Commentary: Epidemics and urban research (a perspective from Sweden)
Urban studies, urban planning and urban design have historically played a pivotal role in the combat against epidemics. Friedrich Engels’ 1846 classic work ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ that illustrated the miserable 19th century living conditions in England, relied significantly on epidemiological evidence from large industrial cities such as Manchester and Liverpool, where mortality from epidemics was four times that in the surrounding countryside and significantly higher than the national average.
A year earlier, the medical doctor John Snow had mapped a cholera outbreak in the centre of London and was able to trace the outbreak back to a water pump on Broad Street. It formed the basis for the formulation of a waterborne germ theory of cholera, replacing the then prevailing miasma or foul air theory explaining epidemics.
Both Friedrich Engels’ and John Snow’s insights, amongst numerous other contributions, would fundamentally alter the nature and focus of urban planning. Sanitation and public health became a crucial concern amongst urban planners and led amongst other things to the construction of sewage systems in large cities. The despondent housing conditions in industrial cities formed the basis for the formulation of modern utopias that would bring back light, air, greenery and public space to the city. The design principles behind Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse and Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City were fully inspired by public health concerns.
The attention paid to public health and disease prevention in the 19th and early 20th century would culminate in modernist architecture and urban design that would become the standard for post-war housing schemes across the globe. In Sweden, the newly founded National Tenants Union’s demand was “Healthy homes for all!” in 1923. Ludvig Nordström’s 1937 radio documentary series “Dirt-Sweden” lamented the rural housing condition with its lack of health and hygiene. For Nordström, it was “the peoples’ health, the whole nations’ power” that was at stake. The program would lead to the start of a national housing policy to provide the nation with affordable quality housing that had public health concerns at its very core.
Concerns about public health and disease have given birth to modern urban planning and design and have informed it for many decades since. The tight connections between medical concerns and urban planning and design, once so prominent, are now lost. In a time of frequent epidemics (SARS 2002, swine flu 2009, Ebola 2014, and now Covid-19) that can easily turn pandemic in our hyperconnected world, it is of the utmost importance that urban scholars, planners and designers reinstate the significance of public health concerns as a vital cornerstone for city building.