Listening to the city in a global pandemic

What’s it like to live in a city as a global pandemic takes hold?

In this episode we use Eugene McCann's four dialectical tensions to understand the CONVID-19 city: i) invisibility and visibility; ii) privilege and privation; iii) selfishness and solidarity; and iv) absence and presence.

What’s the role of ‘academic experts’ in the debate about COVID-19 and cites, and how can we separate our expert role from our personal experience of being locked down in our cities and homes?

This is a question we’ve certainly been struggling with at City Road, and we think it’s a question that a lot of academics are struggling with at the moment. Perhaps it’s a good time to listen to the experiences of academics as their cities change around them, rather than ask them to speak at us about their urban expertise. With this in mind, we asked academics from all over the world to open up the voice recorder on their phones and record a 2 minute report from the field about their city.

Over 25 academics from all over the world responded. As you will hear, some of their recordings are not great quality, but their stories certainly are. Many of those who responded to our call are struggling , just like us, to make sense of their experience in the COVID-19 city.

COVID-19 cities

City borders, urban infrastructure and our own homes quickly became the frontline in managing COVID-19 around the world. The epicentre of the outbreak was Wuhan, a megacity of 11 million people located in the middle of China. Wuhan was placed in complete lockdown and other cities around the world soon followed.

The response to COVID-19 in Wuhan required physical changes to the built environment. New urban infrastructure was rapidly built in the city, including two large field hospitals on the outskirts of the city with state-of-the-art medical facilities.

The Chinese authorities reconfigured the country’s connective infrastructure to deal with the virus too. China’s extensive high-speed rail network was repurposed as a medical personnel lifeline with the central government dispatching military medical workers throughout China.

We know viruses don’t respect roadblocks, train cancellations, airport closures or national borders, and scientists initially questioned the efficacy of quarantining an entire city by cutting Wuhan off from the rest of China and the world. Nonetheless, in social terms, quarantining whole or parts of cities, and self-isolation and social-distancing more broadly, have various degrees of popular support in many countries.

Jean Luc Nancy argues the virus actually communises us, heightening our capacity for solidarity and care at times of crisis, but there are concerns about the virus’ impact on the global economy and the flow-on impacts on our solidarity and care networks. Many of us can already feel our solidarity and care networks straining under the pressure of COVID-19 at work, within our civil society institutions and at home.

We have rich histories on hygiene, disease, quarantine, social control and the urban environment from various cities around the world. In these narratives about the past there are stories that soundat least on the surfaceeerily like the present. A potted history of Sydney is certainly a case in point.

A potted history of disease and the built environment in Sydney

We’ve been thinking about the history of disease in Sydney, the city we broadcast from. While reading about Barangaroo, an Aboriginal Cameragaleon (Eora) woman from the country around north Sydney harbour, we learnt how an infectious colonial stowaway decimated the Aboriginal people of Sydney from 1789.

“Governor Phillip, as the embodiment of colonial power, planted a British flag in the sand, staking a possessive claim to lands that belonged to the Eora and Gadigal nations. The invasion had begun and the lives of the people from the Kamegal and Gwegal clans were never the same as violence and smallpox took its toll.”

Aileen Moreton-Robinson

When the British invaded Australia in 1788 they brought a biological killer with them; smallpox. Barangaroo was about 40 years-of-age when the British invaded her land in 1788. She held significant cultural wisdom, status and influence in her clan, and she was an important cultural leader.

Smallpox had been one of the world’s deadliest diseases, but when the European colonists arrived in Sydney in 1788 they had developed some resistance through earlier exposure to the disease. The local Aboriginal peoples had no immunity and Barangaroo lost a husband and two children to smallpox.

Imagine how scary it would have been to be under biological & other assault with little idea about why your people are dying and how to stop it. There is still debate over how smallpox broke out in the Sydney area in 1789, but we knowperhaps ironicallyfrom the colonial diarists that smallpox had a devastating impact on Aboriginal peoples.

