Preexisting Conditions: What 2020 Reveals about Our Urban Future

Crisis Cities is a public symposium on the 2020 crises and their impact on urban life, co-organized by Public Books and the NYU Cities Collaborative. Published essays will be collected here.
Crisis Cities brings together some of the world’s leading social scientists and humanists to grapple with the 2020 crises of our cities.

It is already certain that 2020 will join a handful of years—1789, 1929, 1989—that transform the world suddenly. The convergence of pandemic, global economic collapse, and an enormous wave of protests over racial injustice has affected life almost everywhere, but particularly in cities, which are now, for the first time in human history, home to a majority of the world’s population. This symposium brings together some of the world’s leading social scientists and humanists to grapple with the implications of the 2020 crises for our cities.

Cities, long places of density, diversity, opportunity, and wrenching inequalities, are facing existential challenges. Pandemic and the struggle to confine it threaten the urban density that has long been a source of creativity and synergy, of new forms of economic activity, cultural production, and spaces for working and living. Diversity—spurred by migration and mobility—has defined urban vitality for millennia, disrupting ossified ideas and institutions, fostering syncretism in music and the arts, while also unleashing new forms of conflict and resistance. Opportunity—for employment, for self-expression, for creation—has long attracted both migrants and refugees to cities, but also generated intense conflict and deep inequalities.

The 2020 crises have, above all, put a spotlight on the distinctive and often corrosive features of modern urbanism. Just as COVID-19 is particularly dangerous to populations with preexisting conditions, the virus has ferociously swept through urban areas because of their preexisting social conditions: the precarity of work; the unaffordability of housing; the depth of racial, ethnic, and class divides; a profoundly unequal global economy; and the failure of many governments worldwide to rise to the challenges.

Many of the essays that follow document how preexisting social conditions have worsened the 2020 crises. “Generations of racial and economic segregation of the housing market,” writes Margaret O’Mara, “meant that where you lived at the start of the pandemic greatly determined how well you survived its physical and economic hardships.” Yarimar Bonilla, analyzing the general incapacity of the governments of Puerto Rico and the United States to respond to the economic collapse and to contain the virus, points to the legacy of the “failed state, with gutted infrastructure, inefficient state agencies, and a populace that emerged from the 2008 economic crisis with stark divisions between those who can live through a hurricane, an earthquake, or a pandemic, and those who cannot.” From the vantage point of hyperurbanizing India, where informal workers have been devastated by the virus and lockdowns, Gautam Bhan describes the “vulnerability that preceded this ‘crisis,’” particularly the inadequate “patchwork” of social protections.

The particular conditions in each of these places vary. But what is clear is that the pandemic has made visible the social fissures and economic injustices that have unleashed the pandemic.

Among the least acknowledged and most critical of 2020’s preexisting conditions are biological and environmental. Starting in China, Xiaowei Wang traces the origins of the pandemic to the entangled global economy of mass food production and high finance: “The more I learned about the dizzying web of international trade agreements, foreign-policy decisions based on agricultural trade, investments, technological change, and ecological devastation wrought by multinational agribusiness over the past two decades, the more surprised I was that a global pandemic hadn’t happened sooner.” Our conventional understanding of the virus sees it as an exogenous force that ravages urban, regional, national, and global economies. But as with all supposedly natural disasters, the trajectory of the virus is predictably and tragically human-made. It is a destructive consequence of market forces, global trade and travel, a macroeconomy premised on cheap, exploited labor, and regulatory policies that favor profit over protection. Thus, the pandemic is the result of “self-devouring growth,” explains Julie Livingston, in which the ravages of COVID are but one manifestation of a global economy that maldistributes disease, environmental harm, and poverty, all in service of corporate gain.

Just as COVID-19 is particularly dangerous to populations with preexisting conditions, the virus has ferociously swept through urban areas because of their preexisting social conditions.

