From the Archive: Readings for a Pandemic
Here at Places, in the Bay Area, we are sheltering in place, and adjusting to changed rhythms and new anxieties as we communicate via Skype or Zoom, check the news obsessively, and find new forms of social solidarity in the time of social distancing.
We have turned to our archive to consider how the coronavirus crisis is affecting the ways in which we think about the social and material infrastructures that shape our lives. And as we read, we have also been prompted to think ahead, to when we are on the other side of the crisis, and to the many ways in which our built and natural environments might be better equipped not only to confront a global pandemic but also to improve our ordinary daily lives.
In this reading list, we have collected some of the articles that we have been re-reading and that have become newly resonant, on topics like public health, maintenance, housing, care, and community.
In a prescient article from 2010, Thomas Fisher traces the interconnections between urban design and public health, from the plagues that ravaged medieval Europe to the H1N1 outbreak. Looking ahead to what might come next, he considers "how we can transform our cities in large and small ways to protect us from pandemics."
Frederick Law Olmsted’s Campaign for Public Health
"We will never confront our contemporary public health problems in any meaningful way unless we question the prevailing power structures." Thomas Fisher explores Frederick Law Olmsted's often-overlooked career as the first leader of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, and finds an example that landscape architects might follow to connect design, public health, and public service.
Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini trace the long relationship of environmental design to shifting social and political concepts of well-being, from 19th-century urban parks to 20th-century sanatoria to the "healthy buildings" of today. And they ask: would it be possible to “demedicalize” architecture — to replace the prescriptive solutions of “cure” with the more expansive goals of “care”?
Maintenance and Care
"What we really need to study is how the world gets put back together." Shannon Mattern challenges the narratives of disruption and innovation with a return to the principles of maintenance in this working guide to the repair of the rust, dust, cracks, and corrupted code in our cities, our homes, and our social relations.
Library as Infrastructure
Reading room, social service center, innovation lab — we've come to expect an awful lot of our libraries. In a moment in which social distancing has closed them (physically, at least), it's worth thinking through what roles we want our libraries to serve, and what we can reasonably expect of them.
In an era of black-boxed neural nets and disposable gadgets, the hardware store promotes a material consciousness and a mechanical sensibility. And it is a vital social infrastructure — though one that is likely closed off to many right now. As we shelter in place, the hardware store offers a model for thinking through the values that truly make our communities.
Chicago Inside Out
Cook County has become one of the best places in the nation for thinking creatively about the role of government in people’s lives. The story of the commitment and the ingenuity of the progressive reformers that are making the best of its agencies, from Places' Kresge Foundation-supported series on inequality in American cities, is well worth revisiting now.
Houston’s Quiet Revolution
"It seems like such a simple thing: a city organized around diverse, inclusive neighborhoods, supported by a basic social infrastructure — education, jobs, healthcare — that is accessible to all." But things are done differently in Houston. In another installment of The Inequality Chronicles, Michael Berryhill explores how Neighborhood Centers Inc. (now named BakerRipley), a private organization funded mostly with public money, stepped in to fill the gap.
Wearing the Lead Glasses
"When I am wearing the lead glasses, I see threats everywhere. Old houses under renovation. Unfiltered tap water. Patches of bare earth in parks." In a powerful account of contamination, corruption, and diligent research and activism, Thomas Beller tracks the longest-running childhood epidemic in American history, from his own family, to the origins of the gas industry, to the Flint water crisis and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Design and the Green New Deal
"We need to train a rising generation of landscape architects for careers in public service. Students will need coursework in public administration and finance, political theory, and community organizing." Billy Fleming's impassioned call for landscape architects to remake the discipline champions the role of designers in building a more just and resilient future.
“The Splendor of Our Public and Common Life”
"The next time you hear someone say that the quintessential American landscape is found in the individualistic frontier or the tract development of private homes, you can point out that one of the most popular books in the nation’s history located the American dream in a publicly-owned garden city with a democratically planned economy." Edward Bellamy’s utopian novels influenced a generation of urban planners and designers. They are worth reading today, as designers consider their political commitments.
It’s a civic resource, an index of inequality, and a requirement for public health. Shade should be a mandate for urban designers. Sam Bloch's defining article on the provision of shade in our cities is a powerful reminder that we need to learn to see shade as a public good.
Tent City, America
Tent cities are now so common that advocates are campaigning to make them semi-permanent settlements of micro-housing. But is this a genuine solution or a cheap fix? Chris Herring's examination of homeless encampments, published in 2015, is an especially important read in the context of contagion and social distancing.
The (Still) Dreary Deadlock of Public Housing
Decades ago Catherine Bauer argued passionately that governments must ensure that all citizens are well housed — a call to action more vital than ever as our shelter crisis deepens. In this installment of Places' Future Archive series, Barbara Penner revisits Bauer's ever-resonant call for governments to accept responsibility of fixing the housing system.
Socialism and Nationalism on the Danube
"Today the 'European’ city is not necessarily the good city, the social city, that it so often appears to be to the traveler from elsewhere — dense, historically rich, egalitarian, clean, endlessly walkable and seemingly welcoming. It is also the city of the nation state, of guarded borders and exclusionary laws, of fear, nostalgia, and resentment." Owen Hatherley explores differing conceptions of European identity through key moments in the architectural histories of Vienna and Budapest.
Housing and Hope
"Insecure housing is a lens into fundamental crises of the current world system, which make it impossible to guarantee the simplest protections to the most vulnerable populations in locations as different as Sudan, Brazil, South Africa, India and Cambodia." Arjun Appadurai's study of the global struggle for housing as a human right emphasizes the relationship of secure housing to personal dignity and full citizenship.
The Public Works
The Great Depression of the 1930s inspired FDR's New Deal, which built thousands of public works that remain vital to this day. But the Great Recession failed to spur a new New Deal, even as essential American infrastructure decays and collapses. Why? Certainly there's no shortage of innovative design thinking. The real dilemma is that we confront our crisis in a market-driven culture that's suspicious of public sector solutions — and more, of the very idea of the public.
“We shall deal here with humble things”
On bathrooms as social goods: It may be the smallest room in the house, but the humble bathroom is where our daily domestic lives connect with the large-scale infrastructures of water, waste, and sanitation.
The Corner of Lovecraft and Ballard
"As the corner is the germ of a room, it is also room for germs. With the rise, in the 1870s, of germ theory as the accepted explanation for the spread of disease, household dust was thrown into inauspicious new light. It was more than simply unsightly, it was unhealthy. It was the visible habitat of invisible micro-organisms that could cause illness and even death." H.P. Lovecraft and J.G. Ballard both put architecture at the heart of their fiction, and both made the humble corner into a place of nightmares.