What's urgent vs what's important: a reflection from the urban geographies of the pandemic


Reflection for the section “AGE and pandemic” of the Asociación Española de Geografía on the geographies of COVID19 and what, from the Laboratory of Urban Transformation and Global Change (Internet Interdisciplinary Institute, Open University of Catalonia), we believe that they should lay the foundations for the definition of urban agendas that will emerge as a result of the pandemic.

Asociación Española de Geografía

Ivan Serrano1, 2, Carlos Cámara1, Hug March1, 3, Ramon Ribera-Fumaz1, Isabel Ruiz-Mallén1, Mar Satorras1

1Laboratorio de Transformación Urbana y Cambio Global, Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), Universitat Oberta de Catalunya. 2Estudios de Derecho y Ciencia Política, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya. 3Estudios de Economía y Empresa, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya s

There has arisen in our time a most singular fancy: the fancy that when things go very wrong we need a practical man. It would be far truer to say, that when things go very wrong we need an unpractical man. Certainly, at least, we need a theorist. A practical man means a man accustomed to mere daily practice, to the way things commonly work. When things will not work, you must have the thinker, the man who has some doctrine about why they work at all. It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning.
G.K. Chesterton. 1

The management of what started as a health crisis —but which is now becoming systemic— caused by the expansion of COVID-19 has focused all government attention and resources mainly on the following aspects: controlling the epidemic, regulating health systems to avoid their collapse and social behaviour strategies that create a less favourable environment for the spread of the virus.

Evoking the image that Chesterton recreated from the legend of Nero contemplating the fire in Rome, we have gone from a certain initial indolence regarding the path that the virus was going to take (‘it is only a flu’, ‘it is an outbreak concentrated in Asia like the previous viruses’, ‘nothing needs to be done because group immunity will do the job’) to a state of emergency that tries to manage the immediate effects of the crisis on various scales, from local to global (social confinement, economic paralysis, exceptional political and fiscal measures), often without the expected success in the short term. This situation that we are experiencing indicates that things ‘are just not working’, that many implicit assumptions that we had about the gears of the contemporary world have confirmed some doubts that were raised from academia and other areas. When Rome burns, it is essential that we rethink aspects that will define the global future in the short, medium and long term, and that will interact with many other relevant factors that are now in danger of being overlooked, from the challenges derived from climate change, the resilience of our political and social systems or the effects of the intense technological development experienced in recent years.

All these factors have an undoubted geographical dimension, as wide, diverse and complex as those that make us speak of ‘geographies’. A short-term vision of the virus would make us mitigate its immediate effects without paying attention to the material conditions on which its circulation is based and reproduced, as well as (in a radically unequal way) the impacts of this pandemic and others that may come.

A short-sighted view would, for example, make us forget that in this pandemic there is an obvious urban and natural connection, where development models and growing urbanisation, apparently isolated from ‘nature’, expose their vulnerability to zoonotic phenomena. The pandemic thus exposes the urban geographies of the disease, socio-environmental geographies which, as Harvey famously coined, reaffirm that “there is nothing unnatural about New York City”2 or any other city. Understanding these processes is fundamental for the long-term management of this and other crises to come. The virus is not, therefore, an exogenous shock as a meteor would be, but it has particular geographies linked to key aspects of modern urbanism since the times of Haussman or Cerdà. The current urban model is closely related to the way in which the virus has spread, a model based on mobility, on the circulation of goods, services and people, in short. The development of capitalism under the paradigm of large urban concentrations as a solution or rather a key factor in capitalist development based on the intensive use of technology has led —perhaps not as paradoxically as we might think— to greater levels of mobility.

On the other hand, it has become dramatically clear how unequal development and urban segregation reflect the unequal impact of social, economic and public health crises. The combination of internationalised economies and large urban centres has played a fundamental role in accelerating the spread of the virus, which calls into question some over-optimistic views of the current development model, at least in terms of the dominant discourses on globalisation in the economic and political sphere. Even so, a hasty diagnosis could bring us back to debates such as the contrast between the dangers of urban density and the benefits of suburbanisation, which are still two sides of the same coin. What’s more, if anything exposes the virus, it’s precisely on the edges of cities, between urbanisation and suburbanisation, where outbreaks start and spread (in factory farms, airports, etc.) 3 And in relative terms, the negative impacts of the pandemic are greater in rural or low-density areas, Empty Spain, for example, where investment in health infrastructure is precarious 4

