For all those predicting a brighter future or a post-pandemic doomsday, history shows that a return to normality is more likely, writes David Rudlin
A few weeks ago I was tidying my bookshelf and came across Michael Sorkin’s book All Over the Map, which I had forgotten I had (actually I may have borrowed it from a colleague – I promise to bring it back when the office reopens!). The book is a collection of his writings and in particular his columns for the Architectural Record magazine. Many of the pieces are about New York and they are full of his love of the city and the day-to-day gripes about the way it is being planned.
Only a few days after I had started reading these pieces, I woke up to an email from my friend Marianna in New York saying that Michael had died overnight, an early victim of covid-19. Marianna in her time has worked for both Urbed and Sorkin Studio and had arranged an interview with him only six months ago with my Urbed+ colleague Lucy Montague. The obituaries naturally focused on his architecture, but he was also a great, irascible, endlessly knowledgeable urbanist.
I recommend the book as reading for an urbanist in lockdown. Four weeks in and I’m really missing the real city, so the vicarious experience of reading about New York is some comfort. My pre-lockdown life used to involve a lot of time on trains, travelling down the west coast to London and to the towns and cities of the UK where I spent at least half of every week.
Zoom is all well and good for family and work, but what I miss is the life of these places, the impersonal crush of strangers: being in a pub, on a busy street and even sitting on a crowded train waiting for a signal to get into Sheffield. Social distancing, necessary as it is likely to be for many months to come, is hard for an urbanist.
There is a sequence of pieces in All Over the Map written post 9/11. Sorkin’s studio was only a few blocks from the World Trade Centre. The pieces fit particularly well with our current mood, a mixture of shock and disbelief shading into uncertainty about the future and gradually turning to thoughts of how the tragedy could be used to create a better society.
Our current situation has parallels as we are bombarded with blogs, webinars and articles about how everything will be different once the pandemic abates. How our new sense of community and collective purpose will allow us to tackle the climate emergency, address social inequality, bridge the north/south divide and build a better, more caring society. While we are at it, we can’t we also keep our air as clean as it is today, travel less, revive the high street and recognise the folly of windowless permitted development apartments? If the country can build hospitals in a week and find hundreds of billions of pounds to support business, then surely we can address the other big issues of our time?
Then there are those who worry that the pandemic will change everything for the worse. We will be plunged into a recession deeper than 2008, there will be a devastating toll on business, half of our creative organisations will go to the wall, the high street will be decimated, the housing crisis will be worse than ever, surveillance culture will take hold and the environment will be trashed in the rush to revive the economy.
There is also an urban aspect to this naysaying. Cities, after all, have been at the epicentre of the pandemic with London and New York particularly badly hit. This has a lot to do with density and concentrations of poverty, but it is also about my much-missed impersonal crush of strangers. There are articles saying that cities will never be the same: people won’t feel safe returning to a crowded restaurant or theatre and commuters will start travelling to work by car rather than risk public transport. We are told that home working and Zoom meetings will render physical travel unnecessary causing employers to re-evaluate their need for offices or city centre locations. A whole generation of late adopters has finally been forced to shop online and may never return to the high street. Similar arguments were made after 9/11: why would anyone locate in Manhattan given it was such an obvious target?
>> Also read: Michael Sorkin dies after contracting coronavirus
>> Also read Julia Park’s Learning from lockdown: What needs to change in housing?
As Sorkin concludes, the most likely outcome is that for better or worse things will go back to the way they were. On the one hand our best intentions, however fervently held, often fail to survive the transition back to normality. Positive change is certainly not a given and will be just as hard to achieve post-pandemic as it was before. On the other hand, our fear of the city is soon discounted by our short-term memory and outweighed by the city’s appeal and opportunities. I’m not sure whether this is a cause for optimism or pessimism but I for one look forward to once more being able to disappear into the crowd.