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How will we live together?


Architects, urban planners and sociologists propose solutions to combine social closeness with the physical distance imposed by the coronavirus

"Let's think of the virus as a bombardment. The cities did not rethink themselves after the air strikes, they did not lose density to complicate the lives of the bombs. What was done was to ensure air raid shelters and early warning systems." For Alejandro Aravena , the equivalent of that shelter in times of coronavirus is the house: the only vaccine that we know at the moment. "Unlike the bombings —when the population left the houses and gathered in the shelters—, this time we are asked to separate And isolating ourselves presupposes that there is a house ”.

This need for shelter refers to the great architectural problem of the world: the business of housing over the right to have it. A house is inaccessible to a large part of the planet's population and non-existent for many of the citizens of poor countries. "The two measures that are taken for granted in the first world, isolate themselves at home and wash their hands, are impossible to carry out where the house is crowded and there is no water," explains Aravena from Santiago, Chile. From Mexico City, the architect Tatiana Bilbao agrees: "If the solution is to stay at home to protect ourselves and the other, housing is no longer just a right: it plays a key role in public health."

What Bilbao and Aravena are talking about is that the coronavirus is not as deadly in every city or neighborhood in the world. That is why they argue that ensuring housing and basic services has become a health emergency. "Having a house will allow us to be prepared for the next pandemic, which will come," says Aravena. It could also help to dissolve the other dilemma we are facing: economy or health. The 2016 Pritzker Prize argues that the construction of shelter-dwellings would activate the economy: "It would create jobs, that is, income." Since speed is vital, the architect refers to one of his greatest professional commitments: incremental housing, capable of being expanded and modified to adjust to changes in the lives of its inhabitants.

Accustomed to dealing with natural disasters, Iñaki Alday and Margarita Jover were elected dean and professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, a city with a long history of destruction and repair. What they managed when they designed the Ebro River Park, in Zaragoza, or the Yamuna, on its way to New Delhi, was the management of fear: the enjoyment of the banks prepared for the crisis - the flood. From the United States, both explain that this pandemic "uncovers the need for common spaces that we had neglected in favor of the private square meter." They talk about galleries and hallways in the blocks of flats. "There is more to see the images of neighbors singing or doing gymnastics from balconies. What developer is going to consider now that a useful rooftop is squandered square meters? ” They defend an architecture that is attentive to collective, social and ecological values, considering that "the reduction of materials and energy consumption must go hand in hand with the cultivation of social cohesion in the street and in the habitat."

Circles drawn on the floor of the Gare du Nord in Paris indicate where to place passengers waiting for their trains on May 5. BENOÎT TESSIER / REUTERS

Although the crisis has temporarily questioned coexistence in public spaces, they defend that "density is not overcrowding, but mutual support and coexistence." They know what they are talking about. Their experience turning the river problem around — planting orchards or floodplain forests on the banks — earned them international fame. That is why they defend that there are flexible urban arrangements, capable of admitting change. The need to regain social connection is what the Dutch sociologist Saskia Sassen proposes, with her colleague from the London School of Economics Mary Kaldor, in her latest book Cities at War (Columbia University). "We live in a time when it is not so much the leadership of the countries as the consolidation of the networks of cities and citizens that will build a new global economy," explains Sassen from London.

Tatiana Bilbao also defends that physical distance must be overcome with social closeness (aid networks, neighbors, volunteers who take care of children, food banks). That is why he distinguishes public space from space “for the common good”. He points out that it is urgent to differentiate it "from that place that belongs to everyone, but nobody, that is open, but many times it is closed (or commercially exploited), and that brings us closer, but does not bring us together." And he describes it as "the place that fills us with possibilities, accessible and flexible to use", a space that only needs - as so many roads and sidewalks in the world are demonstrating - a little political will.

We are facing 18 months of social distancing —or more, if the vaccine does not arrive. This period can change the way we relate to and use the city. Also economic priorities, because lack of exercise, air and sun exposure could lead to another health crisis and, therefore, also economic. How are we going to live together? From Copenhagen, the study Jan Gehl, responsible for the transformation of Broadway into a pedestrian street, claims that a third of the world's population does not use public space, either because of fear, lack of time or because there are no sidewalks.

"Increasingly distant from the common good and closer to capital, governments have created places that respond more to economic reasons than to social responses, and the space that is needed today is social," insist Alday and Jover. They speak of the square meters that, turning roads into exercise areas or temporarily pedestrianizing the streets, demonstrate the rapid and economic flexibility necessary in the management of cities. In Madrid, the mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida, who inaugurated his mandate ensuring that the cars would return to the city center, has finally corrected and increased the initiative of his predecessor, Manuela Carmena, adding 28 streets to the Paseo del Prado to promote the citizen walk. The same has happened in Barcelona —with Via Laietana— and in the streets of Pontevedra or Vitoria, which lead pedestrianization in Spain.

