by Gregory Saville
Responding to our global COVID-19 pandemic, New York sociologist Eric Klinenberg recently wrote that social distancing will lead to, not only an economic recession but also to a future changed in unexpected ways.
Perhaps! But only gravestone epitaphs are written in stone and I choose to write my own future, which brings me to New York.
New York is the city where Jane Jacobs wrote about the power of social networks in her famous book Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book that launched the CPTED movement. She wrote that we keep the peace on our streets through an “intricate almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves.” In other words – us!
Strange advice coming from New York, the city with apartment towers far above urban parks, strangers yelling and car horns blaring! The endless rush hour! And today New York is the epicenter of the American COVID-19 pandemic, a city where thousands have already died in a country that leads the world’s infection rate.
Yet, despite it all, this YouTube showed up from New York City:
And it’s not only New York! This spontaneous flash of solidarity with health care workers has become a social epidemic of goodwill all over the world. It’s now in Italy, Germany, India, Israel, and in cities all across the Americas, from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Vancouver, Canada. Applauding with abandon – usually, around shift change at hospitals – New Yorkers join millions of others around the globe to cheer healthcare workers with pots, pans, whistles, hands, and anything else they can find.
This reaffirms the reality of Jacobs’ intricate, unconscious social network. Despite food hoarding, panic purchases, and obnoxious herd behavior, people eventually figure out that they depend on the social connections of everyday life to survive.
PUBLIC HOUSING AND CRIME
Never was this yearning for connection more evident than during our SafeGrowth work in New York City over the past two years. Members of our SafeGrowth team worked with the New York Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to teach CPTED to residents, including how to set up plans to improve life in their apartment towers. No small feat considering this public housing had some of the highest crime rates in the city.
Impressively, people pulled together in this biggest of cities, in places with so-called intractable crime rates, and they began to cut crime and improve safety. They created plans and they implemented many of their ideas because they knew they depend on social connections to survive everyday life. It was like Jane’s spirit hovered over the city that she once called home, a place where the velocity of daily living speeds past the average person at breakneck speed, as she whispered the ghostly incantation: “Pay attention to each other! Care for each other!”
As we face the new COVID-19 reality, the lesson is clear: We can create inclusive neighborhoods from far and wide, suburban and rural, rich and poor. We know how to build pro-social urban designs and places of connection and resilience. Perhaps Klinenberg was right; COVID-19 will change our future in unexpected ways. Still, more importantly, it is us who will shape what that future looks like!
For years, SafeGrowth Advocates (and many others) have fought against the retreat from public life, the withdrawal from the discomfort of strangers, and the overwhelming fear of violence by too many of our fellow citizens. In her blog last week, Mateja reminds us that we must battle both the physical and the social virus. Similarly, a few weeks ago, Tarah blogged that there is a big difference between social isolation and social distancing.
If we cling to social distancing and isolation in our public life after COVID-19, we will leave very little humane life to retain our humanity. The social is, after all, what makes society. Even the Council on Foreign Relations knows this truth – the future of global health is urban health.
William Fulton, planner and former Ventura city mayor, recently blogged that the post-pandemic city will lead to “an increase in remote work arrangements which will lead to more activity in neighborhoods, more flexibility in public transit options and a renewed appreciation for taking a walk.”
If that is the future we want then we need practical methods to deliver services where people can stay safe and healthy in their neighborhood. We need places where residents know each other and where they feel comfortable walking, day or night, and where they do not have to drive for food, medical care, and recreation.
THE UNCONSCIOUS NETWORK
Millions of strangers all over the world do not spontaneously bang pans and cheer outside their windows because they want isolation from their neighbors. They do it because they yearn to express their emotions in a safe public place in a way they can see and hear their neighbors doing the same. Even with a raging pandemic, they share a common realization that we all – healthcare workers, doctors, food delivery people, everyday neighbors, and police – need each other.
It’s the unconscious network in action.
How will cities evolve following the pandemic? Some claim cities will isolate, gate up, and separate. They say technology will prevail to protect us! But, in truth, we shall not find salvation in seldom-monitored CCTV systems or in the socially-hollow gated community. As King Lear says, that way madness lies!
NEXT BLOG: What can we do to create different, healthy, and safer places? There is another way!