The Difference Between a Frozen Steak and a Cow Out in the Country

Gran Vía, Madrid, during the pandemic. Montage by author, based on photograph taken in Madrid by H. Darbishire in April 2020.

One of the most common images we’ve seen over the last few weeks is the hitherto unimaginable panorama of our cities’ streets almost empty, with no vehicles, just pedestrians and cyclists striving to maintain social distancing.

Many commentators have insisted on interpreting this pandemic situation as the reflection of an alternative urban model, almost like someone who’s stopped to fill their lungs with air for second after a chaotic flurry of activity.

To a certain extent, it’s logical to think in those terms. When social misfortunes strike – especially health crises – it’s to be expected that urban planning will tend to evolve. Almost all our planning regulations are designed to establish minimum standards of health (air, water quality, waste processing, the minimum spaces we use) and safety (fire, evacuation plans, accessibility). They’re usually created as the result of dramatic situations, in an attempt to reduce the risks of repeating those situations

But we shouldn’t be fooled by simplistic impressions. The empty streets occupied by birds and bike-riding youngsters are not the product of calm reflection or an alternative approach to urban planning, but of fear. Has a city with zero emissions due to the total absence of transport or any kind of activity got anything to do with sustainability? I don’t think so. The ghost town of a city we’ve been seeing just lately is the brittle shell of outward appearances. There’s no activity, no production … and therefore silence. Few places are as quiet as a cemetery, but I don’t think we should be proposing one as a model for our cities.

Over a long period of time, we’ve turned private spaces into the only possible settings for interaction, gradually depriving citizens of public space. Has that model made us any happier? Is it sustainable? Anyone who isn’t fortunate enough to have wide open spaces and clear blue sky in their home (and even then, it’s debatable) would have to answer “no” to those questions.

Because cities are places for meeting and relating to people. We need sufficient density to be able to have universities, culture, health…. It’s true that we ought to learn from this situation and rethink the city. COVID19 will probably be a watershed for working from home. Public –  and therefore surface – transport is also going to be affected for some time to come. What strategies should we adopt regarding more flexible working hours, to foment mixed uses in our cities’ neighbourhoods, to recover spaces so that users can relate to each other from safe distances? There don’t yet appear to be any clear answers.

In the meantime, thinking how beautiful a cow in a field is while we’re looking at a steak in the freezer may not be the best criterium (unless it helps us avoid making mistakes in the future). Don’t you agree?

Text translated by Andrew V. Taylor
Arquitecto desde el año 2000. Miembro de la Asociación de Arquitectos (aA), ha sido vocal de la Junta de Gobierno del COAM y asambleísta en el CSCAE.

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