COVID-19 has swept through the most vulnerable urban populations worldwide: new immigrants and refugees, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses, and people of color—especially African Americans and Latinos. In diagnosing the pandemic’s economic impact around the world, Adam Tooze demonstrates that COVID has hit hardest in the regions with the greatest rates of inequality and the weakest welfare states, particularly South Asia, Latin America, and the United States. The disparate impact of the virus, as many of the contributors to this symposium show, is overdetermined. It results from the rise of a vast, exploitative labor market of service and informal employment, and from the decay of labor-market regulation and social protections for the most vulnerable populations. For workers the world over—living in the slums of Mumbai and the favelas of Rio, the tenements of the Bronx and the accessory apartments of Los Angeles—economic precarity was a preexisting condition that contributed to the risk of infection, the severity of the illness, and higher mortality rates. Those laborers who delivered packages and groceries, picked up trash, toiled as meatpackers and chicken processors, and changed bedpans and sanitized hospital rooms were the most likely to fall ill and die. Of Latinx laborers in the United States, who have suffered disproportionately from the virus, explains Natalia Molina, “they’re faceless and expendable.”

COVID has swept through communities that can least afford it. Those insecure service workers whose employment was not deemed essential—like cooks, kitchen hands, and waitstaff; domestics, janitors, and low-level retail workers—were hard hit by unemployment, left to scrape by on their savings or on usually meager unemployment benefits. Informal labor, long a strategy for survival in cities, especially for women, has partially filled the gap: from Mexican migrants, selling homemade tamales at crowded intersections in New York, to migrant workers in India, who defied lockdown orders and walked great distances to work on construction sites or in junkyards. These workers risked the virus because hunger and homelessness presented even greater dangers to their health. Informal labor is often necessary for survival, but its spread has contributed to skyrocketing poverty in cities across the world, especially those with a frayed or nonexistent safety net.

Economic insecurity worsens housing insecurity, perhaps the defining characteristic of urban life today. Housing costs are unsustainably high in the world’s capitals of tech and finance, places like New York and San Francisco, London, Paris, and Tokyo. Each of these metropolises has seen a massive influx of luxury housing and the disappearance of affordable housing near their centers. On the urban margins—in outlying ungentrified neighborhoods and unfashionable, declining suburbs in the United States, in belts of high-rise housing outside European cities, in the shantytowns of South Asia—ordinary people are victimized by predatory landlords, skyrocketing rents, and frequent evictions. Already before the pandemic, nearly 40 million American households paid more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Now, in COVID-ravaged urban economies, precarious workers live in a state of “emergency urbanism,” to use Ananya Roy’s evocative phrase, subject to mass displacements because they cannot afford exorbitant rents and because governments generally lack the will or capacity to provide even meager housing assistance.


Working in China in the COVID-19 Era

By Gilles Guiheux et al.

Nearly everywhere, the pandemic and resulting economic insecurity have laid bare another preexisting condition: persistent racial and ethnic inequalities. COVID-19’s grim march through the cities has followed a predicable path, straight to the neighborhoods with the most marginalized populations. In American cities, the virus has struck hardest in long-segregated African American neighborhoods. These are places that have seen their social infrastructure ravaged by years of disinvestment, where housing is rundown and expensive, and where environmental hazards, particularly polluted air, worsen the course of the disease. Latinos, who are experiencing rapidly rising rates of segregation in cities both large and small, suffer from chronic overcrowding, packed into garages and basements hastily turned into apartments. They, like migrants in the crowded high-rises in Parisian banlieues, the rambling informal settlements of South America and Africa, and in makeshift houses in the tiny alleyways of India’s vast slums, find social distancing impossible.

With anti-immigrant and racial resentments on the rise worldwide, particularly in the authoritarian regimes that have swept to power in recent years, the incapacity of governments to manage the disease and provide social supports to the poor has played out with devastating impact. Governments as diverse as those in France, Spain, Great Britain, Kenya, South Africa, and India have practiced what Quentin Ravelli provocatively calls “COVID blindness”: “a withholding of accurate information that has obscured both the impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable communities and the resurgence of institutional violence that has accompanied it.” Official COVID blindness hinders effective public responses to the pandemic and to the preexisting inequalities that it has worsened.

Above all, the crises of 2020 have laid bare multiple, overlapping institutional failures, a mismatch between existing governmental, economic, and social infrastructures and the current reality.

Of the injustices that came into focus in 2020, few were more prominent than policing. In the United States, African Americans have long challenged police harassment and violence, in a struggle that has spanned slave rebellions, the urban uprisings of the 1960s, and the Black Lives Matter movement of the last several years.

