Quarantined in Utopia

Illustration for article titled Quarantined in Utopia

When we talk about the cities of tomorrow, it's easy to think only about futuristic architecture, or the urban technologies that are yet to appear. But we never think about the diseases, pandemics and viral outbreaks that'll also shape them.


Think of it as the epidemiological future of cities — diseases will shape the urban fabric of the future just as much as the new technologies that will help them to function.

Whether it's simply a question of sanitation infrastructure — Joseph Bazalgette's London sewers come to mind — or the much more complex issue of zoning for public health, safety, and emergency quarantine, the city is often shaped by its regional disease reservoir. And the biological threats of a hundred years from now-even a thousand years-will undoubtedly play a role in how human societies spatially organize themselves.

But how could we predict what effect disease might have on the future city? Is there a kind of medical utopia on the way-and who will build it? It has always seemed interesting, in this regard, to imagine what the Centers for Disease Control might design if they were put in charge of constructing a city-if it was not Rem Koolhaas, for instance, or Skidmore, Owings & Merrill who were hired to design Dubai, but the World Health Organization. What might such a city look like?

Further, in an era of H1N1, avian flu, resurgent tuberculosis, and SARS-not to mention nameless, unpredictable diseases yet to emerge from the planet's ecological margins-how long will it be before the great epidemiologists of our time begin to experiment on the grandest level of architectural design: creating whole cities from scratch,
cities of isolation, quarantine, and biological control, cities in which contagion itself has been spatially eradicated? It's worth remembering, for instance, that Thomas More's Utopia was a city of well-dredged canals and breezy public spaces-in other
words, not just a planned landscape but a sanitary one.

Here's a map of SARS and the city: from Wolfram's Dynamical Network Design for Controlling Virus Spread:

Illustration for article titled Quarantined in Utopia

As I've written elsewhere, building a disease-free city requires the proper design tools.
Wolfram, for instance, has developed something called Dynamical Network Design for Controlling Virus Spread. This program "shows the dynamics of the spread of the SARS virus in Hong Kong's 18 districts when the optimal resources allocation is used."

In the simulation, the color green represents an infection-free district, that is, one in which the number of infected people is smaller than one. For infected districts, shades of red are used to indicate the level of infection. Darker red means that there are more infected
people in the region and lighter red means that fewer people are infected. The viewer can see that the virus is stopped very quickly using the optimal design: the regions quickly turn green regardless of the initial conditions.


The implication seems clear: toggle your parameters — move people, buildings, walls, hospital wards, sewers,
etc., around until you find the right combination-and the design of your city itself might help to halt disease.

Now add some airlocks, filtration re-breathers, grey- and black-water treatment tanks, antiviral coatings, and so on — plus some much better graphics-and these same tools could be used to generate whatever spaceship utopia or sci-fi city your heart desires.


Of course, films like Gattaca already offer a medicalized vision of the future metropolis, and Michael Winterbottom's Code 46 also touched on the idea that global travel will be
increasingly regulated according to things like genetic predispositions and even blood type; but architects' and urban
planners' visions of the Future Metro also need to remember that the biological vulnerabilities of the body will always have their own, much larger spatial implications.
Perhaps another way of putting this is that, despite our most advanced medical breakthroughs, even tomorrow's urban utopia will still include a quarantine ward.

Geoff Manaugh writes speculative architecture blog BLDG BLOG and recently published the BLDG BLOG Book (Chronicle Books).


Top image: The sewers of Paris photographed by Nadar, from an article by Matthew Gandy.



Dr Emilio Lizardo

When does "SARS and the city" premiere, and on what network?