As the coronavirus lockdown continues into its second month in Italy the mood has changed from the early collective sense of urgency and participation to a more reflective consideration of what could happen next. It is much easier to focus on the present and to repeat the mantras of “stay home” and “wash your hands” than it is to envision the world as it will change when the immediate medical crisis has passed.
Some talk of a return to normal, and hope to achieve it as soon as possible. Others for whom the pre-coronavirus situation was anything but normal see this is an opportunity to bring about long needed changes. I count myself with this second group.
We have demonstrated in the past month that collectively as a race we are capable of amazing things when threatened. I’m not surprised by this, I have great confidence in humans. What has always surprised me is that the far more serious threat of global warming has not yet elicited such measures.
These thoughts are addressed brilliantly in this article by Jeremy Lent.
In my own practice in Rome I am inspired in this period of lockdown to see nature retake the city to a certain degree. I’m not just referring to the wonderful photos of ducks in the fountains and grass growing between the cobblestones of Piazza Navona, although these are inspiring. Nor is it the silence that allows us to hear bird calls usually drowned out by traffic. By nature I am also referring to human nature, to people who walk to their local shops, who gather in courtyards (respecting physical distancing but finding social connections they had overlooked before). As Lent points out “the phrase “social distancing” is helpfully being recast as “physical distancing” since Covid-19 is bringing people closer together in solidarity than ever before.”
I have taken to envisioning how Rome might reboot after the lockdown.
I pray that we don’t go back to business as usual (or worse, as some regressive merchants suggest reversing past gains to open the city to even more traffic in the name of a fictitious economic recovery).
Here are some of my dreams for post-lockdown Rome:
A virtually car-free city center. With so few cars on the streets these days public transit has been flowing smoothly, deliveries have become far more efficient, the air noticeably cleaner, and city streets safer and more pleasant. Let’s reopen for people but not private vehicles. This is a chance to demonstrate that without private cars everywhere, buses run smoothly and bicycling and walking are much less stressful.
The rediscovery of local resources. Many people who were accustomed to driving to supermarkets and big box stores have found that shopping in their neighborhood is a joyful experience. If the true cost of products (externalities included) were to be applied local shopping would become economically competitive as well. Local, seasonal, and socially responsible purchases will have a positive effect on communities and the planet.
Revitalization of place. With parks closed and distant beaches of resorts out of reach, people have been looking around their neighborhoods and realizing how many nearby places are underutilized. Not just homes that have been given over to tourist accommodations, schools which are left empty after hours and off season, or abandoned factories and shuttered shops, I’ve seen more activity in our condominium courtyard than ever before. And residents have started to discover roof terraces which have enormous potential for energy and food production, not just outdated television aerials.
I’m optimistic that the city that emerges from this crisis will be astonishingly beautiful. Rome is already a spectacular place despite its past problems of traffic, poor management, corruption and overtourism. We have such an amazing opportunity to press reset and reboot with a new operating system, one which privileges and incentivizes people, green space, renewable energy, efficient water and resource management, and clean, safe mobility.
Reading Lewis Mumford recently I came across a phrase (written in the early 1960s) that resonated particularly, his suggestion that we “advance from a money economy to a life economy.” We can and should all be talking about what this could look like, a resource-based economy aimed at equity in place of the failed money-economy which has resulted in extreme and deadly inequity.