Social distancing. The role of the city

4 min read

We are all used to the term social distancing with the covid pandemic, and in this context we mean it to be that we need to be two metres away from each other – a physical distancing. But the real issue with our society is not merely physical. Emotional social distancing has really begun much before COVID-19. How many of us know our neighbours and their names, our grocer, our florist, baker or banker? How many of us really interact with the people where we live or work?

We therefore need to make a distinction between emotional social distancing and physical social distancing. The two intimately link but social distancing in the emotional sense seems to be worn like a badge of honour sometimes; like something which is part of our culture and our city. The busier we are, the more kudos we think we deserve.

So it is time to start breaking down these walls of emotional social distancing and start becoming and behaving more like a community. How can we do this? How can we be more together? Are we closer now that we have learnt to deal with distances?

This feeling reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend when I was studying in London, a few years back. He claimed that he hated London because it was distant, it was different to his hometown. He felt alone, and as a young student I could not understand this. London for me was exciting, vibrant, full of energy, but the pandemic has made me appreciate what he meant by living in a big city can make you feel lonely. That it can make you feel detached, separate, and distant. Artistic impressions and sketches of this feeling have been very well depicted by architects all over the world. COVID-19 has shown us that this loneliness may also extend to other areas of our countries, and it is not something limited to the big cities. Are we really living together in the city? Or are we living in the city simultaneously but all doing our own little thing with little consideration of what is happening to the people around us. Are we alone together?

A mind shift is required to be able to confront a new world post-pandemic. Should we look be looking at ideas similar to Barcelona's superblocks? The idea of the superblock is breaking away from the vision of the blocks which focuses the emphasis of buildings within a city rather than public space. Cerdà’s vision for Barcelona is remnant of Le Corbusier's ‘Plan Voisin’ of 1924 – the vision was to build a city through uniform blocks where there is no means to have street life – in itself a response to another pandemic. This model was also used for warehousing and for segregating the poor exorbitated this in the 1950’s project in New York City. It was Lewis Mumford who started looking at an alternative for this ‘Plan Voisin’ by creating the Garden City that restores the ground as a plane which ties together all aspects of living in a city. Should we therefore not be focusing on more models such as the ‘Hausmann building’ modified to fit the modern street where people mix socially as well as circulating efficiently? The idea of the city needs to change with the community and the culture. We need to start transitioning from the closed spaces to open spaces that cater for communities. And by Jove do we need the community in a post-pandemic world?

What is sad is that we needed COVID-19 to make us understand that we can be resilient through our community. Being able to have amenities close by – shops, places to eat, have fun, where children play, where people talk! That is the real new city! There are several models – the donut economy, the 15-minute city, the soft city – call it what you may. It is high time that we start looking at the community as being the driver for what design is it done and how it be shaped according to our behaviour. We need to stop looking at the endless interiors of our homes and minds and open our eyes to how a real city could be and how we can really live happily and healthily. We are currently like Paul Klee's ‘Angelus novus’ which depicts a figure who looks back while we are being blown forward. In this case, I do not want to be an angel.

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