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Epidemiology, Urban Planning, and the European City

by Sascha Roesler

With the spread of the coronavirus, hygiene has made a powerful return to our social awareness. A year ago, hardly anyone would have thought it possible that this area of knowledge would again underlie such a comprehensive set of problems. For decades hygiene has been an integral part of our material culture and everyday behaviour.(1)

As it is well known, modern architecture and urban planning decisively contributed to the development of a hygienic self-image in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Lowering the density with which housing was occupied, determining the distances between buildings, and the anchoring of everyday hygiene measures in the kitchen and bathroom — all of these measures decisively shaped the understanding of modern dwelling and life and fuelled the development of new ways of building. Modern urban planning was primarily based on devising new regulations for the distance between people, objects and buildings. In this respect, it delivered a genuine theory of “social distancing”, which sees inside and outside as strictly separate areas. The new modern urban planning guidelines stipulated who and what should stay inside and who and what should remain outside. And this applied to people just as much as viruses or heat. Not less than new hygiene technologies, these guidelines have shaped modern hygiene, which, using a term of cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall, can be described as urban “proxemics.” (2)

Epidemics in the city

Infectious diseases such as plague, cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis and malaria were fundamental problems for preindustrial cities, for which substantial solutions were only developed in the 20th century. As can be read in the “Report on the Mortality of Cholera in England” from 1852, the causes of how diseases spread were by no means determined at the time. “The form of the cholera curve for all England is very remarkable”, it reads; “The successive terraces and pinnacles of the Plate resemble sections of the primitive mountain formations, (…) or recall the lines of a strange Gothic architeclure.” (3) The metaphorical comparison between the shape of the curve and architectural style is some indication of how much for a correct interpretation of the epidemiological data was struggled.

It was only in the second half of the 19th century that an understanding of the connection between urban development, hygiene and epidemiology emerged through a scientific consideration of the city. For example, high outside temperatures in combination with poor hygienic conditions in cities were increasingly recognized as drivers of various types of illness. Investigations into the connection between sewerage and drinking water quality or between swamplands and neighbourhood structures were equal drivers for innovations in medicine and urban planning.

The central subject of the study was the city as a slum and hygiene forming, as the architectural historian Julius Posener termed it, a kind of “slumology” (4). At the First International Hygiene Exhibition in Dresden in 1911 — pioneering for the discourse of modern urban planning — the problems and approaches towards solutions at that time were presented from an interdisciplinary perspective aimed at the reformation of prevailing ways of living. (5) The exhibition included sections for infectious and tropical diseases, medical care and rescue, settlements and housing, profession and work, food and stimulants, games and sports, as well as clothing and personal care. The exhibition served to make a broader public aware of the pervasive relevance of “hygiene” as a domain of knowledge.
With the spread of the coronavirus, architecture and urban planning are once again obliged to deal with hygiene in European cities. As a subject matter, hygiene no longer appears primarily in the context of slums and the “housing question” (Friedrich Engels(6) ), but rather in the light of the new “risk society” and thus a new form of urban “experimentalism” (Ulrich Beck) which in the long run has to deal with unpredictability. (7) Two planning concepts that are used when dealing with uncertainty stand out in particular, both of which have significant implications for architecture and urban planning.

It was only in the second half of the 19th century that an understanding of the connection between urban development, hygiene and epidemiology emerged through a scientific consideration of the city

Legitimizing the Smart City

The pandemic spread of the coronavirus will change the debate on the ongoing digital penetration of cities also in Europe. City-states like Singapore use the planning concept of the “Smart City” (8) to comprehensively link the space of the city with information gained from the analysis of data generated within it. For example, transport and energy flows can be reviewed in terms of their spatial effects by using three-dimensional digital modelling.

Tracking the movement profiles of infected city dwellers only appears as another application of the Smart City calculus. This allows, for instance, Singapore’s government to not only reconstruct the city-wide spread of the coronavirus, but also to undertake new interventions in anticipation of future trends. It appears that those societies in Asia that use these new digital instruments in a particularly affirmative way — such as China, South Korea and Singapore — have so far been particularly successful in combating the corona virus.

The time has come for Europe to have a serious debate about the social legitimacy of such Smart City concepts and instruments. It is vital, however, to critically evaluate existing digital tools and to subject their potential use to democratic control. Beyond the technical discussions about “contact tracing” and “geolocation”, the debate must involve how we might tread the delicate path required when using user-related data in the epidemic (and beyond). The Smart City approach goes hand in hand with highly sensitive issues of privacy, and their standing in law, that stem from the enlightened self-image of Europe’s democratically constituted societies. The real challenge is to not reduce all digital approaches with urban relevance, in a reflexive and generalized manner, “to the usual paradigm of surveillance and control” (Slavoj Žižek). (9) In order to overcome the comprehensive lockdown approach — where everyone has to stay inside — digital aids can provide temporally and regionally limited differentiations. This makes them particularly interesting for those cities that will have their own regional regime in the future and thus help economies move towards normality again.

