The Reset Button: Modern Cities and the Coronavirus

A few weeks ago before the UK and US went into lockdown the Evening Standard of the UK reported that sunbathers had been ordered off their Shepherds Bush Green since the coronavirus lockdown was not a holiday. Marking what they would have termed a ‘strong gesture’ in sending home this message, the officers who gave the order filmed themselves whilst asking the sunbathers to go home, and the story went viral. The same website also reported that the spring break party in Miami was still going on despite the virus.

Way across the oceans, Asian cities had gone into lockdown, with curfews imposed and systems getting ready to act on the Wuhan recovery playbook. Why the difference to the approach in managing this deadly virus outbreak, which has now been termed a pandemic. It’s probably something to do with the way modern-day cities are administered. It is clear from the Italian experience with the COVID-19 vector that it was the very nature of the citizens and their behavioural patterns that brought them to the predicament they are now in.

Modern-day cities are perhaps an invention of Europe, and their systems have lasted close on a thousand years. Centric to this formula and its success so far has been democracy, decentralisation, and political righteousness. The systems in these cities by themselves were the making of diverse communities, rich in dissension, but they eventually resolved their conflicts through an evolution of mechanisms that respected the rights of everyone.

However, this thousand year formula is challenged currently, because as much as we learned to live cheek by jowl in a diverse community, the issue is no longer human-human conflict. A recent Facebook post had a succinct line to describe the situation we are facing. It said “this is world war III and the US and Britain are still not on the side of the allies”

Is there a dire need to rework the formula for living within close quarters? There is no doubt that cities have become the engine of growth for nations. The GDP rates of cities far surpass the GDPs of nations at large. Western nation-building from its foundation was about being democratic by nature. But then, the success of cities has not only been in so-called democratic countries of this world, there are also several examples of successful cities in countries known to be more autocratic. At the bottom of growing a city into a successful living organism able to support human life is its systems, and that is the very thing being challenged today. The coronavirus is a deadly reminder that we need to reshape the way we look at the administration of cities.

Modern cities will have to represent their indigenous culture and systems and their alien investments be it finance, partnerships etc. but primarily for cities to survive, they need to have top-down governance. While its presence could be latent, its authority has to be sovereign and unquestionable. Probably, the best example of this system might be Singapore.

Colombo has grown organically for the last 500 years, from a city in the port, to a city outside the port and from then growing in all directions. Through the years, especially in the last 50, much has been done to straighten out its infrastructure. Organically grown cities are common in the world, but today especially in the last decade one can see the emergence of a different type i.e. planned cities meaning, planned from scratch. The best example of this here in Sri Lanka is the Colombo Port City. While there has been much criticism of this project as not being environmentally friendly, even questioning the validity of its economic reasoning, at its foundation lies a formula which is tied to the future proofing of urban lives. Right down to the breakwater which has taken into consideration climate change for 100 plus years. Its development stage mapped out in such detail and encapsulated in thousands of pages of design and construction regulations that it will now stand as an example of how city development has to be managed.

But we cannot stop at development control regulations. The rulebook for managing cities has to take into consideration many more aspects. As much as human contact and engagement will form a part of the cities vibrancy for economic and social development. Cities have to gear for the worst, and lockdowns and curfews will be a part of the playbook. For this the fundamental beliefs of democracy, fair play and political righteousness will not help. Today questions are being asked why the virus containment was not transferred to an European public health authority. The fact that the European Union came together for a common good with a common currency was not seen in the way they managed the mitigation of the pandemic. The answer lies in the liberal, democratic approach Europe has grown into, which has become an outdated formula in managing a vicious virus. One may argue that the very reason the European Union exists in the first place is because the principles of free movement of people, goods, and information., but then this virus also knows no borders.

Just as rural and urban areas cannot have the same yardstick in governance and management as they are not the same, and the rights and privileges of people living in these two environments are different. In Sri Lanka, the coronavirus outbreak has become the natural demarcator as we see the main cities and urban areas under total lockdown and rural areas having more freedom than their urban brothers. There are no grumbles on this unequal footing. In fact, for the whole nation to reach equilibrium, we may need two sets of rules.

So the rulebook for how we manage, govern and prosper countries has to be rethought when we press the reset button in the post COVID-19 world. In a world that will look more and more like a take from a sci-fi movie than the environment we left behind in 2019, the formula has to see a drastic change, if not for anything but the survival of mankind.