Since its first outbreaks in Wuhan, China, novel coronavirus (COVID-19) had become a new global phenomenon. The situation gets worse after the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020, raised its status level from epidemic to pandemic. The pandemic level of COVID-19 gave a massive impact on multiple sectors, from economy to industry around the world.

Runner-up | RTF Essay Writing Competition April 2020

Category: Medieval Cities VS Modern Cities
Participant: Nariswari Ratu Artina & Putri Anjar Kumalasari
Profession: Civil Servant/ Staff Architect
Firm: Department of Public Works and Spatial Planning of Magelang City, Indonesia

Worldwide cases of COVID-19 reported more than 2.6 million infections have been confirmed, while approximately 180,000 people have died give the mortality rate of this virus raises to 0,7%, though more than 700,000 people have recovered. According to WHO, the transmission of COVID-19 is facilitated by close contact between people, as the virus is spread through respiratory droplets and contact with contaminated surfaces. Several countries have implemented physical distancing measures aimed at interrupting transmission by reducing interaction between people.

Those conditions show us how great the effect of COVID-19 pandemic to our modern world, but if we are looking back to our history, this is not the only pandemic that ever happened. Various diseases had occurred thousands of years ago. One of the longest and deadliest pandemics was The Black Death.

The Black Death was a pandemic caused by a Bubonic plague that killed 50 million people in Europe on Medieval Age. It generally assumed that the plague was a result of poor air quality or poor sanitary conditions in that age, especially in cities condition.

With current standards, we could generalize those medieval cities as a by-product of the feudal system, were smaller, dirtier, and less functional than modern-day cities with a considerably smaller population. Cities grew in place that had a steady water supply to provide drinking, washing, and sewage disposal needs for the citizen. The typical layout of the medieval city in Europe focused on defensive walls that surrounded them and could have towers and moats to protect the city.

Due to limited space, houses ended up in clusters and most were made from wood. Since the majority of residences were made from light materials, the fire was one of the chaotic problems cities had to face. Streets were narrow and unpaved, sometimes hard to navigate.

The buildings in the Medieval period which mostly owned by elites and religious orders such as churches, were large and sturdy to accommodate hundreds and thousands of people who seeks protection during chaotic times such as refuge from war.

As the medieval period progressed, medieval cities became more organized and structured. However, hygiene was not considered an essential part. Lack of sewage and drainage system contributing to the health problems of city dwellers.

Meanwhile, the success of a city in Medieval Age was measured by the number of merchants and visitors it attracted. Many cities were welcomed newcomers, traders, or travelers as part of the urban community, which is legal by the authorization as long as they obey the rules. The economic and demographic growth was seen, and countless people want to come to the city to offer labor and service. This causes the spread of the disease faster, though the movement not as rapid as the modern era. Consequently, by the reason above, one third and a half population died as a result of the plague, which implicated famine, empty building, trauma, and suspicion.

Even though our cities nowadays are far better from medieval cities in numerous aspects, we share a similar crisis to face unprecedented events. As medicine was used to treat disease, the COVID-19 pandemic has no medicine available to treat emerging infectious diseases. This condition applied to The Black Death situation, whether the only prevention available were staying away from bad air, strict isolation, and because no effective cures were available.

Medieval people knew that disease spread from person-to-person contact even though the medical developments were not as sophisticated as today. Wealthy people retreated from problematic city to a rural place, where they thought that would be a safer place to live. Later, they use quarantine as the first tool to battle with plague, which is implemented first in the City of Ragusa, where traders or travelers required to quarantine themselves in another place for 40 days, influenced by religion. Ragusa was also the first city to set up a temporary plague hospital on another island as a medical treatment center and a quarantine facility. After that, several cities applied border controls at city gates, harbor, and mountain passes. On its development, sanitary reforms introduced by urban authorities also made cites cleaner and more pleasant place to live. Sadly, the pandemic never fades away and this plague decreased 60% of Europe’s entire population.