Observing the Living Labs

Cities are not just the result of government planning and simulations. From a planning perspective, they can also be understood with a bottom-up method as laboratories of everyday practices, in which new approaches for larger units (such as entire countries) are continuously being tested. As recent studies of Milan or Wuhan(10) have shown, the ceasing of public life that the coronavirus caused has had a drastic ecological impact: it led to a sharp decrease in air pollution (nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter) and CO2 emissions. In addition, as in the case of Venice, it has been seen that the regenerative capacity of aquatic ecologies is effective within a very short space of time. The recovery of urban ecosystems in the absence of exploitative tourism creates new insights into the limits of growth and the desirable quality of life in cities.
The government-ordered state of emergency in effect currently leads to an experimental area of experience, which is further strengthened in Europe by a new type of civic engagement. With some justification, such an area of experience can be described by an idea that has been developing for around 20 years under the title of the “Living Lab”. (11) Through feedback such laboratories aim to combine scientific insights with their direct application in real life situations; cities are an ideal test sites for such an undertaking. Emerging forms of e-learning and home office are currently changing our understanding of work and willingness to travel, while new forms of everyday solidarity are expanding our understanding of neighbourhood help and care.

Cities as Living Labs integrate interdisciplinary insights of science and civil society. There are signs that against the backdrop of the state of emergency European cities are currently developing in the direction of Living Labs. In order to benefit from this in the long term, however, forms of feedback are needed — the sociologist Niklas Luhmann would speak of second and third-order observations(12) — that bring together the learning processes between urban ecologies, civil society and science.

Cities are not just the result of government planning and simulations. From a planning perspective, they can also be understood with a bottom-up method as laboratories of everyday practices, in which new approaches for larger units are continuously being tested

Urban Experimentalism (Inside and Outside)

Architects and city planners are predestined to take on this observer role on behalf of societies and to draw conclusions from the new findings for the planning and design of cities. Urban ecologies left to themselves, temporarily shuttered city quarters, prefabricated hospitals as well as new hybrid forms of living and working are examples of how the planning disciplines are able and needed to make substantial contributions to life in a state of emergency and to overcome the lockdown.

What is required is an urban experimentalism in European cities, which combines imagination with foresight, state intervention with the engagement of civil society. As was the case at the beginning of the 20th century, today an understanding of urban space has to be generated that takes the requirements of hygiene into account without neglecting their imaginative dimensions. Where and how the boundaries between inside and outside are to be drawn today is unclear. What is certain, however, is that in this consideration, epidemiological and architectural questions are equally involved. Frei Otto made the distinction between “slow architecture” and “fast architecture”. The time for fast architecture and urban planning has arrived. (13)


This text is a translated version of an article published in the NZZ newspaper (online,, feature section, April 3, 2020, p. 1, translation by Philip Shelley,, accessed 26.05.2020


On the concept of proxemics, see the writings of Edward T. Hall in the 1950s and 60s, in particular The Silent Language (1959), The Hidden Dimension (1966) and, together with Mildred Reed Hall, The Fourth Dimension In Architecture: The Impact of Building on Behavior (1975)


Farr, William, Report on the Mortality of Cholera in England, 1848-49, (London, 1852), p. xlvi


Posener, Julius, “Vorlesungen zur Geschichte der Neuen Architektur IV. Soziale und bautechnische Entwicklungen im 19. Jahrhundert”, in arch+ Special Edition, No. 63/64 (October 1981), p. 36


See: Genzmer, E.,  Sonder-Katalog für die Gruppe Städtebau der wissenschaftlichen Abteilung der Internationalen Hygiene-Ausstellung (Dresden, 1911)


Engels, Friedrich, “Die Wohnungsfrage”, in: Marx-Engels-Werke 18 (Berlin, 1872/73), pp. 209-287


See: Beck, Ulrich, Risikogesellschaft. Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne (Frankfurt a. M, 1986); Beck, Ulrich, Weltrisikogesellschaft – Auf der Suche nach der verlorenen Sicherheit (Frankfurt a. M, 2008)


Since the beginning of the new millennium, the term “Smart City” has been introduced to describe the use of digital and sensory technologies in the service of urban development. The measurement and quantification of the city – with all its people, buildings, and goods – is expected to lead to comprehensive predictability and control and, derived from this, to more efficiency and quality of life. What the big internet-related corporations have been doing for years, namely the evaluation of user-related digital data, could also play an increasing role in the planning of cities, so the promise goes


See: Žižek, Slavoj, “Wir Verdrängungskünstler: wie das Coronavirus uns verändert”, in:, 4.3.2020,, accessed, 26.05.2020


For the terms “Living Lab” and the “Real Labor” see: and


See: von Foerster, Heinz, Observing Systems. Seaside (CA, 1981); Luhmann, Niklas, Die Kunst der Gesellschaft (Frankfurt am Main, 1997)


Otto, Frei, “Anpassungsfähigkeit”, in: Anpassungsfähig Bauen. Adaptable Architecture (Stuttgart:Institut für leichte Flächentragwerke, 1975), p. 164

28.May.2020 365 views
Sascha Roesler Sascha Roesler

Sascha Roesler is an architect and architectural theorist, working at the intersection of architecture, ethnography, and science and technology studies. Since 2016, he is the Swiss National Science Foundation Professor for Architecture and Theory at the Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio (Università della Svizzera Italiana). Roesler was appointed by SNSF to set up a new special research field on “architecture and urban climates;” within that framework, he leads a group of doctoral and postdoctoral researchers. Roesler, who holds a doctorate from ETH Zurich, has published widely on issues of global architecture, sustainability and relocation. His publications comprise the first global history of architectural ethnography: Weltkonstruktion (Berlin 2013), and Habitat Marocain Documents (Zurich 2015), on the transformation of a colonial settlement in Casablanca. The latter was awarded the DAM architectural book award in 2016 as one of the year’s ten outstanding architectural publications. More recently Roesler co-edited the anthology The Urban Microclimate as Artifact (Basel 2018). Roesler is one of the laureates of the Swiss Art Award for Architecture (2012).

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