Dr. Evan Carver is an Assistant Instructional Professor in the Environmental & Urban Studies department at the University of Chicago. He started his career in publishing. Working with authors on topics like environmental justice, segregation, and sustainability inspired him to pursue graduate school in urban planning. Evan received his Ph.D. in Urban Design and Planning at the University of Washington and his Master’s in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Colorado Denver. In Spring 2020, Evan taught a course called "Pandemics, Urban Space, and Public Life" which took a historical view of past pandemics to understand the COVID-19 public health crisis and its wide-ranging implications for the relationship between people and urban environments.
Dr. Emily Talen is a professor in the division of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. Her research is devoted to urban design and urbanism, especially the relationship between the built environment and social equity. Emily's love of urban planning dates back to her college experience, and a path-changing study abroad in Paris where she fell in love with walking around and studying the city. She wrote her undergraduate thesis on the design of Paris, and pursued a master’s degree and a professional career as an urban planner, followed by a doctorate. Before coming to the University of Chicago, Emily taught as a professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In her recent book, Neighborhood, Emily traces the historical progression of how neighborhoods are defined, designed, and ascribed purpose.
Emily Talen 1: There’s just been this explosion of interest in what is this going to do to cities, you know, and what, how are we going to live now?
Julia Hesse-Fong 1: From Chicago Studies and the Program on the Global Environment at the University of Chicago, this is Hidden Gems: Quarantine Edition.
Kimika Padilla 1: Where we discuss the implications of shelter-in-place by bringing special guests, student voices, and feel good features… from our homes to yours.
K2: I’m Kimika
J2: I’m Julia
Sofia Garrick 1: And I’m Sofia…
S2: And in this episode, we chat with Professors Emily Talen and Evan Carver from the University of Chicago. Through a historical and spatial perspective, we ask: What happens to urban space, and our relationship with the built and natural environment when people have to retreat indoors? We then dare to reimagine Chicago’s public space and urban structure based on the lessons of the COVID-19 situation, and finally, reflect on our own personal aspirations for the new, post-pandemic life.
K3: First, we spoke to...
[History of Pandemics 1:14]
Evan Carver 1: --Evan Carver. I'm an assistant instructional professor in the Program on the Global Environment. I teach two classes right now. One is one of our core classes called Sustainable Urban Development. The elective class that I'm teaching right now is called Pandemics, Urban Space, and Public Life...so, it's inspired by current events.
J3: You mentioned pandemics, plural. But on the news and in conversations about COVID-19, I keep hearing the word “unprecedented,” which made me wonder, how long has it been since the world has experienced a pandemic?
S3: You know, that’s a great question, I think with the 1918 Spanish Flu, it’s been about 100 years, which is a really long time ago. Our world has changed a lot since then.
J4: That’s true, and with urbanization a majority of people in the world are living in cities now.
E.Carver 2: Cities have been shut down to a much greater degree than they are currently shut down. And in fact, we're remarkably lucky to be in this place where, as I said, we're kind of, we're kind of on-pause right now. There is significant loss of life happening, and I don't want to diminish that, but we are in a much, much better place than we have been at times in the past. And so that's giving us the opportunity to actually respond in a more thoughtful way, in a way that takes the long view a little bit more, to have a kind of a nuanced debate about what we want our future societies to be, as opposed to having the disease decide that for us. So, so that's, that's a luxury. And I think that's also a reason to be hopeful.
K4: So Evan, you point out that while this current moment is definitely unprecedented within our lifetimes, there have been past cases of massive pandemics, sometimes on a much larger scale than the current one. Is there anything that the historical perspective has revealed to yourself or your class about the current moment?
E.Carver 3: In each of these historical episodes, we’re seeing a different kind of theme illustrated in that sort of particular outbreak in that place. Probably the most canonical example from this kind of modern study of public health, which is a series of cholera outbreaks in the UK in the middle of the 19th century. When a bunch of doctors and basically like cartographers got together and kind of combined their knowledge in order to discover the actual disease process, and then ultimately save a bunch of lives, in part by identifying where some, some contaminated water pumps were, and stopping people from taking water from those pumps. So, so that example illustrates the necessity to bring together different kinds of knowledge, so the interdisciplinary approach to understanding the spatial aspects of the disease, I guess, would be the kind of most important takeaway from that.
K5: The cholera example shows how spatial science and medicine support each other in the public health response. Spatial scientists are literally mapping out the spread of coronavirus case-by-case, so that we can control the outbreak and send medical resources where they are most needed.
J5: The spatial aspect of contagion, how it spreads from person to person, also explains why our best response right now is to stay put and shelter in place.
[Sense of Place 4:34]
S4: But you don’t need to be a spatial scientist to recognize this new hyper awareness of the spaces we inhabit. Kimika, have you noticed anything different about your neighborhood since starting shelter-in-place?
K6: Well, I am in Chinatown, and I’ve noticed a lot of small changes with the coming of spring, changes that I would have passed over before. For example, last week I came across this beautiful hill of blue flowers and was texting photos back and forth with my mom to identify them as Siberian Squill. How about you, Julia?
