Architecting a “New Normal”? Past Pandemics and the Medicine of Urban Planning

tags: public health, urban history, urban planning, African history, Ghana, COVID-19

Jennifer Hart is an Associate Professor of African History at Wayne State University. Her first book, "Ghana on the Go: African Mobility in the Age of Motor Transportation", was published by Indiana University Press in 2016. An active public scholar, she writes for "Africa is a Country" and "Clio and the Contemporary," as well as her own blog.

Nate Plageman is an Associate Professor of History at Wake Forest University. He is the author of "Highlife Saturday Night!: Popular Music and Social Change in Urban Ghana" (2013) and several articles focused on popular culture and Ghanaian urban life. His research has been supported by Fulbright-Hays and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Tony Yeboah is a PhD student in History at Yale University and former demonstrater at the University of Cape Coast (Ghana). He specializes in architectural and urban histories of West Africa with a particular interest in Kumasi. He is also interested in palaceology and for the last six years has been working on the palace of the Asante kingdom of West Africa.

COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere. Months into the global pandemic, when many parts of the world have entered a second wave of outbreaks, health experts have cautioned the need for a “new normal” in which medical precautions guide most of our daily activities. Since cities have been hit hardest by the pandemic, policymakers have begun discussing what this new normal might look like in metropolitan environments. In some cases, urban planners have framed COVID-19 as an opportunity to reimagine and improve cities’ built landscapes. In April, we started seeing pitches prescribing urban planning as the medicine essential to creating a post-pandemic urban world. Such calls follow a common, and dreamy, prescriptive: that post-epidemic urban planning will allow us to reinvent cities into dreamscapes of public health, equality, and technological progress.

Alissa Walker recently argued that now is not the time for imagining an urbanist utopia. Instead, she opines, we must come to terms with the historical processes that have “made COVID-19 more catastrophic than it should have been,” particularly for Black Americans. Doing so, however, requires an honest accounting of the role that fields like urban planning, public health, and social work have played in the production of urban inequality. It also requires situating US urban development within wider global conversations about the relationship between urban planning and public health. The connection between these fields has roots in 19th– and 20th-century empire. Colonial officials exploited outbreaks of disease to implement racial segregation and create economic systems that intentionally marginalized Africans. In British colonial Africa, urban planners and public health officials earned their professional chops refining segregationist techniques, leaving long-lasting impacts on cities and on their wider disciplines.

We are historians of the West African nation of Ghana, each currently writing a history of urbanism in a different major city (Kumasi, Accra, and Sekondi-Takoradi, respectively). In our research efforts – and in those of many other urban scholars examining African contexts – we’ve repeatedly seen how medical experts and modernist urban planners exploited outbreaks of disease to legitimize their emerging systems of technical expertise and advance white supremacy, global capitalism, and imperial order. In the late 19th century, colonial governments often gave segregationist-minded medical authorities wide latitude as the de facto architects of urban space, inspired by outdated scientific theories of contagion and disease. As urban planning emerged as a distinct field in the 20th century, its practitioners built on these earlier models, reinforcing existing patterns of racial segregation and economic inequality. As they did so, they insisted that they were making cities safer and better.

Take the example of Accra, Ghana’s current capital city, which became the capital of the country then called Gold Coast in 1877. After 1877, British officials sought to decongest the city center so that they could better control populations and create space for their own administrative and economic activities. Their efforts, however, only gained significant traction in the aftermath of epidemics and natural disasters: occasions when urgent public health needs emboldened official action and left local communities vulnerable and in need of assistance. Following the city’s first plague outbreak in 1908, colonial officials evacuated the most congested districts and relocated residents to “safe” peripheral areas, a move that marked the beginning of 20th-century suburbanization. An earthquake in 1939 inspired additional relocations, allowing the government to seize large tracts of land needed for its own administrative purposes.

Read entire article at Nursing Clio