How the Response to a Pandemic Changed the Streetscape of Cities

It only took cholera, a bacterial disease, a few weeks to kill over 3500 people in NYC during the summer of 1832. That does not seem like many, but back then the population was at only around 250,000. But cholera wasn’t done with the city; it came back for round two in 1849, this time killing more than 5,000 inhabitants. With science still unable to handle this crisis, city architects and urban designers were assigned with the hard task of transforming the city to help stop the spread of disease.

In the nineteenth century the public health of cities was practically nonexistent. Drinking water was contaminated with everything from animal manure and human waste to all sorts of other garbage. But it was “miasma” that was blamed for spreading diseases that were rampant in the city. Rotting organic material emitted noxious vapors that medical professionals believed caused the spread of disease. To combat this, cities were designed to rid foul smelling, malevolent air through the use of better ventilation, drainage, and sanitary practices. NYC made some changes and upgrades; a 41-mile aqueduct system was built to deliver clean water north of the city, 20k pigs were banished, and long drinking water and sewer pipes were installed beneath the streets.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that cobblestones began to replace the city’s oyster shell and dirt streets. Round stones were used first, and then the mighty Belgian block came along, which was stronger, flat, and made of granite, then finally less expensive concrete made its move into the city in the mid to late 19th century.

NYC was redesigned based on fear of epidemics such as cholera and yellow fever, which public health officials believed were caused by stank odor. Wastewater systems were built underground, which resulted in streets being built straighter and wider. In addition they were paved over so they could be washed down before that noxious odor began to rise. Now this hurts a little because I LOVE cobblestone streets. I love them until I have to drag my 65 lb luggage from the public transit station to my residence with tiny wheels that get stuck between EVERY one. But, these streets give a real texture to the urban experience, especially in cities that have such rich histories. Cobblestones are loud and contribute to the noise pollution that many cities try to decrease. They are also very slippery when wet and scoff at current accessibility standards. Cobblestones are full of history and beauty, but not perfect. 

It’s 2020 and we have our own pandemic to contend with, so will COVID-19 have a lasting impact on the way our cities are designed? Should it have? Some city planners are incorporating more delivery zones into their street redesigns, but can this have a negative affect on our cities? Can we argue that access to green space is detrimental to the health of our citizens and this is where our planners need to focus their efforts? Frederick Law Olmsted, a landscape architect who was best known for redesigning NYC’s Central Park, touted the healing properties of parks- every citizen needs equal access to fresh air and sunlight as it is part of the commons. Unfortunately this isn’t as easy as it seems- decades of poor planning has made some areas desolate of green space, and inhabitants forget why it is so valuable. This is when bringing nature to the indoors can make a real difference; sun and foliage is way safer at disinfecting the air than manmade chemicals and toxins. 

Let’s normalize grow-lights and indoor gardens. Let’s push for reclaimed space that can serve as a pocket park or community garden. Let’s urge our public officials to be proactive not reactive when it comes to incorporating sustainable design into our streetscapes. And finally, let’s thank the Earth for ultimately taking care of us.