Preexisting Conditions: What 2020 Reveals about Our Urban Future

Crisis Cities is a public symposium on the 2020 crises and their impact on urban life, co-organized by Public Books and the NYU Cities Collaborative. Published essays will be collectedhere.
Crisis Cities brings together some of the world’s leading social scientists and humanists to grapple with the 2020 crises of our cities.

It已经确定2020将加入少量of years—1789, 1929, 1989—that transform the world suddenly. The convergence of pandemic, global economic collapse, and an enormous wave of protests over racial injustice has affected life almost everywhere, but particularly in cities, which are now, for the first time in human history, home to a majority of the world’s population. This symposium brings together some of the world’s leading social scientists and humanists to grapple with the implications of the 2020 crises for our cities.

Cities, long places of density, diversity, opportunity, and wrenching inequalities, are facing existential challenges. Pandemic and the struggle to confine it threaten the urban density that has long been a source of creativity and synergy, of new forms of economic activity, cultural production, and spaces for working and living. Diversity—spurred by migration and mobility—has defined urban vitality for millennia, disrupting ossified ideas and institutions, fostering syncretism in music and the arts, while also unleashing new forms of conflict and resistance. Opportunity—for employment, for self-expression, for creation—has long attracted both migrants and refugees to cities, but also generated intense conflict and deep inequalities.

The 2020 crises have, above all, put a spotlight on the distinctive and often corrosive features of modern urbanism. Just as COVID-19 is particularly dangerous to populations with preexisting conditions, the virus has ferociously swept through urban areas because of their preexisting social conditions: the precarity of work; the unaffordability of housing; the depth of racial, ethnic, and class divides; a profoundly unequal global economy; and the failure of many governments worldwide to rise to the challenges.

Many of the essays that follow document how preexisting social conditions have worsened the 2020 crises. “Generations of racial and economic segregation of the housing market,” writes Margaret O’Mara, “meant that where you lived at the start of the pandemic greatly determined how well you survived its physical and economic hardships.” Yarimar Bonilla, analyzing the general incapacity of the governments of Puerto Rico and the United States to respond to the economic collapse and to contain the virus, points to the legacy of the “failed state, with gutted infrastructure, inefficient state agencies, and a populace that emerged from the 2008 economic crisis with stark divisions between those who can live through a hurricane, an earthquake, or a pandemic, and those who cannot.” From the vantage point of hyperurbanizing India, where informal workers have been devastated by the virus and lockdowns, Gautam Bhan describes the “vulnerability that preceded this ‘crisis,’” particularly the inadequate “patchwork” of social protections.

The particular conditions in each of these places vary. But what is clear is that the pandemic has made visible the social fissures and economic injustices that have unleashed the pandemic.

Among the least acknowledged and most critical of 2020’s preexisting conditions are biological and environmental. Starting in China, Xiaowei Wang traces the origins of the pandemic to the entangled global economy of mass food production and high finance: “The more I learned about the dizzying web of international trade agreements, foreign-policy decisions based on agricultural trade, investments, technological change, and ecological devastation wrought by multinational agribusiness over the past two decades, the more surprised I was that a global pandemic hadn’t happened sooner.” Our conventional understanding of the virus sees it as an exogenous force that ravages urban, regional, national, and global economies. But as with all supposedly natural disasters, the trajectory of the virus is predictably and tragically human-made. It is a destructive consequence of market forces, global trade and travel, a macroeconomy premised on cheap, exploited labor, and regulatory policies that favor profit over protection. Thus, the pandemic is the result of “self-devouring growth,” explains Julie Livingston, in which the ravages of COVID are but one manifestation of a global economy that maldistributes disease, environmental harm, and poverty, all in service of corporate gain.

Just as COVID-19 is particularly dangerous to populations with preexisting conditions, the virus has ferociously swept through urban areas because of their preexisting social conditions.

