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  • Sofia Greaves

Epidemic Urbanism. Comparing our story to the past

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

Sofia Greaves



Coronavirus has placed the nineteenth century before the public eye. In general, this pandemic has stimulated a wave of social commentary which focuses on changes in our cities by looking to the past. One study, ‘Epidemic Urbanism: Reflections on History’ has asked, ‘What insights from the outbreak, experience and response to previous urban epidemics might inform our understanding of COVID-19?’[1] When disease struck previously, how did cities change and why? If you pose this question the nineteenth century city is particularly relevant to present day.



But how a society frames change provides an insight which infrastructure cannot offer. The 'use' value of the nineteenth century city lies beyond the radical changes governments made to prevent disease.[2] Certainly, as Oliver Wainwright recently reported for the Guardian, 'form has always followed fear of infection, just as much as function’, and nineteenth century modernists embraced this credo with militancy. [3] Their new awareness of the relationship between the city and infection promptly translated into extensive redevelopment programs which promoted cleanliness and good hygiene: straight streets, clean drinking water and sewage systems. [4]



The take-away from most comparisons is that just as disease in the nineteenth century re-shaped cities, our cities are also about to change.

We need to consider what the nineteenth century can teach us about how change is framed. This is 'the story' which offers psychological security and promotes an understanding in society. We must question this understanding because stories are carried forwards in the popular narrative. Today, society has turned to the stories which many different periods have told about their epidemics. Social criticism has been enriched by these wide-ranging points of reference, which permit an apparently more knowledgeable commentary on the present. Thucydides’ plague of Athens has appeared alongside a pool of examples which span from antiquity through to present day. The relevance of such comparisons is fortified by the understanding that disease forces us through some common experiences, and it is striking that our every response appears to find its equivalents in the past. Marina Hyde drew out the parallels in Defoe's Plague (1722), 'from ye olde panicke buying, ye olde refusal to self-isolate – “they did not take the least care or make any scruple of infecting others” – ye olde wittering and twittering of conspiracy theories.' Such parallels bring us to ask whether 'we' are just like 'them'. And yet because the knowledge which underpins these historic moments is different, it is important to remember that direct comparisons are misguided.

Civilisations in the past had their own attitudes to disease, and this makes their cities and experiences different to ours.

Today society has also begun to construct its own stories and these are strongly characterised by metaphors of war - China has a worryingly heroic account of Coronavirus and its defeat at the hands of authoritarian government. In the UK, ‘rational’ choices have been framed by lines like ‘save the NHS’, and the blitz spirit. Damaging stories are also being told; as Siri Hustvedt wrote for the FT, medical language has extended beyond the medical sphere and is promoting misunderstandings. Thusviral figures of speech, have collided and mingled with an actual virus’. Disease is enforcing prejudices and leading us to describe certain people as biological contaminants - Donald Trump therefore believes that 'building a wall' will keep infection out. Some blame 5G towers as a Chinese conspiracy, others Chinese medicinal practice. A strength of present day journalism lies in its ability to expose and unpick these stories. (See FT, 'China from Inside Wuhan).

In nineteenth century Naples, a city devastated by cholera epidemics, the government had to convince its citizens that closing fountains, demolishing homes, and re-planning the city was being done in the name of the ‘public good’. From 1860, it adopted the narrative that Naples was being ‘restored’ to its ancient health as enjoyed under the Romans.
Neapolitan Water Sellers (Acuajuoli)

Naples needed clean water. Ancient Naples had been a city with clean water provided by aqueducts. The story was an obvious choice. When the Neapolitans inaugurated their new aqueduct in 1885, one minister claimed that the aqueduct, completed ‘with a powerful and magnificent mindset’, ‘with marvelous wisdom and technique’, with a ‘truly Latin firmness’, had been built today ‘in a manner worthy of ancient men’. This water was imbued with quasi-talismanic properties to reassure everybody that Naples was cholera free. Drunk by the ancients it had ‘saved the ancient city of the Siren from so many diseases, and so many epidemics.’ Indeed, he wrote that the plumbing works, ‘have reinstated the ancient traditional health of Naples’.


As the popular song then celebrated,


Now our fear of Cholera

Of the fever there is no more

Our Naples, beautiful like it once was Hey it will be made once more Now all of your houses are fine and well

Give me a glass, give me a glass


(It sounds better in the Neapolitan).

