Like wars and natural disasters, pandemics conjure up powerful images that bring to the surface tensions that have lain buried in plain sight over the course of decades. Such an image was the Reuters press photograph, dated March 30, 2020, shot by Steve Marcus, of homeless people assigned to slots—spaced so as to respect the norms of social distancing—in the parking lot of the Cashman Center, the former Las Vegas convention center. The Cashman Center had a long history of hosting mass gatherings where bodies had pressed together at gun shows, bridal fairs, and high school graduations, not to mention marquee events including concerts by the likes of the Beach Boys (1995) and the Democratic Party Presidential Debate (2008). Now the center was an empty ruin, a relic of the era of suburban sprawl before a return in focus to downtown development along the Strip. The parking lot had been repurposed as a holding lot, not for automobiles—the cars had departed long ago—but for that most visibly invisible population in American society, the carless and homeless, here assembled outside the city and distributed within a dystopian grid “for their own protection” (and that of society at large).
What Marcus’s photo lays bare is not just the human toll of COVID-19 and its particular impact on an ill-starred population, but the spatial logic of quarantine itself distilled down to its minimal constituents: An entire society forced into a holding pattern, reduced to atomized individuals and family units that find themselves parked instead of on the move; abundant signs of dispossession, disability, and alienation; all the telltale signs of collective isolation (#alonetogether) in a setting in which the state is less a provider of social services than an enforcer of norms.
However paradoxical it might seem, even local-scale activities that once presupposed physical presence are now being mediated, “distanced” and channeled through digital portals and onto communications platforms that are agnostic with respect to physical location.
On a new normal comprised of telecommuting, home delivery of essential supplies, curbside pickup, telemedicine, online classrooms, virtual concerts, and Zoom church services
Pandemics are accelerators of long-term societal trends and, in this regard, COVID-19 has proven no exception. Physical distancing of the sort literalized in the Cashman lot has reinforced two shifts experienced by those who are fortunate enough to be parked in homes rather than in abandoned parking lots. The first is a regrounding in the local (on the scale of home, building, neighborhood, district). The second is an intensifying migration toward virtual communities, institutions, economic activity, and cultural experiences (both local and global). Neither is new; both are likely to figure more prominently in the post-pandemic world.
Removed from the equation during this time of exception is the connective tissue in American life usually provided by cars. The past century gleefully sacrificed cities on the altar of automobility; in cases like Las Vegas (as noted and celebrated by Venturi and Scott Brown in 1972), cities were literally developed around cars. Walking was but an afterthought reserved for moving from parking lot to casino-hotel or mall. But this equation is being upended. In the 21st century, local motion has emerged as the key driver not just of arguments for sustainable urbanism but also for the renewal of community and improvements in the quality of urban life. Pedestrian holidays, superblocks, the 15-minute city, bicycle lanes, congestion pricing for motor vehicle access to city centers, pedestrian-only zones, and walkability scores: all are facets of a contemporary conversation on the redesign of cities aligned and allied with the ongoing, COVID-19–inspired “temporary” repurposing of streets as spaces for safe, socially distanced pedestrianism and bicycling.
Ride sharing, shared e-scooters, and even mass transit have all seen sharp declines over the past months; walking and bicycling have exploded. Will the reversal stick? Will private automobiles regain their lost terrain to become the isolation chambers within which citizens travel securely in a post-pandemic world? Will micromobility sharing systems, not to mention the forms of home sharing that transformed entire urban districts into Airbnb resorts, survive the plague? Hard to know. But being grounded has a way of regrounding people’s values and I am persuaded that shelter-in-place policies are fostering a new hyperlocalism—a rerooting in situ that is likely to continue to favor walkable and bikeable mobility over long-distance displacements.
The flip side of hyperlocalism is an accelerated migration of cultural, social, and economic activities and processes into networked environments. However paradoxical it might seem, even local-scale activities that once presupposed physical presence are now being mediated, “distanced,” and channeled through digital portals and onto communications platforms that are agnostic with respect to physical location. Telecommuting, home delivery of all essential supplies, curbside pickup of groceries, telemedicine, online classrooms, virtual concerts, and Zoom church services, weddings, and family reunions have all emerged as facets of a potential new normal.
Normal or not, the mass migration to networked screens is feeding a concurrent intensified hunger for physical assembly and human contact, for more fleshly, multisensory experiences than those that can be served up on screens. But when the world is again unparked, will it know how to unplug? As Wendell Berry puts it in “How to Be a Poet”: “Stay away from anything / that obscures the place it is in. / There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.” After the politics of shelter-in-place runs its course, will we remember how to truly inhabit the places in which we have sought and received shelter?
Jeffrey Schnapp is the founder and director of metaLAB (at) Harvard and faculty co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. He holds the Carl A. Pescosolido Chair in Italian and Comparative Literature in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and is also affiliated with the Department of Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.