How to change post-pandemic Sydney
Our cities will change, post-pandemic. No doubt about it. But as to how they will change, we have a choice.
The Sydney Morning Herald
23 May 2020
by Elizabeth Farrelly
So often it’s the rats and mice that change the face of history. The sword glint that triggers the battle that ends a dynasty. The tiff between distant cousins that starts a war that generates depression that starts another war without which there’d be no moon rockets, no Hollywood, no Tom Stoppard, no Westfield Bondi Junction. The undercooked bat stew in some far-flung futuropolis that changes the shape of every life and city on the planet for a year, maybe forever.
Our cities will change, post-pandemic. No doubt about it. But as to how they will change, we have a choice. We can use this portal to change Sydney for the better or, via bad collective life choices, for the worse. Now is the moment.
Most of us live in cities, so their future is our future. But their future shape is hard to see, not least because the two biggest threats to human survival – COVID and climate change – seem to point in opposite directions. Climate demands we live more densely, sharing more and consuming less. COVID, at first glance, seems to demand our spread. But maybe it’s not so simple.
Cities have two essential traits; proximity and mobility. Proximity is why cities exist. Whether for fun or business, we like to nudge each other, eyeball each other, connect. Proximity enables us to specialise, so we don’t all have to subsist but can trade – my new map-app for your Petrarchan sonnet. Mobility, providing choice and change, food and goods, enables this proximity.
Both, though, are implicated in the spread of COVID-19. Together, proximity and mobility turned a new germ into a pandemic. So, will future cities even exist?
If no, we can stop right here. Maybe cities will dissipate, and we’ll all revert to subsistence farming. Let’s do the sums. Divide the estimated 31 million square kilometres of arable land on the earth’s surface by 8 billion and you get 3.9 hectares a person, or perhaps 10 hectares a family. Assuming adequate rainfall etc that’s enough to keep a cow, a couple of pigs and a bunch of bok choy.
But, of course, there’s no way land would be distributed equally. As sure as Adam Smith’s a dead white guy, five blokes would own two-thirds of the planet and the rest of us would get a pocket handkerchief each. But even if such a distribution were achievable, it’d be the ultimate in car-based sprawl. So unless accompanied by a shift to 100 per cent renewables, we’d quickly tip ourselves over the edge into climate catastrophe.
Assuming, then, that our survival instinct, our proximity-craving and our yearning for cultural stimulus combine to sustain the city in some form or other, it’s worth considering what form.
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