Nowadays, we followed almost similar protocols for dealing with COVID-19. Though the approach of COVID-19 mortality rate might not as high as The Black Death, it surely contagious. The city quarantine and lockdown were also used by some countries to stop the spread of the coronavirus. While some others were not practicing this system but rather do a massive rapid test like South Korean. Offices, schools, businesses, and public spaces were temporarily closed due to restrictions on movement and mass gatherings. Students are studying from their homes and workers practicing work from home. The transportation activity also impacted and had a decrease in volume, making some of the magnet city into a ghost’s town. However, these strategies were believed by experts could help to “flatten the curve” and made a slower infection rate so the health care system would be less stressed. With coronavirus cases soaring, medical workers become a front-line to fight this pandemic, while researchers are still trying their best to invent the vaccine.

Unfortunately, the city quarantine only works as we can identify the dangerous cases. Meanwhile, COVID-19 had mild symptoms and asymptomatic cases, making it difficult to examine. Some of the cities not to rely on quarantine, even so, they try to cope with COVID-19 by practices other strategies such as creating alternatives to public transit and urge citizens to bike or walk like Bogotá Mayor Claudia López who is taking the opportunity and building dozens of kilometers of temporary bike lane as a way to cope with the outbreak. Furthermore, some cities in California are opening new emergency shelters and putting out more hand-washing stations to fortifying public spaces.

The fact that this disease changes our way of life for several months or maybe years, this needs more thorough handling. We can use the built environment and urban strategies as a way to control the spread. The planner might also take action for planning the urban spaces as an alternative way to address pandemics. Besides, understanding of how we build our cities is urgently needed.

The priority that we can do to shape a better city to face the future pandemic is focused on sustainable development. We know that people nowadays are mostly live in urban areas. Lockdown due to pandemic made a city reduce mobility. There will be no problem if the city has a strong capability in dealing with basic needs, such as having enough food supplies and health infrastructures. However, urban sprawl, which causes problems of traffic and vehicle dependency, made the strategy less effective because the residence located in rural areas.

Sustainable development of the city should be portrayed by making the city more compacted and connected. Re-densification seems to be a goal that we have to achieve, rather than a method, as long as the city provides more access to basic services. If we plan the re-densification rationally and minimized the efficiency of using the existing infrastructure, it can contribute to being a more effective functional mix. The action will implicate the existing social and cultural environment, even the climate change. Not only modernity emerges, but also the aspects such as environmental and energy-saving, economic, managerial, social, and also functional.

However, high density also has a negative trait related to the quality of living. To deal with that effect, we need to think about the urban healthy lifestyle. Furthermore, to upgrade our urban healthy lifestyle, the city should provide more green space and blue space such as recreational space and park, then build more walkable neighborhoods to urge people to bike and walk instead of ride a car. These efforts will lead us to the quality of a healthier life of people in cities. This also can be a way to defend citizens from diseases by making their immune high. If all of those aspects can be achieved, we are one step forward to make a sustainable city that is more resilient towards pandemic.

Aside from focusing on physical infrastructures, we also have to strengthen digital infrastructures. With the growth of technology and the digital era, we are grateful that we can take action to battle with COVID-19 way better than Medieval Age. Even so, the usage of technology to coping with pandemic can be improved for more purposes. With maximizing technology that already applied in the cities and integrating it with a whole city’s system, we can get the best value of digital infrastructure. CCTV (Closed-circuit television), for example, can be used to monitoring a certain area so it can inform us of a real-time condition of the city during the pandemic. Wireless technology, on the other hand, can be a medium for patients to have a medical consultation with the doctor, this method can prevent close contact between patients and doctor so the potential of contagion can be prevented. Command and control centers will help the authority to do a data screening and tracing which more accurate and faster.

Investing in digital infrastructure must parallel with investing in health infrastructure, both can collaborate in providing a better service to cities especially in implementing a rapid test, which is primary to fast tracing cases. Moreover, we have to prepare for a future pandemic that might happen. We have to understand that the emergence of a pandemic agent often seems to be inherently unpredictable, so we don’t exactly know when the next outbreak will happen. In the future, digital infrastructure will be a critical tool in “the war against the unexpected pandemic”.

In conclusion, the Medieval Age did the best effort to dealing the pandemic but with the development of knowledge, technology, the health care system, and the city’s infrastructure make modern era lead the way. We shall reflect from the past so we are not repeating the horrible pandemic history. The crisis caused by pandemic might shape the city, but to recover the city post-pandemic takes time. Therefore, we have to make the city to be more sustainable and resilient because the next pandemic will be unexpected.


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