Cities, Pandemics and the Task of the Historian | Questions from Cultural Studies

By Răzvan Voinea

Before historians discuss the city after pandemics, we need to re-discuss the role of the historians.*

The pressure on academics to publish relevant data about the current pandemic has determined historians to address previous global pandemics and draw parallels with the current situation. One of the conclusions reached after analyzing previous pandemics concerns changes in urban planning, as past epidemics such as tuberculosis or cholera forced the authorities to carefully plan new districts or cities in order to fight against the spread of these diseases. Currently, architects and urban planners continue the debate in search for relevant answers about the future of architecture and urban planning in the new context determined by measures of social distancing.  

There is no doubt that 19th-century industrialization and the constant growth of the cities led to a significant spread of diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis. As a result, the authorities embraced Garden City principles, which mainly consisted in the idea of single-family dwellings surrounded by a garden or courtyard, designed on a large scale in districts with access to amenities, and placed at the periphery of the city, where land was cheap. Consequently, in Europe, America, Africa or Australia, the first decade of the 20th century brought about important progress: Garden City Associations were formed, while politicians adopted the principles and used them to shape social housing policies, meant to help the vulnerable classes, the social category most affected by these diseases.

However, the policy had a contrary effect to the one planned by the reformers. As historian Peter Hall has suggested, the way the principles were put into practice differed significantly from the original intentions: once the state and private agencies started to promote the project, costs went up and the whole thing went wrong, as the most affected people, the industrial workers, lacked the means to move to the  newly designed districts or cities. The reform was hijacked almost everywhere in Europe to serve the (upper) middle class, who were interested both in constructing the dwellings and in distributing them to the people considered economically secure enough to be able to pay back the loans. After the Second World War, Garden City principles continued to be promoted in the United States or Great Britain, but the socialist countries took a different route. Here the authorities encouraged the designing of large apartment buildings – as part of an urge to build as much as possible, which was a consequence not only of the war itself, but also of the poor results of the social housing reform based on the Garden City principles.

In Bucharest, at the turn of the 20th century and in the wake of the adoption of the first projects based on Garden City principles, the issue on the table was tuberculosis and the overcrowding of the workers in small buildings with little or no access to water. Moreover, workers were spending 10-12 hours per day at work, holiday entitlement was still a thing of the future, as was the right to strike or many other rights. As elsewhere, the noble intention of the reformers was to solve the problem of housing conditions for the workers, but as soon as the first districts with standardized dwellings were constructed, they were sold to middle class buyers. The housing issue in urban Romania was solved only late after the War with the construction of large housing districts.

And this is where the confusion starts in the current debate. Should historians play any role in the debate regarding the future of cities? Are the parallels with previous pandemics relevant in any way to the new context? Is it enough to know the characteristics of former historical processes to be able to reveal significant details that can help the citizens or the authorities take decisions in the current situation?

A recent article published during lockdown uses a short history of the Garden City and modern architecture to criticize current trends in urban planning and public policies. The author uses historical facts to condemn the trend of pedestrian area planning and public transportation usage, and argues in favor of the ideal housing model – living in a single-family dwelling outside the city and owning individual cars to ensure transportation in the city – as the safe choice from a sanitary perspective. However, the article is short on information about the social failure of this type of planning and lacks true understanding of the historical particularities of the Garden City project in Romania. The single-family dwelling was an ideal to be reached, but proved too expensive to afford for most of the citizens of Bucharest and remained, therefore, a privilege of the middle class. Equally absent are references to the issue of amenities: the authorities in the first half of the 20th century were overwhelmed by the huge amounts of money that had to be invested in expanding the drainage and electric systems, together with garbage disposal and public transportation.

In sum, the terminological confusions and the lack of a deep historical understanding of the city’s development leads to fallacious conclusions. The author builds a narrative and argumentative plot in the ironic trope, in order to fight against various supporters of a more communitarian approach to city planning; in so doing, he intends to use history as a tool, but the argument backfires owing to its predetermined emplotment. In contrast, the task of the historian – or of anyone using history to reflect on the present – is spelled out by the very nexus of the methodological quest: it is the accurate reading of the primary sources that leads to the argument, not the other way round.

Consider another controversial topic, to do with the involvement of history in architecture or urban planning. During the interwar period, Romanian architects defined architecture as the art that scrutinizes the future, in a remarkable effort to imagine what the society would look like over the ensuing decades. I agree with this definition. In contrast, the historian’s area of expertise is the realm of the past, carefully constructed with the help of primary and secondary sources. While for the architects the future is a duty, for historians it represents a futile burden.

To end, I will refer to the way Henry Rousso, the main figure of the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent, has defined the task of the historian in his work. Rousso declined to serve as expert witness in the trials of the 1990s and 2000s concerning French involvement in the Nazi atrocities against the Jews in France during the Second World War, and explained his reasons in an interview with journalist Philippe Petit, subsequently published as The Haunting Past: History, Memory, and Justice in Contemporary France (2002). I will mention only one of them here: the French historian argued that “one of the greatest risks facing historical approaches is to succumb to the ‘metonymic temptation,’ that is, to take the part as a whole and vice versa, and to believe that, all other things being equal, what is true in one particular situation is necessarily true in another.”

Rousso approaches this common mistake of historical inquiries in a rather horizontal manner. However, the same idea can serve as a warning sign against the temptation of believing in the circularity of historical processes. If the Spanish Flu lasted 2 years, are we to presume that COVID-19 will also last 2 years? If tuberculosis changed the city 100 years ago, will this happen again? Whether the answer is yes or no, it is not up to the historian to decide. Rather than predicting the future, historians should rather use their skills in understanding the meaning of texts, use the correct terminology and ask the correct questions. It is true that tuberculosis did change the city, but it did so in favor of the elite, not in favor of the people whom the elite considered they were helping. So, the right questions that historians can contribute to the debate pursued by architects, urban planners and policy makers are, who are the actors who are changing the city? who are the beneficiaries and who are the losers of the change?

* I refer to historian in the general sense of the word – to mean any formally trained academic whose interest lies in any specific field of the humanities and who adopts the methodological steps of historical documentation, explanation/understanding and representation – rather than the administrative sense of it.

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