical distancing. 

The houses were often built in rows around a central green space and were often lined with smaller green patches on the other front. Reflections of the countryside through terraces, gardens, orchards, and fields became a common sight in medieval towns and acted as buffers between the houses and the street. The houses lacked differentiated spaces and differentiated functions and hence, houses also functioned as the workspaces and an intimate union of domesticity and labor was the norm reducing congregation of large number of people in commercial and industrial zones. Bedrooms and private areas weren’t a common sight and one would often find bed frames placed in the living room. This made the houses inadequate to aid any ailing or sick members of the family. This made healthcare a more public activity. Illnesses and diseases that would now qualify as home care were then taken to hospitals. The ratio of hospitals to the populace was also an important factor as there was one hospital per thousand people and more in slightly more prosperous towns. As identified by Lewis Mumford in his book called The Culture Of Cities, “The urban dwelling was indeed perhaps the weakest link in medieval sanitary arrangements; for in other respects, the standards were far more adequate than most Victorian commentators—and those who blindly repeat their mistakes—believed.” Contagious diseases were identified by the central apex powers and patients suffering from the same were quarantined outside the town wall. The centrality of the hospitals and other chief lead buildings allowed for absolute transparency of information.

“The establishment of quarantine, for people passing in and out of cities from foreign parts, was one of the major innovations of medieval medicine.” – Lewis Mumford.

Another major factor in the health and sanitation facilities were bath and drinking water supply. Private baths and domestic water supply were seen in towns much closer to the sixteenth century. However, before the establishment of these services public baths and public water supplies were the norm. A customary visit to a public bath made its way to a family’s weekly activity and was accompanied by eating, socializing, and getting checked for aches and swellings. Although the advent of private bathing led to the fall of these public baths to brothels, the collective nature of these activities ensured safety and high sanitary standards. As most of these facilities were still owned by private philanthropists the accountability was more unidirectional and focused. Drinking water too was a collective resource for a town and similarly was integrated into the social fabric of these urban pockets. 

Freestanding houses were scarce to find. Most houses were made in local material such as stone, bricks, and even wattle and daub depending on the region of inquiry. The houses had small window openings with oiled cloth or paper and sometimes shutters to keep the weather out. Houses were often built around a closed court and lacked a common passageway. This ensured the houses to be made of materials that would easily decompose or mingle with the earth on one hand and another has proven to be more resistant to the novel coronavirus as the virus finds it harder to survive on these compared to other man-made materials used in today’s construction. The reduction of circulation spaces also ensured minimal contact of people while crossing each others path and touching hand rails.  

The urban life has undergone a pragmatic shift as the cities began to evolve into dense global centers. Cities driven by trade or imperial power began to become more and more famed for their great technological and industrial advancements and people began to flock to these cities for a “modern” lifestyle and livelihood. With the increasing prosperity came increasing densities and homes began to lose access to the otherwise abundant light and fresh air. Gardens, graveyard, household plots, and backyards all got built over leading to unsanitary blocks of urban construction. Due to increasing density, a lot of new sanitation issues arose that were absent in medieval times. As the cities grew in density the capital, technology and sources required to acquire water for the entire town began to fall scarce. With increasing sizes of cities, overcrowding began to generate sanitary problems for example through unsanitary seepage of the water supply diseases and infections began to spread. The introduction of paving led to the need for periodic street cleaning. During medieval times most of the waste materials were organic and decomposed or mingled with the earth. The worst times were experienced in an existing gap between the rural conditions of the city and the creation of an adequate mechanical substitute. As noted by Mumford,

“the normal smells of the medieval town were not more offensive than those of the farmyard; nor were the evils overwhelming.”

It is hard to estimate the true nature of the circumstances had the coronavirus spread in a medieval city. However, a comparative analysis shows us a clear understanding of our shortcomings in urban planning and the challenges these shortcomings have placed on current wellbeing. The coronavirus must be treated as an eye-opener and a wake-up call for the architectural community to look back at the current practice of “city building” and its subsequent impact on public health. In the face of a crisis such as a coronavirus, we are just as healthy and safe as our cities are, maybe it’s time we look back and heal both. 


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