Covid-19已经席卷了全球最脆弱的城市人口:新移民和难民,老年人和患有慢性疾病的人和颜色人民 - 特别是非洲裔美国人和拉美裔人。在诊断大流行于世界各地的经济影响方面,亚当太太展示了Covid在该地区最难受到最大的不平等率和最弱的福利国家,特别是南亚,拉丁美洲和美国。超出该研讨会表演的许多贡献者的病毒的不同影响是过多的。它源于巨大,剥削劳动力市场的兴起和非正式就业,以及损害劳动力市场监管和社会保护的最脆弱的人口。对于工人在孟买贫民窟和里约的贫民窟的世界中,布朗克斯和洛杉矶 - 经济的配件公寓是一种预先存在的条件,导致感染风险,疾病的严重程度导致了疾病的严重程度和更高的死亡率。那些携带包裹和杂货的劳动者,捡起垃圾,作为肉袋和鸡加工商,并且更换了Bedpans和Sanitized Housity房间是最有可能生病和死亡的。在美国遭受不成比例地从病毒中遭受的拉丁克斯劳动者解释说,纳米莫利纳,“他们不露面和消耗。”

COVID has swept through communities that can least afford it. Those insecure service workers whose employment was not deemed essential—like cooks, kitchen hands, and waitstaff; domestics, janitors, and low-level retail workers—were hard hit by unemployment, left to scrape by on their savings or on usually meager unemployment benefits. Informal labor, long a strategy for survival in cities, especially for women, has partially filled the gap: from Mexican migrants, selling homemade tamales at crowded intersections in New York, to migrant workers in India, who defied lockdown orders and walked great distances to work on construction sites or in junkyards. These workers risked the virus because hunger and homelessness presented even greater dangers to their health. Informal labor is often necessary for survival, but its spread has contributed to skyrocketing poverty in cities across the world, especially those with a frayed or nonexistent safety net.

经济不安全恶化住房不安全,也许是今天城市生活的特征。在世界的技术和金融之类的世界首都,纽约和旧金山,伦敦,巴黎和东京等地方,住房成本不可持续。这些大都市中的每一个都看到了大量涌入豪华住房和靠近其中心附近的经济适用房的消失。在城市利润范围内,在欧洲城市以外的高层住房的高层住房腰围的城市边际,在欧洲之外的高层住房皮带上,在南亚普通人的棚户队被掠夺性房东,飙升租金的受害者,频繁驱逐。在大流行之前,近4000万名美国家庭在住房上支付了30%以上的收入。Now, in COVID-ravaged urban economies, precarious workers live in a state of “emergency urbanism,” to use Ananya Roy’s evocative phrase, subject to mass displacements because they cannot afford exorbitant rents and because governments generally lack the will or capacity to provide even meager housing assistance.


Working in China in the COVID-19 Era

由Gilles Guiheux等。

几乎无处不在,大流行和由此产生的经济不安全都奠定了另一种预先存在的条件:持续的种族和种族不平等。Covid-19的Grim 3月通过城市遵循了一个可预定的道路,直接到了最边缘化的人口的社区。在美国城市,病毒在长期隔离的非洲裔美国社区中袭击了最严重的。这些是已经看到他们的社会基础设施被多年消失的地方,其中住房是破旧和昂贵的,并且在环境危害,特别是污染的空气中,恶化了疾病的过程。拉美裔人在大大小小型城市经历迅速上升的次数,患有慢性过度拥挤,包装成车库,地下室匆匆变成公寓。他们,如南美洲和非洲的拥挤高升高的移民,南美洲和非洲的漫步非正式定居点,在印度广大贫民窟的小巷里的临时房屋中,发现社会偏移不可能。

With anti-immigrant and racial resentments on the rise worldwide, particularly in the authoritarian regimes that have swept to power in recent years, the incapacity of governments to manage the disease and provide social supports to the poor has played out with devastating impact. Governments as diverse as those in France, Spain, Great Britain, Kenya, South Africa, and India have practiced what Quentin Ravelli provocatively calls “COVID blindness”: “a withholding of accurate information that has obscured both the impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable communities and the resurgence of institutional violence that has accompanied it.” Official COVID blindness hinders effective public responses to the pandemic and to the preexisting inequalities that it has worsened.

Above all, the crises of 2020 have laid bare multiple, overlapping institutional failures, a mismatch between existing governmental, economic, and social infrastructures and the current reality.

Of the injustices that came into focus in 2020, few were more prominent than policing. In the United States, African Americans have long challenged police harassment and violence, in a struggle that has spanned slave rebellions, the urban uprisings of the 1960s, and the Black Lives Matter movement of the last several years.

