Pandemic Urbanism

May 15, 2020

Remember Our Roots: Re-Centering Public Health in Urbanism

By Kristen Hall1 and Sarah Skenazy2

1Urban Designer, Kristen Hall City Design; Lecturer, UC Berkeley and San Jose State University (, website)

2Public Health + District Design Consultant, Research Fellow

The authors will give this presentation at the Pandemic Urbanism Symposium in a session titled “Public Spheres, Public Fears,” from 11:30 AM – 12:30 PM on May 29, 2020.

City planning was born out of a need to address public health by reducing human exposure to toxic chemicals and biological agents. The idea that citizens needed to be protected from dangers in the urban environment brought us the foundations of sanitation, land use law, and environmental regulation. Since then, the two disciplines have largely drifted apart. Planning has become increasingly concerned with the economic development of cities and private property rights, while public health has become increasingly focused on individual level risk factors and the prevention of chronic disease.

It is vital that built environment and urban-scale responses to the COVID19 pandemic re-align the ethics, practices, and methodologies of public health and urban planning. Tactical approaches such as closing streets to cars and opening golf-courses to the public are showing us how our physical spaces can be made safer and more democratic. At the same time, the virus is laying bare pervasive inequities in access to transportation, jobs, and healthcare, with mortality rates tracking harrowingly along racial and economic lines. As we prioritize, fund, and promote short-term strategies to respond to this moment, we must keep in mind the longer-term, interconnected priorities of city-building, health promotion, and the reduction of social disparities.

In this session we will discuss frameworks from a variety of disciplines, including public health, sociology, planning, and community development. We will discuss how these frameworks can be integrated to help us understand the current, acute crisis, and respond with effective action for long-term, place-based health promotion.