Adrian Parr — Pandemic Urbanism


This essay is a part of the COVID-19 dossier, edited by the b2o editorial staff. 

by Adrian Parr

On December 31, 2019 an unknown case of the flu that had infected a group of people in Wuhan, China was first reported to the World Health Organization. The source was traced back to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. Seven days later the Chinese identified the virus as a novel form of coronavirus, the same kind of virus that triggered Sars and Mers. On January 11, 2020 the first person died from Covid-19 in China. The first cases of Covid-19 in both South Korea and the United States were both confirmed on January 20, 2020. By the end of that month the entire city of Wuhan was placed under quarantine. On January 30, 2020 the World Health Organization announced Covid-19 to be a global health emergency; by 11 March it had moved to the status of a global pandemic (World Health Organization, 2020). Unlike an epidemic, which refers to a disease impacting a community or region, a pandemic is a disease that has spread across several countries and continents. Scientists now believe the virus was transmitted to humans from bats through an intermediary species, perhaps pangolins. As of April 15, 2020 there were 2,034,887 confirmed cases of the virus in the world, with 129,960 deaths spread out over 210 countries and territories (Worldometer, 2020).

The rapid spread of the coronavirus throughout the world has dramatically changed the use of public and private spaces, as well as the way everyday life is understood and practiced. With the spread of Covid-19 urban space is being produced through a variety of contradictory forces working in tandem. The city is both a weapon to be wielded in the “war” on Covid-19 and the casualty of viral ubiquity; it is the real and imaginary threat urbanity presents; and it has splintered into a multiplicity of socially contained spaces that simultaneously depend upon widespread social cooperation to come into effect. This essay will articulate a concept of pandemic urbanism in an effort to study the production of urban space under Covid-19. How, under pandemic urbanism are people inhabiting spaces, navigating other bodies, and adapting to the restrictions being placed on the movement of people? How in turn does the rise of pandemic urbanism expose imbalances of power and reinforce asymmetrical urban spatial systems?

Pandemic urbanism transforms the everyday physical proximity of people into an existential threat. There exists both the very real threat of contamination, as well as an imagined threat of an invisible enemy pervading all social life and public space. Physical distancing enforces very real separation barriers and imposes invisible barriers of containment. When combined, these real and imagined threats intensify covert inequities and racisms. In what follows I begin by describing the spatial and temporal production of zoonoses conditioning pandemic urbanism. I then examine the urban response to the current pandemic, highlighting the biopolitical production of space. I conclude by presenting the paradox of pandemic urbanism: it poses both a threat to and an opportunity for the realization of inclusive and equitable urban futures. Arriving at either outcome all depends on how pandemic urbanism is put to work.

Zoonotic Territories

Zoonosis refers to the movement of diseases, or infections, from non-human vertebrate animals to humans. Approximately 60% of emerging infectious diseases from 1940 to 2004 came from animals, with the majority of zoonoses deriving from wildlife (Jones, Patel, Levy et al., 2008). There are several reasons why infectious diseases transfer from animals to humans, but regardless of the specific epidemiological conditions, all cases involve spatial proximity. Whether we are speaking of humans living in close quarters to domestic or agricultural animals such as dogs or pigs, or more recently the growing trade and consumption of wild animals as wilderness zones decline, all amplify the epidemiologic conditions for the rate of animal borne infectious diseases in humans to increase.

There is nothing new about zoonoses impacting human health. The bubonic plague that struck Europe and Western Asia back in the early 1300s, killing approximately 50 million people, was originally transmitted to humans from rats, fleas, and ticks. The uniqueness of the current pandemic situation is that zoonoses are increasing. This situation is directly connected to human land use patterns. Human population growth and urbanization, resource extraction, the demand for more agricultural land, and infrastructure developments such as the building of roads and dams, have resulted in greater human access into, and activity in remote natural landscapes. From 1990 to 2015 over 129 million hectares of the world’s forests were lost leading to greater soil degradation, drought, flooding, desertification, biodiversity loss, and the disappearance of natural habitats (World Bank, 2016: 32).

Whilst reducing global deforestation is an important ingredient in curbing global warming, it can also assist in slowing the growing number of zoonotic pandemics (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2018: 70). In so far as deforestation contributes to water scarcity and climate change, it presents an indirect danger to human beings. That said, wildlife habitat degradation and disappearance also pose a more immediate threat to human health because these result in people coming into closer contact with zoonotic hosts, amplifying pandemics such as severe acute respiratory virus, HIV, Ebola, bird flu, and more. As David Quammen cautions in his magnificent study of spillover diseases the “recent outbreaks of new zoonotic diseases, as well as the recurrence and spread of old ones, are part of a larger pattern … we should recognize that they reflect things we’re doing, not just thing that are happening to us” (Quammen, 2012 515).

