02/07/2020Lieven De Cauter

Notes on urbanity in the age of pandemics
(a work in progress1)

The (post)corona city is, and will be for the foreseeable future, a city of capsules2. The lockdown and confinement have subjected us to a capsular logic, but the exit strategies are also doomed to follow all sort of measures, that are all based on a capsular logic: the mask, the bubble, the online telework, the drive in city, not to forget the partition of every space, from terraces to shops and museums. Add to that the cyber panopticon of tracing apps and neoliberal dualization of society and you get a grim picture.

The capsular logic of the (post)corona city starts with the now popular concept of the ‘bubble’, a singular social cell. That is the first capsule. The spatial ‘economy’ of the plague is since times immemorial, at least since the Pest of the 14th century, based on the ‘oikos’(household): the dissolution of the city into its tiniest cell or building stone (in line with Aristotle’s definition of the polis: a autarkic political entity, a congregate or aggregation of villages formed by households3). This oikos, as nucleus of society should be as closed as possible. The challenge of ‘deconfinement’, of exit from the lockdown, is to limit contact between those bubbles. In the first moment, on May 10 2020, the directive here in Belgium was only to merge two bubbles. This cautious loosening of the absolute capsular logic of closure was obviously to avoid to get too readily into a network of bubbles that could quickly enable the virus to spread again and cause the much feared second wave. Elementary epidemiology, yet a brain breaker for every family. The question of exiting the lockdown could, in terms of Sloterdijk’s opus magnum on ‘Spheres’, formulated in this way: how will the bubbles start to ‘foam’ again? But the bubble is, like Sloterdijk’s spheres, rather abstract, or social, it is the spatial logic we want to focus on here. All spaces are to be treated in the logic of partitioning and this capsular logic. All sort of lines, obstacles and screens are put in place to separate people, and the omnipresent masks are the micro-tools of this insularity and insulation, the age old logic of quarantine, of separating bodies. Isolation and insulation are key concepts today. The city is partitioned to create insularity, it becomes an archipelago of tiny closed off (micro)islands.

Beside the infamous mask, the famous and fundamental ‘social distancing’ is the capsular logic at its minimum: every alien body should be closed off from contact with another alien body. This logic of partitioning, confinement, distancing, closure, masking, is at odds with the urban, with ‘urbanity’ itself. If we go back to the definition of what is urban, we feel how fundamentally anti -urban this logic of closure and confinement is. Louis Wirth defined in his classic essays ‘Urbanism as a way of life, a city as follows: “a city may be defined as a relatively large, dense, and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals”4. All these elements of the definition are now problematic: large masses of heterogenous individuals constitute an epidemiological nightmare. The word ‘heterogenous individuals’ opens a perspective onto the class, racial, racist, ethnic layers and tensions that are particular to this pandemic city5. But even more strikingly, of course, in Wirth’s definition are the words ‘relatively large, dense and permanent’. Density is now a deadly force. The promiscuity of multiple bodies being in close contact over long periods of time, which defines the urban experience, turned into a life-threatening risk, the Achilles heel of entire societies. The city is indeed an assemblage of different spaces of promiscuity of increasing densities: parks, squares, streets, cinema’s, theatres, bars, cafés, restaurants, not to forget dancing halls and night joints, where promiscuity culminates into anonymous electrification of a moving, touching, sweaty multitude of bodies (those were the days…)

Every space, every public space, but especially all interior spaces must now be turned into an archipelago of insulated mini-spaces. In open spaces and shopping centers this can be more or less easily be implemented, but it is more difficult to imagine this for the above-mentioned spaces of close encounters (of any kind:). There is an entire new micro-architecture of partitioning appearing, even new typologies: the capsular terrace for instance. A restaurant in Amsterdam with tiny greenhouses for two to three persons on a waterfront was on the news and appears to be already booked for two months in advance6.

These is possibly also a more grand scale anti-urban logic at work. Some specialists already see the intensification of the trend of young families to leave the cities in Flanders. The country side, the suburbs now seem heaven: the singular house with garden a safe haven against the pandemic7. This decamarone logic, people retreating to the country house whilst the pest hits the city, is age old and might now determine again the trends for the coming years, if not decades. In a similar vein one can fear the massive return of the car as main transportation means. Public transport is riddled with dangerous promiscuity. The car is a perfect solution now: the car is a capsule, almost as perfectly capsular as a space capsule8. You can go from your house to any destination without even touching ground or anything. Drive in cinema seemed an American nostalgic dream of the fifties, but it might now return as a means for safe mass events: besides drive in movies, drive in festivals, theater, concerts, etc. Of course, the online shopping and home delivery is part and parcel of this new capsular, car based set up. It boomed immensely since the coronacrisis, making Jeff Besos of Amazon even more obscenely rich than he already was.

