SAM KLING Fleeing to the suburbs doesn't help you, necessarily. We don't have evidence of that.
BOB GARFIELD Busting urban legends about life in the urban jungle during a pandemic and beyond. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. On the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We looked at how the movement changed the world for all of us. Like the ubiquitous curb cut.
SARAH HENDREN If you're somebody who pushes a stroller through the built environment, if you're someone walking a bike, you participate in those politics, too.
BOB GARFIELD And even as campus life shrivels and universities ponder their futures, some students will thrive in the academic environment shaped by the virus.
MICAH LOEWINGER Is it too strong to say that online school saved your life?
OMAR I mean, I was suicidal at the time because I had failed and felt that I had no other options. So maybe it's not too strong to literally save my life. Yeah, I would say that for sure.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is on the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Bob Garfield. Hey, it's over, 2020, the year from hell is behind us. So let's begin grateful for some of the nightmare left behind, yet cognizant of what polite people call: the challenges ahead, because vaccine or no vaccine, the impact of the devastation wrought in the last 10 months will continue to be felt for years to come. Particularly by those left behind in the wake of 300,000 plus dead of COVID-19, and by a generation of children who missed a vital year of school and by all the business owners who could not, in the end, keep the lights on. The pandemic touched most everyone OTM included. At the outset, New York was the epicenter of the virus in this country, and as we dealt with life in a lockdown, Kat, our executive producer was sickened with COVID. It was a bleak and frightening time. But out of darkness, as they say, comes light. In this hour, we'll look back at some of the conversations we had with scholars and writers, architects and advocates who told us that contrary to popular belief, the best place to be in a pandemic is a big city, and about disabled people's fight for a better built environment that wound up benefiting us all. And about how the disaster of online learning could actually be a boon for those who didn't have a place in the traditional system.
We'll start with cities. Was New York City's epicenter status just destined to be?
GEORGE MCFLY Lorraine? My density has popped me to you.
GEORGE MCFLY I'm your density. I mean...your destiny. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD What if pestilence is simply a city dweller? Pandemics naturally thrive most in big cities. Joel Kotkin wrote in Tablet magazine back in March, quote, People live cheek by jowl and are regularly exposed to people from other regions and countries. Well, that all sounds reasonable, maybe even obvious.
SAM KLING Well, it seems to make sense. You know, cities are places of crowds, interaction, lots of movement.
BOB GARFIELD But as Sam Kling wrote in CityLab in April, when you look at infections on a per capita basis, you'll notice that coronavirus does not always seek out the most crowded city blocks.
SAM KLING But outside of New York, a lot of the suburban areas have rates that are just as high, sometimes higher than Manhattan. In northern Italy, it wasn't really Milan that was hit hardest. It was the smaller towns and villages surrounding it. There are cities that are denser than New York, some of the most built up places on the planet, like Hong Kong and Singapore and Tokyo and Seoul. They've all managed to overcome, I think, cities vulnerabilities. So I think it's a bridge too far to say that density is destiny. And this idea that cities are particularly vulnerable to disease, to crime and vice and all these things, this is a very old idea making a reemergence right now because people don't really know what to think.
BOB GARFIELD Cities have maybe always been associated with language like: squalid, hotbed, miasma. In your piece for CityLab, you quote one of the great American anti-urbanists, Thomas Jefferson writing, quote, pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man. He didn't seem very thrilled about city life. He was not alone.
SAM KLING No. And this really came to a high point in the mid 19th century. In the United States, before the mid 19th century, there weren't really many cities of size. But then all of a sudden, with industrialization and urbanization, cities were growing faster than ever before and people noticed great poverty next to great wealth, political radicalism, social unrest, poor sanitation. And a lot of it was encapsulated in this new type of neighborhood that people called the slum. Civic leaders and reformers, they noticed that disease and vice and crime all concentrated there, and their explanation was that these social problems were a product of their environment, you know, the physical space of the city, the built environment. This is something that historians call moral environmentalism. The idea that the environment not just shapes people's physical character, but it also shapes their moral character. And of course, if the problem is the city environment, then that suggests all sorts of policy solutions that are aimed towards improving the city environment.