Despite their obvious differences, wilderness, rural, and urban landscapes are inextricably imbricated in each other. Simply put, in the context of global capitalism the boundaries between urbanity and its non-urban “Others” is not so sharp. Indeed, zoonotic territories are a symptom of global capitalism. A landscape in the way that I am using the term refers to the economic and cultural production of the earth. A landscape is both a pragmatic resource with a use value and an aesthetic representation of inherent value. Both treat the earth as an object involving human management and consumption. On the other hand, a territory is a relation formed through the connection of forces, matter, and bodies. It is both a spatial and temporal production that generates striated – the State, a sovereign, property ownership, and the hierarchies of order and fixed social organizations – and smooth spaces – nomadic, open, and fluid (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 474-500).

Within this conceptual schema, a zoonotic territory is formed through the epidemiological forces of animal to human spillover; the economic forces of deforestation; the political forces of social inequity leading to the capture and consumption of wild animals from informal food markets (Wuhan’s wet markets) and the exploitation of wild bodies in the growing international market of exotic animal trade; the materiality of viral shedding and the circulation of infectious excretions; along with the ever increasing proximity of human bodies with other than human animals. This assemblage of forces, matter, and bodies combine to form zoonotic territories that extend throughout wild, rural, and urban landscapes. When a zoonotic territory proliferates throughout urbanity, as is currently the case with Covid-19, the public health crisis this prompts in the urban centers around the world catalyzes into a new form of urbanism: pandemic urbanism.

Pandemic Urbanism

Covid-19 is a respiratory virus and as such it spreads from an infected person through respiratory droplets, such as coughing and sneezing (Center for Disease Control). A person can catch the disease by touching an infected surface and by inhaling coronavirus contaminated mucus. Urban areas, where people come into close contact with each other and a variety of shared surfaces on a regular basis, present a very real and high threat of contamination. Unsurprisingly then, Covid-19 has impacted how people use and view the urban environment.

Suffice it to say everyday urbanity under the conditions of a global public health crisis, such as Covid-19, has dramatically changed. In an effort to contain the spread of the virus, shelter-in-place orders have brought urban economic and social life to a near standstill. Bars, cafes, restaurants, and gyms have temporarily closed. People are working from home. They no longer gather in large numbers. Learning has moved online, as schools and universities close. The use of shared forms of transportation, such as taxis, trains, buses, and airplanes have significantly decreased and almost halted altogether. Public movement for the purposes of conducting essential activities – purchasing food, medical supplies, visiting a doctor, or those who are working as part an essential activity are exempt.

People have begun using the empty streets to move throughout the city by walking, biking, and roller blading. Social life for the healthy has shifted from in-person modalities to video chats, texting, or telephone calls. As the pace of urbanity has slowed, wildlife ventures more and more into metropolitan areas. There are reports of bobcats visiting the front porches of homes in Dallas; marine life, never seen before in Venice, now swim through the pristine waters of the canals; deer are nudging their way into the urban core; urban parks and gardens are home to many more rabbits, birds, and ducks. Highways and bridges once bustling with cars, trucks, and motorcycles are near empty. Urban life has become quieter as the drone of peak hour traffic has vanished, the air is cleaner, and the skies appear bluer than before. Pandemic urbanism has certainly been great for the environment, providing much needed relief from escalating global greenhouse gas emissions.

Emergency management and preparedness measures have led to the erection of new urban physical borders. To ensure people keep their distance at supermarkets lines placed at 6 feet intervals on the ground at grocery store entry points are spatial markers used to both control the space between people waiting outside the store and the number of people shopping inside. The elderly are allocated specific days and times to shop to help ensure their medical safety. People move through urban areas dressed in protective gear wearing masks and surgical gloves to further stop transmission in shared spaces. As people try to stay active, streets and parks have become important public spaces for walking pets, taking a stroll, and exercise. With the six feet physical distancing rule, these spaces have quickly reached a tipping point. Police are fining people who break the order to not gather and stay inside and checkpoints at state border crossings survey travelers, administering quarantine orders for potential cases of disease transmission.