The police, long the strong arm of the state, regularly deployed to curb dissent and control groups labeled as ungovernable or unruly, have played a critical role in 2020. In India, police brutally enforced the pandemic lockdown. Where xenophobia is rampant, law-enforcement officials target migrants. During London’s spring 2020 quarantine, police swept up more people of African descent—who comprised only 13 percent of the city’s population—than whites. Quentin Ravelli quotes a French antiracist activist, Assa Traoré, who points to the link between the pandemic and the policing of Arab and African migrants: “With the lockdown, our neighborhoods have become attraction parks for the cops.” In the United States, police forces were themselves instigators of the riotous behavior that public officials condemned: attempting to crush the BLM movement figuratively and sometimes grimly literally, driving patrol cars into crowds, pummeling and gassing dissidents, and encouraging white vigilantism.

Yet police violence is only one reason, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues, that millions have taken to the streets in recent months. Another is the maldistribution of public resources to increasingly militarized law enforcement, at the expense of health care, housing, and economic assistance. “Where states struggled to gather PPE for health-care workers,” Taylor notes, “police in cities across the country were armed to the teeth and outfitted in the latest and most expensive gear and devices.”

One of the more hopeful dimensions of the 2020 crises has been the rise of mass movements, beginning with the revolts that followed the murder of George Floyd, by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, revolts that turned into the longest and largest wave of protest in American history, involving an estimated 26 million people in several thousand marches. Within weeks, protestors gathered en masse around the world, often united under the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter; they joined mass demonstrations against police profiling in metropolitan France; marches in Rio, São Paulo, and Recife against state-sanctioned violence under Brazil’s authoritarian leader, Jair Bolsonaro; and protests and lawsuits targeting racially discriminatory policing in South African cities. What is most striking about these uprisings is that, though they began with outrage against the police, they seldom stopped there. In the streets of New York City, protestors carried signs calling for trans rights, action on global warming, and demands for better housing and jobs. “The rage that erupts in urban uprisings,” notes Mustafa Dikeç, “is not an impulsive reaction to isolated cases of bad practice; it is a response to systematic exclusion and oppression, which go beyond police violence and into all areas of urban life, including housing, employment, social encounters, and political worth.” Many street rebels targeted major corporate retailers, from Target and McDonald’s in Minneapolis to Louis Vuitton and Coach in Manhattan.


Listen to the Birds

By Priscilla Wald

Above all, the crises of 2020 have laid bare multiple, overlapping institutional failures, a mismatch between existing governmental, economic, and social infrastructures and the current reality. Across the globe, millions are challenging local and national governments themselves, fighting for democracy in the face of authoritarian power in Belarus, Hong Kong, and the United States and challenging the synergistic relationship of governing elites to global capital nearly everywhere. The inadequacy of responses to the 2020 crises have delegitimated all sorts of authority, as social-welfare and health providers—in a wide range of cities, from the industrial West to the global South, strapped by decades of austerity and privatization—have more often than not failed to meet the needs of a sick, economically fragile, and increasingly distrustful population.

The year 2020 is a moment of crisis, but also a moment ripe with the possibility of radical change. In the past, crises have opened up possibilities for the rethinking of politics, for the reorganization of institutions, for the reimagination of urban space. There is, however, nothing inevitable about the outcomes. In a chastening analysis of right-wing politics and the pervasiveness of disinformation worldwide, Rodrigo Nunes warns that “if there is one thing that the last decade ought to have taught us, it is that strong objective factors do not automatically translate into powerful movements, let alone into the spontaneous discovery of the ‘correct line’ by the masses.” The arc of the moral universe sometimes bends toward justice, but it just as often veers off course. In the past, entrenched problems like violent policing have been met by tepid, largely symbolic reforms, as Simon Balto notes, using the troubled history of the Chicago Police Department as a case study. “What would reform look like,” he asks, “if the institution itself is the problem?”

That is a question applicable not just to law enforcement but to nearly every dimension of urban life. What alternatives will we create to respond to the current crises? And how will we get there?

To begin the reconstruction of a post-2020 urban world requires a diagnosis of the disease, full awareness of the underlying conditions that worsen it, and a prescription for recovery.

