Planners once dreamed of cities with vast empty plazas and quiet streets. Post-pandemic, might they do so again?

[I]n the Catalan metropolis Barcelona, via politician-planner Oriol Bohigas. Between 1981 and 1987, under his guidance at the Office of Urban Projects, the city built or remade some 160 public spaces and filled them with people. Few Western urban leaders were unimpressed by the spectacle, especially when they saw its mature form at the 1992 Olympics. How attractive urban crowds could be! And how much money could be made when you gave them the space in which to eat and drink!

Mr. Bohigas’s approach was driven by an impeccably liberal philosophy too, drawing on the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s humanist theories of public life, then all the rage in the architecture schools. In “The Human Condition” — published 1958, the same year Ms. Jacobs’s arguments stopped Robert Moses’s plan for a four-lane Lower Manhattan Expressway — Ms. Arendt wrote that the human world was the life lived in public, the “space of appearance” as she called it. In the hands of leftish advocates of public space, like the American sociologist Richard Sennett, that meant the literal return to pre-modern public spaces, with people living their whole lives in them. (Needless to say, architects loved all this. What better rationale for public architecture?)


In a chastened, post-coronavirus world, images like the Ville Contemporaine or Brasília might really start to seem attractive again. That fantasy has started to look like it has something to it now, doesn’t it? You can be part of the metropolis, but you can avoid physical proximity. You can see and be seen, while avoiding the closeness that has lately become so problematic. Social distancing? No problem. You’ll be lucky if you can get anywhere near your neighbors. And with all that space, you can do as much jogging as you want. It is of course by contemporary Western standards antisocial, even misanthropic. But if we’re going to have cities and the coronavirus, maybe the future is 1922, not 2022.