By Joseph Reigle
a time of Lent, whether secular or republican, can lead to spectacular conversions. For the first time in years, a billion people, stuck at home, find this forgotten luxury: time to reflect and thereby discern that which usually and unnecessarily agitates them in all directions.
These sentences come from the French philosopher, anthropologist, and sociologist Bruno Latour in an essay he wrote just as the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing responses were hitting the U.S. and Europe. His essay is optimistic that our refrain from activity and our time of solitary solidarity can produce new efforts to change our patterns of consumption and our policies regarding the planet’s climate and ecology. But Latour’s words raised another question for me. What comes next after the pandemic? This is my final undergraduate semester. Needless to say, the path it took was not at all expected. And recent events have dramatically changed what I expect from the near future.
It is surprising how evacuating from Rome and returning to my home in Binghamton, NY, feels inevitable in hindsight. The global scale of the pandemic makes my personal worries and disappointments feel small in comparison. Still, the grief that accompanies any loss continues to linger, but in subtler ways. It only appears when I dare to imagine what could have been in another world. However, I think this mental exercise–imagining how things ought to have been in the past–invites a creative praxis that can hope and work towards a future-world that ought to be. And perhaps as Latour points out, such hope is only possible by a time of forced reflection where we can examine all the things that “agitate” our lives unnecessarily.
The urban planner, Leonie Sandercock describes the project of urban planning as, in essence, the practice of cultivating hope. Planners are always articulating a vision for the future, birthed out of the constraints of the past and the present. Our neighborhood study of Prenestino, for the Rome Workshop, is first an attempt to describe how the neighborhood was and is but also what it has the potential to become. The feeling of loss–how things could have been better–right now is felt almost universally across the globe. The pain of it all feels so vast that it leaves me in a vague numbness. This is not very different from the experience of grieving a loved one, something I have also had to do during this semester. To eulogize requires an imagination that can peer into the past but is always aware of present pain and the loss of many expectations for the future.
I wonder how relevant our recommendations for Prenestino will be in light of the pandemic. Will public transit use significantly decrease? Will people seek spread-out and less dense areas to live? Will the presence of parks be seen as an even more critical feature of a neighborhood? Everything remains unclear. Even as states and nations begin to reopen, decreases in COVID cases come with the asterisk that more social activity can cause a resurgence. A viable cure that is widely accessible seems at best a year or more into the future. For now, almost everything feels stained by an indefinite uncertainty. But for now, I struggle as best I can to remain hopeful. For one, the longer this pandemic lasts, the more time we have to reflect on what aspects of pre-pandemic life we ought to amend. Moreover, this present time of flux may also be when the skill of planners is most needed to innovate and adapt urban infrastructure and social life according to new constraints.