Post COVID-19: Cities as More-Than-Human Places

To justify cities as more-than-human places it is important to define what that means and its context. Historically, humans have engaged in activities like mining, agriculture and construction—altering the surface of the Earth, the composition of the atmosphere, and key ecosystems driving human civilisation. This has led to massive devastation and alteration of the Earth with increases in carbon emissions, species extinction and deforestation, all correlated with increased urbanisation.

The rise of urban space has led to complexities in defining place. Generally, place is considered as a ‘foundational concept for human dwelling in the world’ (Robertson 2018). However, this view disregards the dynamic combination of experiences with more-than-human entanglements. Settling this inconsistency could be done by decentralising humans as the focus of place and recognising the non-human agencies which make up the places in which humans also call home.

The COVID-19 pandemic has destabilised human activity in cities globally with case levels above 83 million (see Figure 1). This discussion examines the increased awareness of the non-human entities in cities, such as autonomous technology, animal presence, and the natural environment within the context of the current pandemic.

Figure 1. Distribution of COVID-19 cases across the globe as of 29 September 2020. Source: Adapted from Dong et al. (2020).

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for reduced human contact in certain urban systems, encouraging the use of robotics, autonomous systems, and artificial intelligence. As exemplified in China, COVID-19 put severe and acute pressure on medical staff (Fan et al. 2020). To remedy this, Wuhan Hongshan Stadium became a smart field hospital with fourteen robots deployed by CloudMinds to complete normal clinic duties including disinfection, delivering food and medical supplies, and providing patient comfort (see Figure 2). 

Figure 2. Social robot used to comfort patients at Smart Hospital. Source: Adapted from Hornyak (2020).

The opportunities to implement robotics into city infrastructure amidst the COVID-19 pandemic have blurred the lines between humans and technology, as evidenced in the Wuhan governmental response. Whilst robotics is being used to serve human welfare, it has encouraged greater integration of robotic technology and is also reducing the public’s wariness of such technology. 

Defining cities as only human dwellings is problematic as it neglects the urban human-animal interactions which occur. However, the pandemic has significantly highlighted the animal presence in cities. On the 26 January 2020, Chinese Center for Disease confirmed that COVID-19 originated from wildlife, with the earliest cases in Wuhan originating from a seafood wholesale market known for selling a variety of wild animals, including bats (Yin et al. 2020).

This knowledge struck fear in the public against wildlife, with citizens demanding the expulsion of wild animals living in cities. Some even recommended the mass killings of bats to ensure public health (Yin et al. 2020). Such cruel treatment of animals reflects how humans have reduced animals to mere resources, and puts human needs above the considerations of animals, demonstrating an anthropocentric view of cities.

The biological evidence of animal-to-human transmission of COVID-19 is establishing urban links between animals and humans, but is also creating a binary in which humans are fighting against animals to ensure their safety and dominance over urban environments. However, there is some hope in moving towards a pluralist view of cities by exploring animal companionship.

Pets are the main animal species to live in urban spaces and are fully integrated into the family unit—even considered to be members of the family. Their relaxed living conditions, including free range and outdoor activities, can lead to increased contact with wildlife. In 2018, 73 million households in Chinese cities had pets, and there has been major public health concern about COVID-19 transmission via pets (Yin et al. 2020). 

Those of a non-anthropocentric view consider animals to have rights and intrinsic value, and therefore should be treated as ‘subjects-of-a-life’ (Yin et al. 2020). This has encouraged authoritative institutions like China Central Television, and People’s Daily, to educate the public to protect their animals rather than abandoning or harming them. 

Additionally, non-government organisations such as the Wuhan Small Animal Protection Association are working with displaced Wuhan pet owners to provide door-to-door assistance for pets suffering from food shortages and abandonment (Yin et al. 2020). 

These examples demonstrate the blurring between human and animal relations, in which animals are more than a resource which serve human purpose, and perhaps even valuable residents of a place which humans also call home. 

The lack of human activity within cities during COVID-19 and dramatic decreases in economic activity has allowed the natural environment to reclaim cities. The closure of public spaces, cancellation of international flights, and the practicing of social distancing has led to a sudden drop in carbon emissions. 

In China, there was a 25 per cent decrease in emissions at the start of 2020, and coal use in China also fell by 40 per cent. Air pollution has also improved across the world as seen in Figure 3 below, and in China the number of airborne pollutants like carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides have fallen (Saadat et al. 2020). 

Figure 3. Air pollution before and after COVID-19 lockdown.

Whilst these consequences are good for the environment, they may not be long-lasting. As lockdowns lift and human activity resumes these consequences may be reversed. For these changes to be sustainable, government authorities will need to ensure that as lockdown lifts, they consider the effect on the environment alongside the economic and social issues caused by the pandemic.

The greatest leaps in the non-human dimensions of Chinese cities have been in technology as new human-technology relationships are being built. The links between humans, the natural environment, and animals, however, are also slowly transforming, with greater appreciation of them being beyond resources to be exploited. Clearly, these dimensions do not work independently but rather in allegiance with humanity. 

Thus, COVID-19 has allowed the robotic, environmental, and animal dimensions of cities to re-emerge—shifting the focus from cities as established human powerhouses to places grounded by technology, and inhabited by animals and the natural environment.

Reference List

Dong, E, Du, H and Gardener, L 2020, An Interactive web-based dashboard to track COVID-19 in real time, Johns Hopkins University & Medicine, retrieved 1 October 2020.

Fan, Y, Jiang, P, Hemzal, M and Klemes, J 2020, ‘An Update of COVID-19 Influence on Waste Management’, Science of The Total Environment, vol. 754, retrieved 29 September 2020, database: ScienceDirect. 

Hornyak, T 2020, What America Can Learn From China’s Use of Robots and Telemedicine to Combat the Coronavirus, CNBC, retrieved 29 September 2020.

Johnson, L, Lobo, M and Kelly, D 2019, ‘Encountering Naturecultures in the Urban Anthropocene’, Geoforum, vol. 106, pp. 358-362, retrieved 29 September 2020, database: ScienceDirect. 

Robertson, S 2018, ‘Rethinking relational ideas of place in more-than-human cities’, Geography Compass, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 1-12, retrieved 22 September 2020, database: Wiley Online Library. 

Saadat, S, Rawtani, D and Hussain, C 2020, ‘Environmental Perspective of Covid-19’, Science of the Total Environment, vol. 728, retrieved 29 September 2020, database: ScienceDirect. 

Yin, D, Gao, Q, Zhu, H and Li, J 2020, ‘Public Perception of urban companion animals during the COVID-19 outbreak in China’,  Health & Place, vol. 65, retrieved 28 September 2020.

Zeng, Z, Chen, P and Lew, A 2020, ‘From high-touch to high-tech: COVID-19 drives robotics adoption’, Tourism Geographies, vol. 22, no.3, pp.724-734, retrieved 28 September 2020, DOI: 10.1080/14616688.2020.1762118.

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