Preexisting Conditions: What 2020 Reveals About Our Urban FutureHistorians in the News
tags: urban history, cities
It is already certain that 2020 will join a handful of years—1789, 1929, 1989—that transform the world suddenly. The convergence of pandemic, global economic collapse, and an enormous wave of protests over racial injustice has affected life almost everywhere, but particularly in cities, which are now, for the first time in human history, home to a majority of the world’s population. This symposium brings together some of the world’s leading social scientists and humanists to grapple with the implications of the 2020 crises for our cities.
Cities, long places of density, diversity, opportunity, and wrenching inequalities, are facing existential challenges. Pandemic and the struggle to confine it threaten the urban density that has long been a source of creativity and synergy, of new forms of economic activity, cultural production, and spaces for working and living. Diversity—spurred by migration and mobility—has defined urban vitality for millennia, disrupting ossified ideas and institutions, fostering syncretism in music and the arts, while also unleashing new forms of conflict and resistance. Opportunity—for employment, for self-expression, for creation—has long attracted both migrants and refugees to cities, but also generated intense conflict and deep inequalities.
The 2020 crises have, above all, put a spotlight on the distinctive and often corrosive features of modern urbanism. Just as COVID-19 is particularly dangerous to populations with preexisting conditions, the virus has ferociously swept through urban areas because of their preexisting social conditions: the precarity of work; the unaffordability of housing; the depth of racial, ethnic, and class divides; a profoundly unequal global economy; and the failure of many governments worldwide to rise to the challenges.
Many of the essays that follow document how preexisting social conditions have worsened the 2020 crises. “Generations of racial and economic segregation of the housing market,” writes Margaret O’Mara, “meant that where you lived at the start of the pandemic greatly determined how well you survived its physical and economic hardships.” Yarimar Bonilla, analyzing the general incapacity of the governments of Puerto Rico and the United States to respond to the economic collapse and to contain the virus, points to the legacy of the “failed state, with gutted infrastructure, inefficient state agencies, and a populace that emerged from the 2008 economic crisis with stark divisions between those who can live through a hurricane, an earthquake, or a pandemic, and those who cannot.” From the vantage point of hyperurbanizing India, where informal workers have been devastated by the virus and lockdowns, Gautam Bhan describes the “vulnerability that preceded this ‘crisis,’” particularly the inadequate “patchwork” of social protections.
The particular conditions in each of these places vary. But what is clear is that the pandemic has made visible the social fissures and economic injustices that have unleashed the pandemic.
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