L'Acqua de lo Serino, Canzone Popolare (1885)

This narrative was crucial when a knowledge of microbiology was only just forming.[6] Behavioural changes like washing hands or not going to church would have seemed incomprehensible. Conversely, self-isolating now brings us psychological security because we know it is efficacious. There is a social stigma attached to ignoring this advice given we have a knowledge of its efficacy. But in the nineteenth century, communicating medical knowledge using a language that would be understood would have been much more problematic. Today one would hope that the story is secondary to our understanding because we (mostly, perhaps Trump excluded) grasp the general science.


But the main problem was that the Neapolitan government kept stressing that Naples was just as healthy as ancient times. This was patently untrue that the city was cholera free and a coverup followed when another epidemic hit the city in 1910. The government preferred to hide its shame, maintaining a fiction to promote international trade. The inquest conducted immediately afterwards found that private contracts and the beautiful walkways built by the sea had catered to tourists and elites, rather than the poor themselves.[7]


If the nineteenth century can teach us anything, perhaps we should reflect more on 'the story'. Naples is one example, particularly disastrous but far from unique. It shows that creating a victorious narrative may gloss over real problems: poor housing, a struggling health service and poverty - and this impedes real change.


Clearly cities are about to change, even if architectural historian Beatriz Colomina, who has long studied the correspondence between modernist architecture and disease, has argued that the impact of Coronavirus will be nowhere near as severe as that of nineteenth century epidemics. There is the possibility, however, of a car free future, or ‘hands free’ buildings, and a lower skyline.[5]


We know, as Robert Muggah wrote for NPR, that Covid will

'hit some cities harder than others. It is exposing the fault lines that stratify our societies, especially inequalities in income, gender, race and opportunity. Decisions made in the coming months not just by national leaders, but governors and mayors, will have generational consequences. Some cities will flourish, emerging more resilient than before. Most will suffer and others will collapse.'

It is not utopian to think that a global crisis can reshuffle our value systems and how we understand the ‘public good’. It is not so much about comparing situations in the past as thinking about how they commonly provide an opportunity for real change. One can hope that this opportunity for renewal brings us to rethink classic value mantras. I liked what the Bank of England's Mark Carney wrote in the Economist best: 'This sea change will create and destroy value. New vectors will shape value: economic, financial, psychological and societal.'[8] For Carney, 'the great test of whether this new hierarchy of values will prevail is climate change', but we can also promote other salutogenic strategies long term. It is possible to reshape our approach to care, people and urban space for the better.


Sofia Greaves

[1] “Online Symposium: Epidemic Urbanism: Reflections on History”. Baltimore/New York, Morgan State University; Columbia University. 1 May 2020. https://www.connections.clio-online.net/event/id/termine-42837 [2] Artenstein, A. W. (2012) “The discovery of viruses: advancing science and medicine by challenging dogma,” International Journal of Infectious Diseases, 16. e470-e473. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1201971212001191 [3] John Snow’s theory (1854) that cholera generated in bad water, rather than bad air pushed governments to prove their dedication to public well-being by building clean water systems, and therefore brought about practical improvements, in a phenomenon described as ‘cholera forcing’. It was noto until 1897 that this definitively disproved miasma theory. See Hamlin, C., ‘”Cholera forcing.” The myth of the good epidemic and the coming of good water,’ American Journal of Public Health 99.11 (2009): 1946-54. [4] Wainwright, O. ‘Smart lifts, lonely workers, no towers or tourists: architecture after coronavirus’, The Guardian, April 13, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/apr/13/smart-lifts-lonely-workers-no-towers-architecture-after-covid-19-coronavirus?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other [5] Colomina, B. “Microbes and the Metropolis,” The Financial Times Magazine, April 25, 2020. 78-9. [6] Artenstein, A. W. (2012) “The discovery of viruses: advancing science and medicine by challenging dogma,” International Journal of Infectious Diseases, 16. e470-e473. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1201971212001191 [7] For the coverup, Snowden, F. M., Naples in the Time of Cholera, 1884-1911 (Cambridge 2002).


[8] Carney, M. “The World after Covid-19”, The Economist, April 18, 2020. 54. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK435854/

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