It is in the face of these processes of pandemic crisis when the temptation to adopt an excessively simplifying pragmatism is greater. However, as tempting as it may be, we must avoid this approach that self-deludes believing that the creation of ad-hoc solutions for any of its multiple effects can fix everything as a whole. But ff there is a fertile field for solutionism it is in the world of technology. As we have seen, in recent weeks a myriad of mobile applications designed to control the pandemic have appeared all over the world. These are designed and implemented very quickly. 5 A great example of the practical. The urgency to control the pandemic means that they are supported by regional, national and international administrations and institutions as well as accepted by society. Applications that have been explained in the media as examples of the power of digital technologies and the benefits of the Smart City. It may not be evident, but all of them imply profound changes in the control and monitoring of our lives —supported by legislative changes or suspensions— that affect our privacy under the discourse of security. Unfortunately, we don’t have to especulate that much: China has long been implementing facial recognition and good citizenship points card, and now a new step has been taken by developing infection cards classifying people according to their risk of infection, thread rating, etc. Urgency presents us with a false dichotomy between security and privacy as Nicky Case shows us. 6 Urgency, which without reflection can chronify dystopian urban models, since as Naomi Klein argues during moments of catastrophe, windows of opportunity open up for the masters of disaster to take advantage of apocalyptic reality and carry out their political agenda quickly and by avoiding public debate. 7

Instead, we must analyse the paradoxes that the current situation shows us, and take it as a global indication —in the sense that it has reached the heart of the developed societies of the global north— to confront the contradictions that we face, and to think towards which models of social, political and economic organisation we want, or rather should orient ourselves. We must revisit the tensions reflected in the current situation with regard to issues widely studied in our disciplines such as the relationship between high density and contagion, urban sprawl and lack of public resources. Or to also face the limitations and unexpected effects of paradigms such as the emergence of the ‘Smart Cities’ and the effects on the increase of social control, of surveillance, of the reduction of freedoms, of the growing role of private corporations on the public. We must address questions about public space, housing, segregation, the desirability of a model based on global cities or on sustainable urban models, perhaps of medium size, with better levels of habitability and self-sufficiency, but also with better infrastructure and health services.

If we do not critically revisit these and other issues, with their limits and paradoxes, if we do not consider in a normative way what kind of societies we want to develop, we may extinguish the fire that we are dealing with right now, but a false sense of ‘return to normality’ will make us more vulnerable to the challenges that will come in the immediate future. Given the urgency of what we are already facing, geography and the rest of the social sciences have more than ever the task of thinking with a perspective beyond immediacy or “practicality” and of elaborating a common agenda on which we can consider “what’s wrong with the world”. An agenda that is intrinsically geographical.

  1. Chesterton, What’s wrong with the world (Auckland, NZ: The Floating Press, 2011 [1910], 16). ↩︎

  2. D. Harvey, “The nature of environment: dialectics of social and environmental change”, en R. Miliband and L. Panitch, eds., Real Problems, False Solutions. A special issue of the Socialist Register (Londres: The Merlin Press, 1993, 31). ↩︎

  3. R. Keil, C. Conolly y S. Harris Ali, Outbreaks like coronavirus start in and spread from the edges of cities, https://theconversation.com/outbreaks-like-coronavirus-start-in-and-spread-from-the-edges-of-cities-130666 ↩︎

  4. Ejerique, R., & Sánchez, R. ¿Por qué Canarias resiste al coronavirus y Soria no? eldiario.es. (Madrid: 2020) Recuperado 22 de abril de 2020, de https://www.eldiario.es/sociedad/Canarias-pocos-casos-coronavirus-Segovia_0_1017698330.html ↩︎

  5. It is not by chance that one of the methodologies currently used is called “agile”, which consists of making small and frequent developments that cover limited and specific aspects in an iterative and incremental way. As a result, the application development not just becomes faster but also resilient, allowing modifications and redefinitions. ↩︎

  6. https://ncase.me/contact-tracing/ ↩︎

  7. N. Klein, No is not enough. Defeating the New Shock Politics(Londres: Allen Lane, 2017). ↩︎

Carlos Cámara-Menoyo
Carlos Cámara-Menoyo
Architect. PhD. Lecturer. Life-long Learner. Transdisciplinary.

I love learning, teaching and researching, as well as sharing and visualizing data, specially with maps. I have a technical and social background and my multiple research interests are centered around the commodifications between cities, technology and society within informationalism and free culture paradigm. So far, I have applied that approach on the topic of social and spatial inequities.