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Philadelphia has endured plagues before. It adapted and became a better place. | Inga Saffron

Is digital infrastructure the sanitation of our time? What does that mean for the future of cities?

In response to repeated epidemics, Philadelphia expanded its water treatment system. This photo shows city workers laying large water mains in 1907 next to City Hall on South Penn Square.
In response to repeated epidemics, Philadelphia expanded its water treatment system. This photo shows city workers laying large water mains in 1907 next to City Hall on South Penn Square.Read, a project of the Philadelphia Department of Records.

Philadelphia’s first plague, the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, began on Aug. 19, when the otherwise healthy Peter Aston died suddenly from a strange fever. Within a week, 10 people a day were succumbing to the same illness. By October, it was up to 100 a day. By the end of the year, Philadelphia had lost 10% of its population, and the city’s continued existence was in doubt.

Philadelphia endured, of course, thanks to the efforts of a determined doctor, Benjamin Rush, and a group of African American nurses who believed they were immune. The city also adapted. Once the fever subsided, Philadelphia’s leaders wasted no time in making plans to limit the damage from the next epidemic, even though scientists didn’t fully understand what caused the Yellow Fever outbreak (mosquitoes). In 1799, Philadelphia began building one of America’s first water treatment plants, on the site where City Hall stands today. Now we take it for granted that the water flowing from our taps is safe to drink.

Because social distancing is not something that comes naturally to urban dwellers, densely occupied cities and towns have always been places where diseases have spread quickly — from the bubonic plague to influenza. Yet throughout history, cities have found ways to make themselves more resilient. Epidemics led to innovations that have allowed dense settlements to continue functioning and even to thrive.

After overcrowded 19th-century slums became breeding grounds for tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria, and typhoid, America’s engineers developed elaborate sanitation systems and laid miles of sewer pipes in what was known as “the Great Sanitary Awakening.” Today’s zoning codes are a direct outgrowth of the 1918 influenza epidemic. Their original intent was to ensure that new housing had enough natural light and air circulation to prevent the spread of disease. The repeated epidemics also inspired the City Beautiful movement, which led in Philadelphia to the construction of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and a fashion for hospital-white neoclassical buildings, like the Free Library and the Franklin Institute.

As chilling as COVID-19’s viral assault has become, it’s almost certain that cities will adapt again. The empty sidewalks in Center City may make it feel as if Philadelphia has become a city without people, but this will not become a world without cities. Despite the risks that density brings, the advantages of urban life outweigh the minuses. While viruses spread more quickly in cities, so do ideas, culture, innovation, and opportunities.

You’re also better off being in a city during an epidemic, observed Harvey Rubin, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on infectious diseases. “You have easier access to quality medical care,” he said, and better support networks.

Being among people is a basic human need. It’s why we continue to gravitate to local parks. If we can’t socialize as we are used to doing in restaurants and cafes, we can at least be alone in the presence of others.

But there’s no doubt that COVID-19 will leave its traces on our cities, just as it scars the lungs of those who recover from its attack. While my home office isn’t equipped with a crystal ball, it seems likely that the prolonged lockdown will accelerate certain trend lines. Without our virtual lifelines, this quarantine wouldn’t be half as bearable. By the time it is all over, we will almost certainly be more dependent on our internet connections. As Michele Acuto, a professor of global urban politics in the School of Design at the University of Melbourne, told City Lab: “Digital infrastructure might be the sanitation of our time.”

Here are some changes that may come to cities.

Expect more deliveries

We know that the delivery economy has been growing rapidly over the last decade, but significantly more people are likely to order groceries and other consumer goods online during the crisis. The Reading Terminal Market, which serves many low-income Philadelphia residents, announced that it is offering free deliveries within a 16-mile radius, with no minimum order. Once people become accustomed to the convenience, many holdouts are likely to become converts. That has serious consequences for the survival of Philadelphia’s brick-and-mortar supermarkets. Many are already doing so many deliveries that they are morphing into warehouses.

Virtual socializing

Before the virus, I occasionally connected with people through virtual meetings. But I never used services like Google Hangouts and Zoom to socialize until this weekend. On Saturday night, some enterprising friends organized a virtual cocktail party, and we sat in the comfort of our individual kitchens mixing drinks and catching up on the week’s events. I switched to Zoom on Sunday night to watch the Democratic debate with my daughter and her (remote) friends in Brooklyn.

More tolerance for working at home

Bosses have been telling office employees they can work at home for years, just as they’ve been telling us that we’re going to go paperless. But neither thing really happened as predicted. Remaining out of sight for too long felt like a risk in many businesses. Now that we’re forced to work remotely, resistance to telecommuting is likely to lessen.

If working at home becomes the norm, what will happen to Philadelphia’s downtown office district? Occupancy in the city’s legacy towers already has been hard hit by corporate downsizing. When GSK relocated to the Navy Yard in 2013, it cut its office space by two-thirds. Same for Aramark, which recently moved to 24th and Market. Liberty Place has converted part of its complex to condos because of slack office demand. Although Philadelphia is beginning to see new office building proposals, such as Brandywine’s Schuylkill Yards project, finding tenants could become even more difficult.

Everything that can be streamed will be streamed

Everything is canceled. Libraries are closed. Movie theaters are closed. Concerts and plays have been called off. Yet we still have access to the fruits of our culture via our devices. Will we find that we don’t need to be at events to actually experience them? After surviving the rise of streaming, can our remaining movie theaters outlast the virus and fears of contagion?

Even before the virus, many fast-casual restaurants were beginning to install flat screens for ordering. Your meal or coffee was left on a counter, and you never had to exchange a word with a human being. As we become more fearful of germs, will our retail experiences become further automated and dehumanized?

Casual dress everyday

If you’re spending most of your time working at home and doing social streaming, what’s the motivation for getting dressed up?

“We dress to tell a story about ourselves,” Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan wrote recently. “If there is no one to hear our narrative,” we’re less likely to fuss about the clothes we put on in the morning — what she called the “mantle of public personhood.” Office attire has been trending more casual, thanks to the athleisure trend. But this may spell the end of work clothes.

That could further accelerate the retail apocalypse. The independent stores that populate Center City — and give us a reason for walking downtown — are already struggling to maintain their own against online shopping sites. What’s the incentive to go out and shop for new clothes if you don’t need them? Perhaps as a show of solidarity, we can imitate the writer Gay Talese, one of the pioneers of the New Journalism in the 1970s. Every morning, he would put on a suit and tie before descending into his basement office to peck away at his typewriter.

Reallocating street space

When vehicles were banned from Center City during Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia in 2015, pedestrians and bicyclists took over the streets. The freedom was exhilarating and liberating, and it caused some planners and city officials to reassess how much street space we needed to cede to cars. COVID-19 hasn’t eliminated traffic, but many fewer cars are on the street. New York City saw a surge in bike commuting as people sought to avoid tight quarters on buses and trains. Trips are up on Philadelphia’s bikesharing service, Indego. The Bicycle Coalition’s Randy LoBasso argued last week that “more bike infrastructure would make our city stronger in situations like these.”

We may also start to reconsider our willingness to hop on a plane for out-of-town conferences. Beyond the risks of infection, awareness is growing of the effects of air travel on climate change. David A. Leon, a professor of epidemiology at London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told me that his faculty is already vowing to travel less and Skype more.

Of course, similar predictions were made after 9/11. But within a few years, memories of that terrible day receded, and we returned to our old habits. After being cooped up for months by COVID-19, we may run out and buy whole new wardrobes, dine out every night, and dance into the morning. I hope so. Whatever innovations we adopt in the future, our ability to forget may be the most powerful factor in making cities resilient.