J6: These days, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to sounds. I’ve been opening the windows everyday to let in fresh air, and I’ve definitely noticed that there’s a lot less street noise. And I don’t miss the vehicle noise, but I used to always hear people having conversations on the street, and nowadays that’s kinda rare, and I actually kinda miss it.
S5: You know, I’ve had a really similar situation as well. However, I’m also learning to appreciate some things I never really thought to consider before. I’m noticing streets with fewer cars actually allow for easier social distancing, while I run or long board around Hyde Park, and I’ve also gained new appreciation for the spot near the Museum of Science and Industry where I now take my mid-run meditation break. The built and natural environment has developed meaning in ways it hadn’t before when I spent the majority of my time in Harper Library.
E.Talen 2: I’m Emily Talen. I’m a Professor at the University of Chicago. I’m in the Social Sciences division.
S6: So we asked Professor Talen about our observations, which all seem rooted in a heightened sense of place.
E.Talen 3: To me, I guess a sense of place is just more about the--having an awareness of the importance of the built environment in your life and how, you know, whether or not a sidewalk is, you know, a certain width that actually matters. You know, and whether or not a building is—when you walk down the street, are you passing by buildings that are interesting and have windows and you can see what’s going on behind the facade? Versus a blank parking lot. Those are two very different experiences.
J7: While the concept of sense of place has been a fixture of urban studies for a long time now, in our present situation our awareness of the bond we share with our neighborhood is becoming all the more apparent.
K7: There are countless ways people have responded to this locally confined way of life, and for many it poses unimaginable challenges. However, when we think about the long lasting effects there are some silver linings, as Professor Talen mentioned...
E. Talen 4: You can either go negative on this or you can go positive. And the positive side is people becoming hyper aware and more and more aware of the importance of the built environment and the quality of their streetscapes, the quality of life outside the home.
J8: It’s not just the built environment we are noticing more around us… it’s also the lack of nature amidst our buildings and roads.
S7: People yearn for the fresh air in a park—especially after being holed up in your apartment all week.
K8: So, where does this leave the future of our cities?
J9: And what does it mean for the novel natural environments that have been sneaking their way in while we’ve been gone?
[Public Space and Nature 7:39]
E. Carver 4: I found myself doing all kinds of reading and staying up late at night.
You know, we're shutting down cities, we're--you know--we're moving toward all sorts of kind of isolated behaviors. How on earth are our cities going to survive this? You know, were cities really the problem? What is it that's good about cities that has also made us vulnerable to this? So I was--you know--I was staying up late trying to find answers to those, to those questions myself.
S8: I think that’s relatable to a lot of people. And considering you’re teaching a class on this very topic, what have you learned about how people are responding to the quarantine?
E. Carver 5: There’s a few emerging themes, one of which is definitely nature ... And this is what I find most exciting is that it’s not like, “Oh, now with all my free time, I just like to drive to the mountains to go hiking or whatever.” No, they’re walking around their block. Uh, but just noticing how much nature there is immediately close to home that they never really noticed before…
...Another big theme is that people are noticing actually how little public space we have per capita. What I mean by that is, and perhaps you guys have experienced this yourselves firsthand, is that parks, even sidewalks, are just so much more crowded. We’re just realizing actually how little of this space there is per person, and how precious it is because that's really the place for recreation, for fresh air, for mental kind of resets and recalibration. Everyone wants to go to the park. Actually, everyone wants to go to the lakefront, which is why they closed the lakefront…
[Reimagining the City 9:15]
E. Carver 6: ...So, I wish they would reopen the lakefront. I wish they would reopen the lakefront and they would close down Lake Shore Drive, have Lake Shore Drive be for bikes and pedestrians.
K9: So Evan, I’ve noticed that cities like New York, San Francisco, and Oakland have started closing streets to make space for recreation. And I think a lot of people share your opinion that Chicago should follow suit. But historically, cars have been given priority over pedestrians and bikers when it comes to designing the American city. From roads to parking lots, cars simply get bigger budgets and much more space. So, what has changed about how we value space? And will these changes to urban structure outlast the coronavirus?
E. Carver 7: Ask yourself in a time of emergency, what is, you know, what is really important to you? You know, is it that you have a parking spot for your car directly in front of your house? You know, your car that’s just going to sit there because you don’t have anywhere to drive. Or is it that you have a sidewalk that’s wide enough for you and your neighbors to walk and, you know, with dogs or whatever? Is it that you have a great park, you know, a block or two away that’s big enough for enough people to recreate? You know, we’re being forced to a real reckoning with respect to the allocation of space in the city here too.
K10: Professor Talen reflected on something very similar…
E. Talen 5: So, you know, the positive thing that could happen if we all get on the same page with this is to stop putting our priorities behind cars and put more priority around the pedestrian environment, which is, you know, becoming more and more central.
J10: With people secluded in their homes and away from Chicago’s downtown, Professor Talen also imagined a more local urbanism rooted in neighborhood life.
