THE current pandemic has gripped us with fear, uncertainty and growing economic upheaval. In response, governments around the world face increasing pressure to respond in order to protect citizens and economies. From afar, many were glued to their smartphones and other devices as China’s containment effort in Wuhan escalated, as did the death toll.

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This article was published 2/4/2020 (487 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

THE current pandemic has gripped us with fear, uncertainty and growing economic upheaval. In response, governments around the world face increasing pressure to respond in order to protect citizens and economies. From afar, many were glued to their smartphones and other devices as China’s containment effort in Wuhan escalated, as did the death toll.

There seemed to be an early, almost eerie feeling that COVID-19 would spread, and quickly.

An interesting question is whether cities have become safer as they have grown in size and become denser while also being part of a massive interconnected global highway. Perhaps now more than ever, as our urban centres become bigger and more complex, they are also increasingly open with intensive patterns of interaction.

Simply put, the movement of people, goods and information occurs at rates never imagined. Certainly, part of the rapidness with which the virus has spread can be explained by the global economy and movement of people that is faster and more far-reaching than ever before.

It is important to examine the unfolding events through a historical lens, to look back in hope that there are more reasons for optimism than for despair.

Today, cities are the nexus of humanity, where culture, economy and society converge in stunningly transformative ways. The urban revolution was driven by a massive restructuring of society, fuelled by technological advancements that shifted a predominately rural planet of less than a billion people in 1800 to today, where the world’s predominantly urban population is nearly eight billion.

In the distant past, cities struggled with size and many collapsed under the weight of famine, disease and economic struggle. Looking back 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, the ability of the earliest cities to sustain themselves revolved around the ability to exploit the environment, grow crops, domesticate animals and have access to water.

As trade developed, survival was driven by location, water, fertile soils and, eventually, proximity to other centres for commerce. Certainly, some of the greatest cities that emerged became thriving international ports for trade and commerce.

However, growth was limited to carrying capacity, and it took thousands of years for Iraq, Egypt and China to sustain cities of 100,000 people. It took even longer for the world to have cities of one million — such places as Alexandria, Rome, Baghdad and Beijing were early societies that flourished; much later, New York grew to 10 million in the 1930s.

While early cities and civilizations rose and fell, it is perhaps during the 1800s that global urbanism was truly born, and accelerated as the industrial revolution forever changed the way in which people lived and the world became increasingly interconnected. It was also during this time that cities began to struggle with complex problems, such as addressing diseases that could crush urban populations.

While our understanding of urban sanitation and the spread of communicable disease were emerging, the threat of plague was rampant, causing widespread fear and panic. In the hearth of the early Industrial Revolution, European cities struggled to contain outbreaks of infectious diseases such as cholera, typhoid, typhus, smallpox and tuberculosis. The impact of these diseases was massive; ultimately traced to public sanitation, overcrowding and poverty, they wreaked havoc on ordinary citizens.

Cholera outbreaks, which are rare in today’s world, are caused primarily by water contaminated by raw sewage. This disease ravaged cities, including Winnipeg, into the early 1900s when clean sources of water and separation of sewers were fully understood but still being implemented.

While the pathology of the many diseases that impacted mortality in cities spiked during the industrial revolution, it was the responses to them that are the greatest gift for today. It was in those cities where health movements began to address both the science of disease and the solutions to them. This included elements of modern building and occupancy standards and codes.

Through our increasing understanding of how to more safely support millions of urban residents, we learned the need to separate clean water supply from sewage (and how to treat both with chemicals for safety). We also learned that ventilation in homes is critical to well-being, as are light and heat.

We learned of the brutal outcomes of overcrowding, poverty and the lack of sanitation, and that infestations of rodents and pests can have grave consequences. We also advanced building standards to reduce the likelihood that other cities will experience fires such as those that devastated London, Rome and Chicago, to name a few.

Two hundred years ago, many died from infectious diseases that we can now easily prevent, because we used scientific evidence to implement measures to address inequality in how and where people live. Cities today are far from perfect, and the current pandemic is reminding us just how quickly our global connections can create echoes of how communicable diseases were spread hundreds of years ago.

What is rewarding now is that people from around the world, in cities and communities, are sharing knowledge, expertise and equipment to manage this situation. While city size does matter to some degree, what remains paramount is the responsiveness of the global community that has come forward in this pandemic to find ways to support each other.

I remain inspired by the viral video of Milanese people sharing songs across balconies, which were then shared online across continents in the blink of an eye.

Jino Distasio, former director of the Institute of Urban Studies, is a professor of geography and vice-president of research and innovation at the University of Winnipeg.