Queue at a bus station in Kigali, Rwanda, on May 4. SIMON WOHLFAHRT

There are many cities in the world that have applied this practice of temporary use that some municipalities, such as Valencia or Rome, are studying to make permanent. In Milan and London the space for walking has multiplied. In Seattle and Bilbao speed has been forced down to 20 kilometers per hour. Also in Berlin, Paris, Dublin or Bordeaux the bicycle lanes have been drastically expanded. From ICLEI, the organization of Local Governments for Sustainability, which brings together 160 city halls —from Oslo, Rotterdam, Florence or Zurich to Barcelona—, they consider that a key to the transport (and health) of the future is to move from that temporary mobility to a permanent one, aware of the dangers of pollution. Its coordinators, Romanian Ana Dragutescu and British Reggie Tricker, warn: "The end of confinement will not be the end of fear." For them, the apprehension is behind the return of the cars for the fear of contagion, a flagrant case of a worse remedy than the disease that would mean a setback in the sustainability of the planet. "We don't know if the next crisis will be a flood, a drought, heat waves, an unprecedented computer hack, or a power outage. You have to prepare for the unexpected ”, argues the German engineer Stefan Kuhn, one of the directors of ICLEI, who is convinced that covid-19 is the first of the new global emergencies. He argues that in the future, emergencies will continue to be on a planetary scale. From Berlin, he explains that the economic recovery will set the priorities for the future and warns: "If we recover what exists - pollution, production rate and polluting mobility - nothing will change." The organisation's head of sustainability, the Greek Vasileios Latinos, sends a similar message: “The virus discriminates, it has spread more where there is more contamination.” So this is, for ICLEI, an occasion for change.

All interviewees agree on the need not to return to previous models. "To consider car rides or suburban houses with gardens safer would be to consider it dangerous for children to deal with their grandparents: an aberration against the best of us as a society," say Alday and Jover. For them, the car and the garden house “are not the solution, but the suicide of the species. It is enough to travel through the paradigm country of this model and see the accumulation of poverty, isolation and despair —that is, with one car per person— that exists in the expansion of the failed American dream. "

Sassen believes that the new generations will break the urban model that gives prominence to the car. "Young people want a life without cars, without pretensions to their homes, without everything that in the past has worked as a kind of award." That will be, for the sociologist who coined the term global city, the radical change. Tatiana Bilbao states: “How can we make the car become a benefit for our society and not a problem? Can public transport provide mobility and at the same time become a symbol of prosperity? ” For the Mexican architect, transportation must produce physical and also social accessibility, and not be merely a generator of capital.

Migrant workers at the Prayag station in India on May 19. Prabhat Kumar Verma / ZUMA

Aravena is convinced that "our nature is to meet again". For this reason, public space in a 1: 1 ratio with what is built —a recommendation prior to the pandemic of the third UN-Habitat congress, the United Nations Program for Human Settlements, as a standard of living and common good— takes on a new sense, for the Chilean architect, as a measure that allows social approach and physical distance at the same time. Like Alday and Jover, Aravena is of the opinion that urban geography - river parks, sea shorelines or mountain trails - should serve to achieve the necessary fluffing. "Despite the terrible nature of the pandemic, we have seen how the containment of mobility has dramatically reduced air and water pollution and disoriented fauna has reappeared in many cities," adds Alday. For this reason, Sassen urges to plant trees and bushes where he can to reconquer the city. "To maximize these options, we need architects, landscapers and artists capable of inventing spaces that we can't even imagine today," he says.

"I think we are going to be a more moral society. I see this crisis as a preparation for the ecological crisis. This is nothing compared to the ecological crisis." The German philosopher Markus Gabriel told EL PAÍS. For his part, Jover and Alday recalls that this pandemic is moderate compared to the thousands of deaths per year caused by malaria or tuberculosis. "Only now we feel vulnerable. We have become aware that epidemics, typhoons or droughts are not limited to countries poor and distant, "they indicate. That is why they propose, after centuries of neglecting ancestral knowledge, to recover" in a contemporary way and scale the ways in which humans have historically agreed with nature: irrigating with floods or collecting rainwater. " "It is not about monetizing nature's ecological services, but assessing the extent to which nature makes us human beings," they conclude.

All the interviewees trust that the pandemic makes us react, instead of lamenting. Bilbao hopes that "in the long term, the crisis will affect the reorganization of society more than its health." For Aravena, the lesson of covid-19 is that when there is a collective social agreement, measures of a radical nature can be implemented until recently unthinkable. “This time it was a pandemic. The next could be air pollution, something as serious as this virus, "he warns. The coronavirus has reminded us that without water we last a couple of days, but without air, just a couple of minutes. So the lesson of confinement has been to see that we have accepted as legitimate that they curtail our freedom. "From now on we already know that the climatic emergency or inequity - to name just two emergencies - could make us accept radical and global measures," warns the architect. "It remains for us to agree on its urgency to reach a level of legitimacy in decision-making equivalent to that of this pandemic."

Source: elparis

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