In the light of the world’s rapid urbanization, the question arises in how far can cities contribute to the good life of their inhabitants. This question seems especially urgent in the current COVID-19 pandemic, in which a microorganism forced the world’s cities to a grinding halt. Two opposing traditions in the history of philosophy aim to answer this question. Following Plato and Aristotle, scholars like Arendt, Young and Sennett view the city as the place where human potential can be developed to full flourishing, and emphasize its civilizing function. Others like Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx, and later Scott and Kishik focus on anonymous and brutal urban realities, and emphasize how the city reifies and cements power relations, in addition to presenting an epidemiological hazard. In my proposed project, I do not characterize the city as inherently good or bad, but examine it as a non-ideal spatial form of life in which distance and proximity are mediated among people and to non-human nature. A central focus will be on the way cities managed the current pandemic, as a particular example of urban mediations of social i.e. physical distance. My hypothesis is that it is not density per se that is the culprit in pandemics, but a badly designed density without consideration of the kind of physical and functional proximity it affords to the inhabitants. Since health is a major indicator of social equality, and spatial factors in city planning can contribute to health, this ethical study can contribute to more general insights on the manner in which cities can be made more conducive to social equality.
My overall objective is to integrate methods from philosophy, social science and architecture to study the manner in which cities mediate probabilities of encounter among inhabitants by virtue of their built environment. I am particularly interested in the tension between the reifying effect of spatial material structures on social practices, and the emancipating effect of urban life due to higher probability of encountering like-minded others and escaping a default life. Following the method of space syntax in architecture, I propose to surpass the Augustinian dichotomy of the city as built environment (urbs) and social form (civitas), and to study the interaction between the expressive and reifying workings of the city as a spatial entity and the lived forms it affords.