警察长国家强有力的手臂,regularly deployed to curb dissent and control groups labeled as ungovernable or unruly, have played a critical role in 2020. In India, police brutally enforced the pandemic lockdown. Where xenophobia is rampant, law-enforcement officials target migrants. During London’s spring 2020 quarantine, police swept up more people of African descent—who comprised only 13 percent of the city’s population—than whites. Quentin Ravelli quotes a French antiracist activist, Assa Traoré, who points to the link between the pandemic and the policing of Arab and African migrants: “With the lockdown, our neighborhoods have become attraction parks for the cops.” In the United States, police forces were themselves instigators of the riotous behavior that public officials condemned: attempting to crush the BLM movement figuratively and sometimes grimly literally, driving patrol cars into crowds, pummeling and gassing dissidents, and encouraging white vigilantism.

Yet police violence is only one reason, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues, that millions have taken to the streets in recent months. Another is the maldistribution of public resources to increasingly militarized law enforcement, at the expense of health care, housing, and economic assistance. “Where states struggled to gather PPE for health-care workers,” Taylor notes, “police in cities across the country were armed to the teeth and outfitted in the latest and most expensive gear and devices.”

One of the more hopeful dimensions of the 2020 crises has been the rise of mass movements, beginning with the revolts that followed the murder of George Floyd, by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, revolts that turned into the longest and largest wave of protest in American history, involving an estimated 26 million people in several thousand marches. Within weeks, protestors gathered en masse around the world, often united under the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter; they joined mass demonstrations against police profiling in metropolitan France; marches in Rio, São Paulo, and Recife against state-sanctioned violence under Brazil’s authoritarian leader, Jair Bolsonaro; and protests and lawsuits targeting racially discriminatory policing in South African cities. What is most striking about these uprisings is that, though they began with outrage against the police, they seldom stopped there. In the streets of New York City, protestors carried signs calling for trans rights, action on global warming, and demands for better housing and jobs. “The rage that erupts in urban uprisings,” notes Mustafa Dikeç, “is not an impulsive reaction to isolated cases of bad practice; it is a response to systematic exclusion and oppression, which go beyond police violence and into all areas of urban life, including housing, employment, social encounters, and political worth.” Many street rebels targeted major corporate retailers, from Target and McDonald’s in Minneapolis to Louis Vuitton and Coach in Manhattan.


Listen to the Birds

经过Priscilla Wald

Above all, the crises of 2020 have laid bare multiple, overlapping institutional failures, a mismatch between existing governmental, economic, and social infrastructures and the current reality. Across the globe, millions are challenging local and national governments themselves, fighting for democracy in the face of authoritarian power in Belarus, Hong Kong, and the United States and challenging the synergistic relationship of governing elites to global capital nearly everywhere. The inadequacy of responses to the 2020 crises have delegitimated all sorts of authority, as social-welfare and health providers—in a wide range of cities, from the industrial West to the global South, strapped by decades of austerity and privatization—have more often than not failed to meet the needs of a sick, economically fragile, and increasingly distrustful population.

The year 2020 is a moment of crisis, but also a moment ripe with the possibility of radical change. In the past, crises have opened up possibilities for the rethinking of politics, for the reorganization of institutions, for the reimagination of urban space. There is, however, nothing inevitable about the outcomes. In a chastening analysis of right-wing politics and the pervasiveness of disinformation worldwide, Rodrigo Nunes warns that “if there is one thing that the last decade ought to have taught us, it is that strong objective factors do not automatically translate into powerful movements, let alone into the spontaneous discovery of the ‘correct line’ by the masses.” The arc of the moral universe sometimes bends toward justice, but it just as often veers off course. In the past, entrenched problems like violent policing have been met by tepid, largely symbolic reforms, as Simon Balto notes, using the troubled history of the Chicago Police Department as a case study. “What would reform look like,” he asks, “if the institution itself is the problem?”

That is a question applicable not just to law enforcement but to nearly every dimension of urban life. What alternatives will we create to respond to the current crises? And how will we get there?

