New York, the current epicenter of the coronavirus, has transformed into H.G. Wells’ fictional Time Machine with a tragic twist: instead of armies of laborers working underground while the elite frolic in the open air, public life is now occupied by essential workers in service of the millions trapped indoors. Horribly, thousands of our fellow citizens have been exposed to a cataclysmic respiratory assault, but Earth is finding an easier time breathing. Humans have substantially reduced their carbon footprints overnight; a behavior shift that five decades of scientific warnings about a looming climate crisis barely budged. Interestingly, Michel Foucault begins his “Panopticism” chapter in Discipline and Punish not with  the history of criminal incarceration, but with the strategies developed for the spatial separation of lepers, and later the architecture of segmentation to contain infection during the plague.

Ecologists Steward Pickett, urban design theorist David Grahame Shane and I have recently postulated a metacity framework for the future adaptation of cities as we face global justice and climate crises. This current pandemic is just one of the multiple climate disturbances we face in the coming years. Through the metacity we search for more resilient city forms in the face of such an unstable future. In the metacity, neighborhood units are understood as social patches within a spatial matrix of information, material and organic flux. This social-natural strategy may provide a way to have both an open and equitable urban society where we can maintain Earth and public health without reverting to further individual separation and social segmentation. My hope is a positive outcome of this tragic virus is the development of new infrastructures in solidarity towards such a just transition.

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