Cities around the world face many shocks – social, economic and environmental – that test their capacities for resilience, and necessitate more holistic and integrated spatial and community planning. The current crisis, around Covid-19, lays bare a lack of investment in societal infrastructure for many governments across the world who have embraced austerity politics and neoliberal urban management. In not only failing to plan for contingency, but the calculable risk of pandemic – evidenced by many scientists and academics – urban settlements have revealed how vulnerable they are to shock. Already, there are questions emerging around how we live our lives, how we build housing, and for what achievable outcomes in society. The spatial density of urban settlements is already an area where commentators have begun to ask questions, around the risk that comes from informal development in societies that are said to live on top of each other. For many, the decision to dwell in close quarters is cultural, although underlying economic circumstances are usually a factor, and for many such density offers strong social networks and protection. Inequality is manifest spatially, and in order to address the failures of our built environment, we must look to our systems of governances, and resource distribution in order to understand density.

Densely packed housing in the historic city of Ragusa, Sicily.

The shift towards greater urban densification is not only the outcome of inequalities – it has in some quarters become the aim of urban planning of the compact city, or the infilling of interstices and open spaces of the urban core. In other cases, a lack of adequate planning protections encourages landowners to hoard land in key areas, by ignoring informality and squalor. The fear of the spread of the coronavirus into and within densely populated urban communities – whether in the slums of Mumbai, the favelas of São Paulo or the concentration of older people in historic inner city areas of Milan and Bologna should reawaken debate over the benefits of urban densification. Now more than ever, it is important to understand the dynamics of daily life in such settlements, looking to concepts from anthropology, and resilience science. The trend towards transdisciplinary research in urban studies, allows us to look at complex issues from multiple perspectives, and unpick the root causes of spatial inequality. Before we present simplistic arguments around how disease can spread more rampantly in high density settlements, such as housing blocks, slums and favelas, we must consider why these typologies exist – and how they could be improved to provide more dignified homelife for citizens.

Moinho favela in São Paulo

Yet density allows us to hear our neighbours singing, bingo calls and the clanging of pots and pans in protest. Density provides safety for those most vulnerable to displacement and isolation. Now that movement is restricted, we have an opportunity to collect more detailed – and forensic – data on how people live in dense settlements, and the positives and negatives of same. Ethnographic research, and deep engagement with these communities will allow new narratives to come to the fore, and offer new knowledge to planners and policymakers. Density per se is not the problem, but perhaps the lack of services that provide adequate infrastructure for communities to thrive, and allow social capital to flow among society. Social innovation, where multiple actors collaborate towards social transformation offers us a process – and set of methodologies – that allow local solutions to global problems emerge. We are already sense a re-emergence of citizens supporting each other in light of the current situation, including communities of practice to map the spread of disease, as well as technology to match acute need of the vulnerable with the kindness of strangers. Spatial density in the urban fabric is knit of invisible bonds and cross stitches that are the basis of resilience. When opening up criticism of lacking social infrastructure in dense urban settlements, we must be careful not to look – superficially – only at the surface, but dig deeper to reveal robust networked behaviours. Through a better understanding of the constituent of community we can devise solutions that safeguard health and well-being, even in the most precarious of environments. The Institute for Future Cities intends to bring these stories to the fore through a series of conversations over the coming period.

All credits @godonagh on Instagram