In April 1789, David Collins, Judge-Advocate of the colony, said:

“At that time a native was living with us [i.e., Bennelong, Barangaroo’s husband]; and on our taking him down to the harbour to look for his former companions, those who witnessed his expression and agony can never forget either. He looked anxiously around him in the different coves we visited; not a vestige on the sand was to be found of human foot; the excavations in the rocks were filled with the putrid bodies of those who had fallen victims to the disorder; not a living person was any where to be met with. It seemed as if, flying from the contagion, they had left the dead to bury the dead.

He lifted up his hands and eyes in silent agony for some time; at last he exclaimed, ‘All dead! all dead!’ and then hung his head in mournful silence, which he preserved during the remainder of our excursion. Some days after he learned that the few of his companions who survived had fled up the harbour to avoid the pestilence that so dreadfully raged. His fate has been already mentioned.

He fell a victim to his own humanity when Boo-roong, Nan-bar-ray, and others were brought into the town covered with the eruptions of the disorder. On visiting Broken Bay, we found that it had not confined its effects to Port Jackson, for in many places our path was covered with skeletons, and the same spectacles were to be met with in the hollows of most of the rocks of that harbour.”

As European emigration to Australia increased, the colonists established the North Head Quarantine Station in Sydney. The Quarantine Station was in operation from 14 August 1832 to 29 February 1984. It was recently converted into a hotel and tourist attraction. The effects of smallpox on European migrants were captured in photographs taken at North Head Quarantine Station at this time.

North Head Quarantine Station, Sydney. National Museum of Australia

Years later, in 1900, the bubonic plague wreaked havoc on the waterfront around Sydney Harbour. The bubonic plague is perhaps better known by the name Black Death, which killed an estimated 75 to 200 million people across Eurasia in the 14th century. In Sydney, 303 cases of bubonic plague were reported and 103 people died in eight months. Several areas of Sydney were quarantined;

“these stretched from Millers Point east to George Street, along Argyle, Upper Fort, and Essex Streets then south to Chippendale, covering the area between Darling Harbour and Kent Streets, west to Cowper Street, Glebe, along City Road to the area bounded by Abercrombie, Ivy, Cleveland Streets, and the railway.

The area east from George Street enclosed by Riley, Liverpool, Elizabeth and Goulburn Streets, Gipps, Campbell and George Streets were also quarantined, as were certain areas in Woolloomooloo, Paddington, Redfern and Manly.”

NSW State Archive and Records

Cleansing Sydney’s Streets circa 1900

The management of the bubonic plague in and around Millers Point in Sydney lead to the resumption of large tracts of land and housing on the point from 1900. Some argue the land and housing resumptions that resulted from managing the bubonic plague around Millers Point were at least partly driven by the need to secure this land for a future bridge project that was an increasing possibility.

Plans for a bridge over Sydney harbour date back to 1791, when Dr Erasmus Darwin, a futurist, and yes, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, wrote about Sydney Cove and the harbour in poetic verse;

“Shall bright canals, and solid roads expand. There the proud arch, Colossus-like bestride. Yon glittering streams, and bound the chafing tide…

Dr Erasmus Darwin

But a more realistic plan for a bridge over the harbour, a bridge that would take flight from the ground around Millers Point, was on the infrastructure agenda at the end of the 19th century. Peter Lalor writes, in the late 1880s in Sydney,

“As the north shore [of Sydney Harbour] became more populated it also became more important to Politicians and [Henry] Parkes was approached with a proposal to mark the centenary of the colony in 1888 by building a bridge.”

Peter Lalor

Thus, the management of the bubonic plague in Sydney in the early 1900s provides an important historical context for understanding the complex history of one of Australia’s most iconic infrastructure projects, the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

At City Road, we wanted to know more about people’s experiences as they confront the many social, political, economic and material implications of the next disease to hit their city.