The spaces of pandemic urbanism are reorganized to maximize the distribution of public health services across multiple scales in both actual and virtual space. At the individual level more hand sanitizing stations are provided. At a larger collective level, pop-up medical centers are quickly infilling empty spaces. The image of healthcare workers in hazmat suits is the prevailing symbol of pandemic urbanism. Hotels in New York City in close proximity to treatment facilities are converting empty guest rooms to house medical staff. Telemedicine platforms are being used to diagnose the healthy and sick. Hospital emergency rooms are reconfigured to separate suspected Covid-19 patients from other patients into spaces exhausted from the outside so that air from infected spaces does not mingle with air in other parts of the hospital. As hospitals begin to overflow, many cities around the world have taken to converting stadiums, parks, closed factories, and convention centers into makeshift hospitals. In London the National Health Services and armed forces transformed an exhibition and convention center into a makeshift hospital in a few weeks. China built new hospitals in a matter of days to treat patients with Covid-19, going so far as to use robots in place of humans to treat the sick. Clinics have been converted to treat the sick, drive through testing stations have started, and ambulance bays are being converted into triage areas.

Pandemic urbanism is organized around three distinctive extraterritorial spatial practices: social distancing, quarantine, and isolation. Social distancing, which would more appropriately be coined “physical distancing”, is a matter of maintaining a six-foot distance from another person when in common spaces. The irony is, the mandate requiring individual behavioral changes to keep society as a whole safe, rests upon extensive social cooperation to work. A two-week quarantine period conducted in a person’s home is recommended practice, and sometimes enforced, if a person has travelled to a highly infected area or has been in contact with an infected person. Anyone who becomes sick from the virus is ordered to isolate and to go to the nearest emergency room if they experience difficulty breathing. All are premised upon interrupting the collective sensory experience of the city, placing the inter-connectivity and experimental play constitutive of urban life on hold.

The bodies of Covid-19 patients and the spaces they are isolated to and treated in are extra territorial urban islands fracturing the continuity of urban infrastructure, neighborhoods, and economic life. Anselm Franke and Eyal Weizman describe extra territorial spaces as ones where the “old political order has splintered into discontinuous territorial fragments set apart and fortified by makeshift barriers, temporary boundaries, or invisible security apparatuses” that are “externally alienated and internally homogenized” (Franke and Weizman, 2003).

In addition to the new spatial relations and configurations that the islands of Covid-19 testing and treatment sites have instituted the pandemic is exacerbating prevailing socioeconomic disparities. It is now common knowledge that health insurance inequities in the US intersect with racial and ethnic disparities creating a differentiated experience of disease and contamination (Coleman, 1982; Rosenberg, 1962; and Sohn, 2017). A shelter in place mandate places a prohibition on venturing outdoors unless absolutely necessary. It therefore assumes all urban residents have a permanent home they can stay indoors at. In the US, millions of people, many without the financial means to weather the economic storm suddenly lost their jobs as restaurants and other non-essential businesses were forced to close when stay at home orders were issued. During the early stages of the pandemic in the US the nearly 30 million uninsured encountered challenges in gaining access to testing and treatment. At the same time, large numbers of those uninsured tend to work in the service and construction industries; all environments that carry a higher risk of exposure to the virus (Berchick, Barnett, and Upton, 2019). Uninsured people also find it harder to navigate the complexities of the US medical system, presenting further challenges to medical access. The pandemic accentuates sociospatial inequities between rural and urban spaces. Rural residents have fewer doctors and medical treatment options and they have to travel much farther for treatment than their urban counterparts.

As the global economy begins to tank, businesses are forced to close, unemployment lines grow, and governments dip into their reserves to prop up national economies, the economics of global health re-enter political discourse as both a political subject and the object of political strategizing. Just as much as the rapid spread of the pandemic around the world marks an instance of biological life escaping management techniques of the state and private sector, power returns and is reasserted biopolitically. To paraphrase Foucault, pandemic urbanism does this by reintegrating life back into “techniques that govern and administer it”, becoming a “regulatory and corrective mechanism” that participates in the distribution of “the living in the domain of value and utility” (Foucault, 1978: 143-144). People are dying alone in hospitals from Covid-19 as the risk of contagion is too high to allow family and loved one’s to say their goodbyes in person. In Italy, as the state’s medical system is overrun doctors are forced to choose between who is given intensive care and who is not. The mounting number of unclaimed bodies in New York are unceremoniously buried at mass burial sites on Hart Island outside New York.