The contributors to this symposium offer a wide variety of paths forward, as well as some chastening examples of directions that are doomed to failure. Since the 1970s, with the advent of neoliberal urbanism, which has promoted governmental austerity and a faith in the market as a solution to urban woes, cities have reinvented themselves as playgrounds for tourists and as magnets for lucrative employment in high-tech, finance, and related professions, with the misguided assumption that the benefits of corporate tax incentives and costly redevelopment in central business districts would somehow trickle down to the working class and poor. From Mumbai to Manhattan, capital has flowed freely into luxury housing and amenities for the well-to-do and away from the truly disadvantaged. The effects of the depletion of tax revenue became clear in the long lines at health clinics, the woeful conditions in public hospitals, and the sidewalk memorials to the victims of the pandemic documented by photographer Camilo José Vergara.

Should we place our hopes in the private sector to save our cities this time? No, says Marcia Chatelain, who offers an unflinching critique of the superficial corporate embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement through a look at the fast-food giant McDonald’s. No, says Sophie Gonick, who critiques notions of “urban success predicated on real-estate activity” that “paradoxically paved the way for urban crisis,” leaving large sections of cities vacant, even before the economic ravages of the pandemic. No, says Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who argues that the poor have paid a high price because our “aversion to taxing wealthy individuals and corporations has left local governments ill prepared to effectively respond to local crises of poverty and unemployment.”


“Detroit Is No Dry Bones”: Photos of a...

By Camilo José Vergara

The solution, contends Eric Klinenberg, is a reinvigoration of the public sector. That project requires activism at every level, from reconstituting the bonds of solidarity in neighborhoods and at workplaces to rebuilding a sense of common cause and national purpose, delegitimating the poisonous divisions of race and ethnicity that lead to the maldistribution of resources across urban space, and invigorating urban democracy.

The protests in 2020 might be a starting point for that reinvigoration of politics. The rage on the streets may quickly dissipate—as it has too often in the past. Or the BLM protestors may themselves fall victim to the endemic distrust over identity and interest that has split many social movements worldwide. But, as Warren Breckman contends, the social movements of the last decade offer a powerful alternative framework for reconstituting urban citizenship. Breckman takes lessons from the Occupy movement and applies it to the 2020 protests, arguing that “the constituent moment of democracy can and should include more than merely bodies gathered in public space; that the collective voice is not discovered but invented; that the spectacle of mass gathering and bodies in motion should give way to talking and listening … ; and that, if the crowd is to speak in a democratic voice, then that voice must be both singular and plural.” Urban democracy is above all synthetic, connecting and reimagining urban space and urban identity in the very process of deliberation and the creation of alternative institutions.

To begin the reconstruction of a post-2020 urban world requires a diagnosis of the disease, full awareness of the underlying conditions that worsen it, and a prescription for recovery. The essays in this series do not constitute a white paper for urban reform or a set of policy analyses and technical recommendations. Rather, they offer something else: a sobering analysis of our troubled present, an accounting of the high stakes of the crises, and glimpses of a future that we are compelled to create.


Mustafa Dikeç, “Rage and Uprising

Adam Tooze, “Global Inequality and the Corona Shock

Natalia Molina, “The Enduring Disposability of Latinx Workers



Simon Balto, “How to Defund the Police

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “Defund the Police and Refund the Communities

Marcia Chatelain, “Fast Food, Precarious Workers



Julie Livingston, “To Heal the Body, Heal the Body Politic

Xiaowei Wang, “The World Is a Factory Farm



Camilo José Vergara, “Picturing the Lost



Sophie Gonick, “The Violence of Urban Vacancy

Margaret O’Mara, “The Limits of Telecommuting



Quentin Ravelli, “Covid Blindness

Yarimar Bonilla, “Pandemic Déjà Vu

Gautam Bhan, “The Vulnerable Foundations of India’s Urbanism



Rodrigo Nunes, “Are We in Denial about Denial?

Warren Breckman, “Can the Crowd Speak?

Ananya Roy, “Emergency Urbanism

Eric Klinenberg, “Rebuilding Solidarity in a Broken World” icon

Featured image: The Day the Sun Didn’t Rise (2020). Photograph by Christopher Michel / Flickr