BOB GARFIELD Well, on that point, over the years, social reform has been conflated with and central to urban reform. And speaking of central, you in your work, cite one famous park at the time, a well intentioned answer to the physical and moral infirmity to which you refer, but you say the wrong answer.
SAM KLING Well, a partial answer parks were really the centerpiece of this urban reform movement based on moral environmentalism. The most famous example is Central Park in New York City, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux. And the idea there was that the design wouldn't just give people fresh air and open space and all of these things that we appreciate today, but that it would literally solve the most pressing social problems of the 19th century city. In Central Park and in a lot of other Olmstead parks. He would build these promenades that were visually prominent so that if you were sitting on a lawn, you would be naturally inclined to look at it. And the idea was that moneyed people would walk down these promenades and their nice clothes and their middle class manners and working class people would observe them. And as if by osmosis they would adopt their values and they would become good Republican citizens.
BOB GARFIELD What like go to the privilege zoo?
SAM KLING Yes, sort of. And some of the things that we take for granted in parks today, like playing ball or even walking on the grass - that was banned in Central Park because Olmstead wanted this to be a place of quiet reflection, where you could escape the busy chaos of the city and just relax. And he didn't want people engaging in active recreation.
BOB GARFIELD In the 20th century, we saw that mentality of anti urbanism laid bare by the language of the slum clearance movement.
NEWS REPORT In an effort to correct blighted conditions. City lands are reevaluated and undesirable areas are leveled to the ground. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Whether it's gangrenous limb or in Dutch elm disease. The treatment is removal of the rot. And you believe that these metaphors actually dictated or at least influenced public policy?
SAM KLING Yes, the ways that people understood the city in the 19th century, in the 20th century, and even in modern times is often through metaphors. And one of the most prominent metaphors in the early 20th century was that the city was like an ecosystem and like ecosystems. It suffers blight that suggests certain policy prescriptions. You want to remove the blight or else it'll spread throughout the city. Now, of course, when you have a metaphor like that, sometimes it kind of obscures the real contours of the problem. So, maybe the solution to blight isn't to cut it out, but it's to address the root cause. One thing that happens when we picture density as destiny, it really lets our political leaders and our bad policies off the hook. We look past the inequality, the structural racism. And if we're focusing on the densest neighborhoods, well, that doesn't really map onto the most vulnerable populations. Now, I'm not arguing that density doesn't play any role, but density can also bring strengths. Big cities have a lot of tools in their toolkit to combat coronavirus. They can concentrate resources, they can concentrate social services and density can nurture, what the sociologist Eric Klinenberg calls social infrastructure. These are the community organizations, the senior centers, the libraries and yes, even the public parks that nurture social ties among people. Klinenberg found in a study of the Chicago Heat Wave of 1995 that neighborhoods that had the stronger social ties tended to do much better in disaster because people check up on their neighbors, they make sure that everyone's doing OK. The challenge for cities is to figure out how to build on those strengths and minimize the weaknesses.
BOB GARFIELD This whole conversation is premised on the idea that we as a society have already sort of begun to formulate the notion that we've got to get out to the fresh air. You know, it's like Greenacres.
[SINGING] Spread out so far and wide. Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD What is the risk, you know, in the wake of coronavirus wave one that people flee?
SAM KLING By blaming density, you're putting people at risk. Fleeing to the suburbs doesn't help you necessarily. We don't have evidence of that. Social distancing is much more important than the place that you live by defining this as a density problem, we're really missing a lot of how this actually plays out. You're ignoring the people in the small towns, you're ignoring the people in the suburbs, and you're ignoring the vulnerable populations in cities who are particularly at risk. Not because they live in dense neighborhoods, but because they don't have PPE or they have to keep going to work or they don't have health insurance. And those are some of the big structural problems that I think we have to address.
BOB GARFIELD Sam, thank you.
SAM KLING Thank you so much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Sam Kling is a global cities fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. I spoke to him in April. Coming up, there were living in a world that wasn't built for them, so they changed it. This is On the Media.
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