In a globalized world the localized scale of an epidemic quickly transforms into a pandemic. Covid-19 has been one such scenario. Pandemic urbanism offers one way to understand how the urban environment is produced and in turn produces urbanity under the conditions of global disease. On one side of the equation, social behaviors in the city dramatically change as people attempt to remain six feet apart from each other to avoid contamination, sanitization stations appear, mechanized transportation grinds to a halt and is replaced by foot traffic and bicycles, the pace and sound of urbanity slows and quietens, buildings and roadways are vacated, and air quality improves. On the other side of the equation, the burdens vulnerable urban populations bear increase, infected bodies are assigned to the archipelagos of tent hospitals, the spontaneous movement of urbanity becomes a variable to be administered, other bodies are abandoned and left to be colonized by infection, and mass burial sites on the edges of urban centers dispose of the growing number of dead without ritual. The stark differences between the two form a nexus around the production and reproduction of biological life, a life that it is structured and managed by asymmetrical socio-spatial relations of power.

What now? How might cities be designed differently to mitigate the spread of disease? This is a question that could lead to turning current provisional measures into permanent urban features. Future commercial and public buildings might have many more antimicrobial surfaces and finishes. Sanitizing stations and temperature screening zones, such as the mass temperature testing that took place at the Venice airport when Covid-19 first began to gain ground there. The design and placement of pandemic specific structures could lead to the reorganization of urban space around pandemic zones. The once popular open office environment, now viewed as a major hurdle for pandemic containment, may be replaced with collaborative and isolated working zones. In an effort to curb direct physical contact with shared surfaces, robotic and automated elements become more frequent in public and shared commercial spaces, for example, navigating urban towers using voice activated elevators.

At the same time, those who participate in and advance the design and planning of the built environment will need to be cognizant of the darker biopolitical underbelly of producing design and policy knowledges of the built environment under pandemic scenarios. Pandemic urbanism can both legitimate and be deployed in strategies that establish population health as the ultimate end goal of urban life. Moving forward the design and planning professions and research disciplines will need to navigate these biopolitical waters with criticality and caution so as to ensure Covid-19 does not become the Trojan Horse of our common right to the city, to paraphrase David Harvey (Harvey, 2008). The moment urbanism is a tool through which states can regulate and administer the health of populations is the moment in which human agency and creativity are switched with population control, and urbanity is politicized.

The reinterpretation and re-representation of urban form and life through the lens of health and hygiene confronts our shared understanding and collective experience of urban spaces and times. The biopolitical interpretation of urbanity that pandemic urbanism could very well end up instituting, will require deeper critical engagement because it means that treatment isn’t just administered in specific spaces, like medical centers and hospitals, it is also administered urbanistically, whereby the built environment could be turned into a means through which disease is contained.

The manner in which design, planning, and public health policy coalesce to form a pandemic urbanism sheds new light on how urbanism can quickly become an instrument for biopolitical governmentality. Without minimizing the importance of caring for the sick and averting the further spread of a vicious virus, the shadows of biopolitical control lurking in the urban corners of overflowing and adhoc medical facilities needs to be brought into the open and honestly addressed as we recover, move forward, and plan for the next iteration of zoonotic territories. As people work together to rebuild their lives, heal from economic losses, and basically repair the serious sociopolitical deficits Covid-19 has exposed the world over, urbanism is presented with a tremendous opportunity to ultimately embrace the idea of healthy cities, not as governing the biological life of urban populations and materializing these in a series of formal elements; rather a city that welcomes different people and environmental attributes configured in dialogue with climatic conditions and topographical constraints, all materialized around imaginatively bringing people together and spurring a variety of social interactions.


Adrian Parr is the Dean of the College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington and a UNESCO Chair of Water and Human Settlements. In her capacity as a UNESCO water chair, Parr was selected by the European Cultural Center to curate an exhibition for the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale on Watershed Urbanism where she will feature DFW and its current and future relationship to the Trinity River system. She has published extensively on environmental politics, sustainable development, and design in the public interest. She is the author of the trilogy Hijacking Sustainability (MIT Press), The Wrath of Capital (Columbia University Press), and Birth of a New Earth (Columbia University Press) in addition to other books of cultural theory. She is the producer and co-director (with Sean Hughes) of the multi-award winning documentary, The Intimate Realities of Water, that examines the water challenges women living in Nairobi’s slum face. She has been interviewed for her views on climate change by The New York Times, television news, and other media outlets, and is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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