#24 - 10 April 2020

Cities in safe boot mode

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Cities are not like those families Tolstoy mentions at the beginning of Anna Karenina: they all look the same in the drama we're living through. The photos of the big cities that are in the media on a loop show us neither the Place de la Concorde in Paris, nor Times Square in New York nor the highways of Bogotá: they tell us of the absence of cities. The absence of flow, the absence of noise, the absence of pollution, the absence of human beings.

This virtual walk through cities in crisis outlines what cities are. What the COVID-19 epidemic breaks in cities is their role as a “scale-switcher”. Confinement, lockdown, whatever you call it has erased the multiple scales in which we previously carried out our daily activities. The city, the agglomeration, the urban area have disappeared. And what is to be said when it comes to cities in neighboring countries or in the rest of the world, which have become mere narratives that can be accessed via social networks when they are not reduced to epidemiological or mortality curves? Only one concrete experience remains: the neighborhood, where I do my shopping or exercise, has become the only scale of our lives, our living area or even our employment area for those of us who are teleworking. The city, the concrete city, the lived city, is now only what I see or walk through: the place where I live and, according to France’s lockdown rules, a circle of one kilometer around it. It is organized on the scale of our body, of our basic needs has become the referential of city organization.

In doing so, cities paradoxically give us a glimpse of their immense strength. Like us, the city has returned, literally, to its fundamentals: to operate, when they exist, the water, electricity, gas, garbage collection and treatment networks, to be the city of cables, of Internet fiber. The underground, the invisible city, the city of hidden infrastructures, the essential city is standing strong. It does not waver. A computer scientist would say it has gone into safe boot mode. The city of networks is smarter than ever in the sense that it has been able to adapt in a phenomenal way to a situation that it hadn't known since the great cholera epidemics of the 19th century: it does what it is asked to do, it works, supported by the municipal public services, its delegates and its concessionaires. Public, private: the summa divisio so dear to our old reflexes is gone, so much the better. Today, there is the essential, and the rest.

And this essential is also our municipal political institutions. If our cities look nothing like cities at war, it is because, like the caretakers and all those invisible people who have been driven out of the heart of cities for lack of affordable housing, their mayors and municipal teams are on all fronts.

Ladies and gentlemen elected municipal officials, thank you! For this “critical city” that continues to function is ready to restart at any time. And us with it! – Cécile Maisonneuve, President

No time to read? La Fabrique de la Cité has got you covered.

“WHAT IS YOUR FOOD POLICY?” – Such is the question Thomas Reynolds, chief executive of Northwest Harvest (a Washington state food bank service), would ask the candidates running for presidency in the U.S. Indeed, a situation report published at the end of March shows growing concerns over food security in the area by mid-April, as food banks have to deal with an increased demand, staffing shortages and supply issues. It raises the question of the adaptation of supply chains during a crisis. – Sarah Cosatto, Research Officer


FREE ROAD - Would the health crisis with its free roads and its inhabitants confined to supply make urban logistics the big winner when its strategic character becomes clear for everyone? Laetitia Dablanc shows that the situation is much more complex: between falling consumption, disorganization and above all unpredictability of orders, lack of (social and health) protection for logistics workers, the sector suffers just as much as the others, revealing its pre-existing vulnerabilities. – Chloë Voisin-Bormuth, Director of studies and research


MASS TRANSIT(ION) Mass transit faces a future that can be potentially harder than the period after the Great Recession. At that time, many agencies made deep service cuts that took a decade to rebound from. As society transitions to a post-pandemic world, it’s likely that US transit agencies will need to think differently about what transit itself should look like. – Camille Combe, Project Manager


THE SYSTEMIC ISSUE OF FOOD SECURITY – While French and European cities seem largely below the risk of a disruption in the supply of fresh products, despite real difficulties in harvesting certain seasonal products, the impacts of the Covid-19 health crisis on the regional agriculture in Sahel raise fears of a systemic risk on food security in Sub-Saharan Africa, including for the population living in the main cities. – Raphaël Languillon-Aussel, Senior Research Manager


EVERYTHING IN ITS OWN TIME – According to a recent note by the OECD about cities policy responses to the Covic-19 pandemic, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro encourages companies to adapt the beginning of their work shifts depending on the sector: the first shift starting at 6am is dedicated to industry, the second at 8am to trade, and the third at 10am to the service sector. A way to fluidify mobilities across the metropolis and rethink urban rhythms to prevent its transportation system from being overcrowded. – Sarah Cosatto

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