To begin the reconstruction of a post-2020 urban world requires a diagnosis of the disease, full awareness of the underlying conditions that worsen it, and a prescription for recovery.

The contributors to this symposium offer a wide variety of paths forward, as well as some chastening examples of directions that are doomed to failure. Since the 1970s, with the advent of neoliberal urbanism, which has promoted governmental austerity and a faith in the market as a solution to urban woes, cities have reinvented themselves as playgrounds for tourists and as magnets for lucrative employment in high-tech, finance, and related professions, with the misguided assumption that the benefits of corporate tax incentives and costly redevelopment in central business districts would somehow trickle down to the working class and poor. From Mumbai to Manhattan, capital has flowed freely into luxury housing and amenities for the well-to-do and away from the truly disadvantaged. The effects of the depletion of tax revenue became clear in the long lines at health clinics, the woeful conditions in public hospitals, and the sidewalk memorials to the victims of the pandemic documented by photographer Camilo José Vergara.

Should we place our hopes in the private sector to save our cities this time? No, says Marcia Chatelain, who offers an unflinching critique of the superficial corporate embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement through a look at the fast-food giant McDonald’s. No, says Sophie Gonick, who critiques notions of “urban success predicated on real-estate activity” that “paradoxically paved the way for urban crisis,” leaving large sections of cities vacant, even before the economic ravages of the pandemic. No, says Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who argues that the poor have paid a high price because our “aversion to taxing wealthy individuals and corporations has left local governments ill prepared to effectively respond to local crises of poverty and unemployment.”


“Detroit Is No Dry Bones”: Photos of a...

经过Camilo José Vergara

解决方案争夺Eric Klinenberg,是公共部门的重新侵犯。该项目需要各级活动,从重建社区和工作场所的团结债券,以重建普通原因和国家目的的感觉,使争夺种族和种族的有毒分歧,导致城市空间跨越资源的恶劣,振兴城市民主。

The protests in 2020 might be a starting point for that reinvigoration of politics. The rage on the streets may quickly dissipate—as it has too often in the past. Or the BLM protestors may themselves fall victim to the endemic distrust over identity and interest that has split many social movements worldwide. But, as Warren Breckman contends, the social movements of the last decade offer a powerful alternative framework for reconstituting urban citizenship. Breckman takes lessons from the Occupy movement and applies it to the 2020 protests, arguing that “the constituent moment of democracy can and should include more than merely bodies gathered in public space; that the collective voice is not discovered but invented; that the spectacle of mass gathering and bodies in motion should give way to talking and listening … ; and that, if the crowd is to speak in a democratic voice, then that voice must be both singular and plural.” Urban democracy is above all synthetic, connecting and reimagining urban space and urban identity in the very process of deliberation and the creation of alternative institutions.

To begin the reconstruction of a post-2020 urban world requires a diagnosis of the disease, full awareness of the underlying conditions that worsen it, and a prescription for recovery. The essays in this series do not constitute a white paper for urban reform or a set of policy analyses and technical recommendations. Rather, they offer something else: a sobering analysis of our troubled present, an accounting of the high stakes of the crises, and glimpses of a future that we are compelled to create.


Mustafa Dikeç, “Rage and Uprising

Adam Tooze, “Global Inequality and the Corona Shock

Natalia Molina, “拉丁裔工人的持久性可持续性


Simon Balto, “How to Defund the Police

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “Defund the Police and Refund the Communities

Marcia Chatelain, “Fast Food, Precarious Workers


Julie Livingston, “To Heal the Body, Heal the Body Politic

Xiaowei Wang, “The World Is a Factory Farm


Camilo José Vergara, “Picturing the Lost


Sophie Gonick, “The Violence of Urban Vacancy

Margaret O’Mara, “The Limits of Telecommuting


Quentin Ravelli, “covid失明

Yarimar Bonilla, “Pandemic Déjà Vu



Rodrigo nunes,“Are We in Denial about Denial?

Warren Breckman, “Can the Crowd Speak?

Ananya Roy, “Emergency Urbanism

Eric Klinenberg, “Rebuilding Solidarity in a Broken Worldicon

Featured image:The Day the Sun Didn’t Rise(2020)。由克里斯托弗·米歇尔/ Flickr照片