E. Talen 6: Offices, downtown offices in the city of Chicago, maybe those aren’t coming back the way they were--like getting everybody in these giant office buildings--and instead, managers might start to get more comfortable with, “Hey, you know, maybe we don’t need this big office space because I know now that my workers are productive working from home.” That might actually have the impact of helping with neighborhood-based commercial areas, neighborhood-based retail, because suddenly all those local venues--the mom and pop stores, the cafes and all that stuff--that already is important for a lot of people, but it might be even more important now.
S9: In Chicago, we are lucky, because local neighborhoods are already seen and experienced as distinct hubs of culture, activity, and economic life.
E. Talen 7: Maybe our identity and sense of place and experience of Chicago is going to be less focused on this intensive Loop. And even more focused on these unique identities of the neighborhoods...
...The other way of living is to have neighborhood-based life, neighborhood-based office pods, you know, meetings and working going on in small cellular kinds of units rather than large, crowded, you know, many thousands of people coming together.
S10: So it makes sense that the distribution of people throughout the city has changed, but how could this translate to so-called “cellular” patterns of living and social ties within the communities?
K11: Well Sofia, Professor Talen’s recent research focuses on neighborhood associations, which can be a bedrock for resilient communities.
J11: A neighborhood association is a group of local residents and business owners who work together for improvements, such as neighborhood safety, beautification, and social activities. They reinforce community standards and look out for each other.
E. Talen: So maybe this whole pandemic situation, will put a little bit of life and energy into making those neighborhood associations more proactive and less reactive.
S11: What would it mean for them to become more proactive?
E. Talen 8: In addition to interviewing business associations, we’ve been interviewing neighborhood associations around Chicago and asking them, what do you guys do? You know, why are you there? Do you, what’s your neighborhood? And basically I found that it’s very--as I’ve been saying--you know, it’s very unstructured, it’s reactive, it’s little stuff here and there. And you know, there’s a whole history to this actually, of neighborhoods not being given much power because that takes power away from the aldermen and women. So, there’s an incentive to not enable neighborhood groups to actually be proactive, but I really think it’s what needs to happen for some of these things we’ve been talking about, like investing more in neighborhood-based public spaces, you know, widening sidewalks, all these pedestrian-orientation things that need to happen. That gets started, and the spark for that is at a local neighborhood level. And in order for that spark to happen, there needs to be some kind of collective energy and some way of coming together and making all of that happen. And I would really like to see that be more common throughout Chicago.
[Let's Get Personal 14:58]
J12: Through our discussions with Professors Emily Talen and Evan Carver we thought about the structural, and at times philosophical, consequences of retreating indoors...but, on a more immediate note, has this made you guys newly appreciate or see your social connections in a different light?
K12: So one thing that I’ve been thinking about is that even though I’m about to graduate college and have been living away from home for the past four years, it wasn’t until the quarantine that I actually started having online game nights with my parents and little siblings back home. So there’s ways that being stuck in my apartment has forced me to reach out more to family and friends who I wouldn’t see in person every day. And hopefully I’ll keep it up after the shelter-in-place is lifted!
S12: That’s definitely a theme I’ve also noticed in my own life and something my friends have mentioned as well. Professor Carver even reflected on a similar experience with his own friends...
E. Carver 8: A few weeks ago or something, a handful of my good old high school friends-- so, you know, people that have been really kind of intimate fixtures in my life for decades at this point--we said, “Hey, let’s get together, have beers over Zoom.” And these are people who live, uh, some of them are in Denver, some of them are in New York, some of them are in California, you know, so these are people who never get together for beers. And so we did it, and it was great. And you know, the first thing we said is like, why haven’t we been doing this before?
J13: That’s a great question, why haven’t we? And in this time of great reflection and isolation, it makes us wonder what else we might have been missing from our communication. As Emily reflects…
E. Talen 9: You know, the first thing I want to do when this is over is--or when the restrictions get lifted--is I want to go around. I live on a kind of busy street, and I’ve been realizing--I just finished this book on neighborhood, you know, preaching this whole thing about neighborhood, we got to know our neighbors. I realized, I do not know the people around me. I know the people, there’s--I’m in a six unit condo and I know them, but outside of the building, I don’t have any clue. And so the first thing I’m going to do is knock on the doors of everybody around me and say, Can we do a neighborhood listserv? Can we like have some way of communicating?
S13: Although we are all going through the same pandemic together, we each have different experiences, challenges, and relationships that we must navigate on our own. But, potentially, at least one silver lining that could come out of this for all of us is a renewed sense of community connection and support—even for those who are split by geographic distance.
J14: Speaking of being split by geographical distance, shall we get together later for a Zoom karaoke night after we sign off?
K13: Okay, I’ll send out the meeting link!
S14: And while we’re staying at home, millions of front-line workers are helping to deliver food, essentials, and medical care to people around the world.
K14: This week, we would like to thank delivery drivers and those in the gig economy who make neighborhood-based life possible. Remember to tip generously and to support their demands for safe and fair working conditions.
J15: And thank you for listening to our podcast. You can visit our website at uchicagohiddengems.com to view accompanying images, to find source information for our music and sound effects, and to subscribe to upcoming episodes!
S15: This podcast is sponsored by the Program on the Global Environment and Chicago Studies at the University of Chicago.
K15: This has been Hidden Gems.