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Preparing for the Biggest Pandemic to Come

5 minute read: What can we learn from Haussmann's reconstruction of Paris?
Robin Ward

Between 1853 and 1870, Georges-Eugène Haussmann conducted a renovation of Paris. It widened streets, grew parks, and annexed suburbs. The city largely looks the way it does today, with its fountains and aqueducts, because of Haussmann’s work, following from the orders of Napoleon III.

Haussmann’s reconstruction was protested and protested. While it’s aim was to reduce disease and darkness shrouding the city, it also sought to reduce unrest; did you know, part of the immense success of the French revolution is often put down to the old, narrow streets of Paris being easy to blockade? As with anything, there was a deeply-entrenched political motivation behind the restructuring of Paris; revolutions must never again be as successful as it was in 1789.

Much like Paris was unprepared for its public revolt, COVID-19 has exposed the unpreparedness of our world's cities in the face of a pandemic. It also highlighted the communities most affected and disadvantaged by poor, delayed responses. And yet, as Lord Goldsmith mentioned during his speech on Building back a green and resilient recovery “COVID nevertheless dwarfed by other threats”.

What he was talking about is, of course, the climate crisis. Indeed, how COVID is a consequence of our neglect of natural spaces and lack of preservation of our ecosystems. His voice is certainly not alone. A report from the UN Environment Programme and the Global Recovery Observatory starkly put forward the evidence that this global crisis was “in all probability linked with nature loss and shrinking habitats”. 

This global crisis was "in all probability linked with nature loss".

What the report also mentioned was, although not a short-term response to the pandemic, the need for a recovery that is green through-and-through is an absolute necessity to avoid further degradation of our habitats and loss of biodiversity. In fact, the avoidance of future pandemics can be aided by a protection of habitats, and an understanding that mistreatment of our environment has real, economic and health-based consequences. As long ago as 2010, a study estimated 5,900 premature deaths across London, associated with long-term NO2 exposure - a molecular compound result of over-polluted cities.

Paris was unprepared for it’s 1789 revolution. It’s very architectural landscape lent itself perfectly to the success of political revolt and public uprising. Our world’s cities are similarly unprepared for the climate crisis, just as was the case for COVID. To solve the ‘problem’, Haussmann’s reconfiguring all but put an end to revolutions quite as successful as those that had come before. Make no mistake, the protesting of Paris’ restructuring was justified. It was enforced not wholly for public good, and backed mostly by a hidden agenda. But the principle of restructuring a city in order to adapt its preparedness leaves us with a valuable lesson...

Our response to climate change is already delayed. If we could somehow do more than plant trees, but actually reconfigure our cities to be prepared for climate change, we could build back from COVID with a green city; a utopian change that need not be protested. This would mean over 50% of cityscapes populated by green areas (like Vienna). This would mean a totally walkable landscape (like Munich). This would mean utilising the potential of a Haussmann reconstruction, but for the planet, not politics.

Utilising the potential of a Haussmann reconstruction, but for the planet, not politics.

Right now, Government spending does not scale with the severity of the tri-threat of climate change, nature loss and pollution. Our cities are the smog-spots of the problem. A solution? Take ‘building back green’ more literally, and begin the process of forging an eco-city. A liveable space that is steadfastly prepared for the biggest pandemic yet to come - global warming.