We’ve always found the work of Tanja Dreher to be instructive at moments like these. Tanja’s work reminds us that sometimes it is more important to listen to the stories of those in our cities than it is to speak at people about their cities. Listen to Tanja talk about the importance of listening at this key moment below.

Now listen to Kurt Iveson’s powerful reflection on the contemporary moment in Sydney. It’s a good reminder of the importance of providing spaces for listening at turning points like these. Kurt’s report from the field below brilliantly captures many of the hopes and fears emerging from COVID-19.

The call-to-arms in Tanja’s work and the answer to that call is Kurt’s response is exactly why we asked people to contribute to this City Road episode, because we want to hear what it’s like to be on the frontline of a suite of intersecting crises that are unfolding in our cities.

A call for reports from the field

We decided it was not the right time to talk at you about the contemporary urban moment and the possible implications for you and your city. Instead, now is a time for listening to the experiences of those who are impacted by crises such as COVID-19. So we put out the following call on Twitter to ask our audience if they could help City Road.

You’ll note that we didn’t explicitly ask for listener reports from the field on the topic of COVID-19 and cities, but many people took COVID-19 as the context for their report from the field.
In fact, we gave possible contributors very little instruction at all, choosing instead to allow our urban reporters the freedom to experiment with our broad and purposely vague questions. Some participants asked for more clarity about the audio recording process and questions, and we offered advice on a case-by-case basis.


Over 25 people submitted reports from the field recorded on their phones from all over the world. Because of the large amount of audio content we had to process we decided to edit the material a lot more than we had first planned. We received well over an 1 hour of audio, and Paul Maginn sent us over 30min of audio and video; thanks Paul, there goes our Sunday! No, just joking Paul; as they say in radio, ‘you can never have too much content’.
The audio reports from the field sent to us operate as important stand-alone vignettes about this moment, and we enjoyed listening to them independently as they came in. We suspect others will want to listen to them as stand-alone vignettes too, so we are providing them in full below.

Roger Keil, Professor at York University – Twitter

Kurt Iveson, Associate Professor at the University of Sydney – Twitter

Tanja Dreher, Associate Professor at the University of NSW – Twitter

Carolyn Whitzman, Professor and Bank of Montreal Women’s Studies Scholar at the University of Ottawa – Twitter

Tooran Alizadeh, Associate Professor at the University of Sydney – Twitter

Eugene McCann, Professor at Simon Fraser University – Twitter

Beth Watts, a Senior Research Fellow at Heriot-Watt University – Twitter

Amanda Kass, PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago – Twitter

Elle Davidson, Aboriginal Planning Lecturer at the University of Sydney

Creighton Connolly, Senior Lecturer at the University of Lincoln – Twitter

Kelly Dombroski, Senior Lecturer at the University of Canterbury – Twitter

Kate Murray, Connected Cities Lab at the University of Melbourne Twitter

Em Dale, PhD candidate at Oxford – Twitter

Matt Novacevski, PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne – Twitter

Mirjam Büdenbender, advisor to the chair of the social-democratic parliamentary group in Berlin – Twitter

Natalie Osborne, Lecturer at Griffith University – Twitter

Ash Alam, Lecturer at University of Otago – Twitter

Cameron Murray, Post-doctoral fellow at the University of Sydney – Twitter

Deepti Prasad, PhD candidate at the University of Sydney – Twitter

Madeleine Pill, Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield – Twitter

Matt Wade, postdoctoral fellow at the National University of Singapore is with Renae Johnson, an independent artist, in Singapore – Twitter

Susan Caldis, PhD candidate at Macquarie University – Twitter

Jason Byrne, Professor at the University of Tasmania Twitter

Paul Maginn, Associate Professor at the University of Western Australia – Twitter

Plus Paul Maginn’s Car Pool video, a snapshot

We acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional owners of the land on which the University of Sydney is built and City Road is recorded; the Gadigal people. We pay respect to the ancestors, the vibrant contemporary Aboriginal community across Australia and their continuing connection to Country.

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