And then there is the digital world that is virtually totally hygienic, because it is a network based on separated virtual capsules (personal computers, laptops, smart phones). It is a undeniable fact that the internet and information technology have proved a saving grace in this times of the new plague. But there is more to come. Smart cities have been the promise for a while now. The Coronavirus and the covid 19 pandemic are giving this city based on information technology, big data and artificial intelligence a new boost. Entire institutions like universities moved into virtual mode. Most of its activities like classes, exams, and academic research are continued online. Same goes for social relations, as the telephones and webcam chat platforms like Skype, Zoom, Ms Teams etc. are the tools par excellence to keep in touch with friends and family. Equally culture is trying hard to move online, but so far has encountered more difficulties in doing so than universities… as the event, the encounter, the live experience are quintessential to a concert, theatre piece or exhibition.

The virtual communication platforms were during the lockdown the meeting places par excellence. The capsular logic has spread throughout our daily lives, and as we are completely locked up in the private sphere, the home, just about all our communication went on online. One of ‘laws’ of encapsulation from my book on the Capsular Civilisation, namely, ‘no network without capsules’, could be reversed: ‘no capsule without network’. The people, from different bubbles, who walk together were, in my experience, rather exceptions. When people met by chance with acquaintances during the daily ‘airings’ (the bike ride, the daily walk), one rather noticed an unfamiliarity, an awkwardness, a new detachment, an inner distance. We don't know yet how to deal with social distancing and so we tend to say goodbye quickly and continue on our way. We will have to invent an entire new ‘urbanity’ (without kissing, hugging, handshakes and pats on the shoulder). Quite a challenge for the social, affective, sensuous and sensual animals that we are.

But the dark side of the smart city, of population control via all sorts of apps is very real and present danger too. Tracing apps are the talk of the town and will remain so for the foreseeable future. It is a huge public debate, and no doubt a lot of secret policies are ongoing… For the time being European governments seem reluctant to infringe over much on individual privacy, but sooner or later some combination of old fashioned plague measures, like confinement and lockdown, and what could be termed ‘the cyber panopticon’ - camera’s, heat registration, tracing apps, data mining, etc - will be implemented. The smart capsule city as archipelago under totalitarian capitalism, is, indeed a not so improbable script for the future.

Opposed to this possibility, or near certainty, of this online, drive in, dualized, capsular postcorona city of control and security is the spaced-out eco-city, the walkable city, the city of cycling and of cycles and sort chains, of local production, the city of proximity. There are hopeful signs that cities all over the world are pushing this option via ‘tactical urbanism’, temporary measures to test a more permanent urban transformation, away from the car-based city. So the first images we can draw of the (post)corona city are in a stark black and white, to make things clear. But given our dualized world, a capsular smart city under a digital control via all sorts of tracing apps, under a form of totalitarian technocapitalism, is and remains the most probable option. It will depend on the art of the polis, politics, to determine the outcome. Civic activism and awareness will be crucial in this process. It is exactly the need of social distancing that brings cities all over the world to take back space from the car and turn streets and squares and roundabouts into pedestrian spaces. Let’s hope this alternative wins it.9

The precondition is that citizens and politicians realize that the eco-social, pedestrian, green city is the only good option, it is the way to turn this crisis into a chance. And that a vocal critical mass is prepared to support these alternative measures, and even to act up to defend these policies (think of Gillets Jaunes leading to the citizens panel on climate change in France now forcing Marcon to keep his promise to implent their quite radical 155 point plan, or think of Extinction rebellion). It will not be easy. As the capsular logic and the business as usual, car based, drive in, deeply suburbanized, ‘disurban’ city is a much easier alternative, not only because it is perfectly compatible with capitalist consumerism, but also because it appeals to deeply entrenched habits and ideals: the suburban dwelling in a detached house with garden as universal middle class dream and the car as the transportation capsule of ultimate individual freedom. The existence of the city as we knew it, of ‘urbanity’ as a way of life, is at stake.

Lieven De Cauter / Philosopher, art historian, writer

1. First notes for a text asked by Thijs Lijster and Pascal Gielen for a collective book on the Common City.

2. My old book The Capsular Civilization (2004), seems indeed to have gained a new topicality with the Coronacrisis. All sort of forms of ‘encapsulutian’ or capularisation as I called it, are at the core of almost all corona measure.

3. Aristotle, The Politics. Here this famous passage: “The family is the association established by nature for the supply of men's everyday wants, (…) But when several families are united, and the association aims at something more than the supply of daily needs, the first society to be formed is the village. (…) When several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. And therefore, if the earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family. Besides, the final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to be self-sufficing is the end and the best. Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.” This quotes deserves a careful reading and a long comment…

4. Louis Wirth, Urbanism as a way of life, (The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jul., 1938), pp. 1-24. See:




8. Kisho Kurokawa referred to the car and the mobile home as model, beside the space capsule, in his ‘Capsule Declaration’ (1969), see on this my book The Capsular Civilization, o.c. p 65-68.

9. De stad hertekenen, nu kan het (De Standaard, 15 April 2020):
Naar de exit zonder auto (De Standaard, 12 May 2020)
Une nouvelle feuille de route pour une nouvelle mobilité (Le Soir, 12 May 2020)
Open letter to Belgium’s security council and expert group on the need for a spatial recovery plan (The Bulletin, 12 May 2020):
Klein stadstuintje, grote inzet (De Standaard, 18 June 2020)

See also :