PROGRESSIVE CITY EDITORIAL BOARD OPINION: COVID-19 IS THE PANDEMIC, BUT PLANNING SHOULD COURSE CORRE

FENCE PAINT, 2017 layered construction paper, Madhuri Shukla. Donate to Detention Watch Network.

Urban planners and the other professions that have helped shape the growth and development of cities bear some responsibility for the pandemic and its fatal consequences. They are part of the problem and should step up and be part of the solution.

Absurd, you say? Planners aren’t health professionals and had nothing to do with the virus or its spread?

First of all, the profession of urban planning came into being over a century ago because of disastrous public health problems affecting residents of overcrowded slums living near polluting industries. As part of a widespread urban reform movement that included architecture, civil engineering and the emerging public health profession, planning focused on eliminating the conditions that helped create and spread tuberculosis and other communicable diseases. Housing codes, new water and sewer systems, sanitation and waste management, and roadway expansion joined with comprehensive planning and zoning. However, zoning’s original public health goals of providing “light and air” receded as market logics drove investors to maximize the height and bulk of buildings. Planners caved before the logic of developers. Urban growth triggered by land speculation and backed by national policy dominated the metropolitan landscapes.

In the United States and other countries in the Global North, this capitalist logic articulates with the long histories of segregation and oppression based on slavery, the colonial plunder of land and erasure of indigenous communities and the voracious exploitation of other species and ecologies. In the mostly white suburbs, sprawling growth fueled by the powerful homebuilding industry and public subsidies forced reliance on the private automobile; this car dependency now contributes to ongoing urban epidemics of asthma and obesity. In central cities, low-income and especially Black residents confronted and continue to struggle against displacement, overcrowding and noxious land-uses.

Today, COVID-19 disproportionately devastates communities of color, immigrants and working people without access to medical care, healthy living environments and nutritious food. Decades of public and private depredations have reinforced economic, racial and gender inequalities. Increased privatization or outright cuts to essential public services such as health care, education, transit and clean water jeopardize lives and livelihoods. Ongoing discrimination in housing markets, rising precarity of employment and heightened policing -- and consequently rates of incarceration -- intensify health risks. At the crux of it all, racial subjugation and economic exploitation explains why low-income communities of color are disproportionately falling ill and dying from COVID-19.

All too often, planners have abdicated their responsibilities under the excuse of political impartiality and color-blind expertise. Communities have had to lead the fight for structural change. Planners Network, we hope, has been one outpost for planners to join the struggle to value people over property. In this deadly pandemic, it is clear we must return to an emphasis on the health and well-being of the most vulnerable. This is a call to action for those who regulate the built environment as it is for those whose responsibility it is to protect all people from controllable diseases.

Planners must join the movements for just and equitable responses to the coronavirus pandemic now. We must join with workers like Chris Smalls and Vanessa Bain who are striking to protest Amazon’s and Instacart’s lack of regard for the lives of employees. We must join the mobility justice advocates at the Untokening who criticize the rush to secure public spaces through increased policing. We must join with planners like Jay Pitter, who point out that urbanists anxious to defend density have “forgotten densities” in prisons and homeless shelters and public housing. We must join with tenant rights groups who call for eviction moratoriums and homeless families who demand housing as health care. And we must make transformative plans for a future that rejects what had been normal as part of this public health calamity in the first place.

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