When we think of modern urban planning, it tends to be focused on improving efficiency in where we live and work, and how we move from place to place. But it should also be about keeping us healthy. The concept is neither a knee-jerk reaction to COVID-19 nor some nod to corporate social responsibility and eco-friendliness. The fact is that trying to prevent and mitigate medical crises has long shaped how our cities have been designed and built.
Mumbai, India, one of the world's most populous cities, began an important urban planning initiative in the late 1890s, after a horrific breakout of the bubonic plague. "The horrors of the plague prompted the most sustained period of state intervention in the affairs of the city," wrote historian Rajnarayan Chandavarkar. According to Indian daily The Wire, after British colonial rule had produced overcrowded neighborhoods, a new building standard was put in place, focusing on light and air, "nature's two great healing elements which everyone might have gratis ad libitum if public opinion insisted on every dwelling room having sufficient open space about it."
Just a few decades earlier, Paris had battled with a bad bout of cholera that killed over 18,000 inhabitants. As Le Figaro notes, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the urban planner extraordinaire of The City of Lights, believed in airing out the city and bringing in more light by creating wide avenues like the Champs-Elysees and knocking down narrow, densely populated areas where outbreaks were common.
Across the Atlantic, in the early 20th century, polio and influenza epidemics prompted the first New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) projects to be built with an emphasis on "sunshine, space, and air."
Today, our governments, planners and scientists know much more about the spread of disease than their predecessors. Yet much of their experience resonates with city life in the time of coronavirus. The Healthy Building Movement, a recent trend that originated before COVID-19, is proving even more promising in light of the pandemic, promoting the maximizing of natural light and airy spaces. Instead of simply knocking down slums, it advocates for better ventilation, which would improve health conditions in apartments, offices and hospitals.
Of course, the way people move is also at the center or urban planning — and social distancing is a particular challenge in the crowded spaces of public transportation, as Miguel Jurado notes in Buenos Aires daily Clarin. For the urban planner in 2020, this inevitably leads to new efficient infrastructure models and designs as more people choose to commute in their cars, or on bicycles. But now more than ever, health matters at least as much as efficiency.
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Japan's new prime minister is facing the twin challenges of COVID-19 and regional tensions, and some wonder whether he can even last as long as his predecessor, who was forced out after barely one year.
TOKYO — When Fumio Kishida, Japan's new prime minister. introduced himself earlier this month, he announced that the three major projects of his premiership will be the control of the ongoing pandemic; a new type of capitalism; and national security.
Kishida also pledged to deal with China "as its neighbor, biggest trade partner and an important nation which Japan should continue to dialogue with."
Nothing too surprising. Still, it was a rapid turn of events that brought him to the top job, taking over for highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who had suddenly announced his resignation from office.
After a fierce race, Kishida defeated Taro Kono to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and pave the way for the prime minister's job.
Born into politics
A key reason for Kishida's victory is the improving health situation, following Japan's fifth wave of the COVID pandemic that coincided with this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.
The best way to describe Kishida is to compare him to a sponge: not the most interesting item in a kitchen, yet it can absorb problems and clean up muck. His slogan ("Leaders exist to make other people shine") reflects well his political philosophy.
He is an excellent actor.
Kishida was born into a political family: His grandfather and father were both parliament members. Between the ages of six to nine, he studied in New York because of his father's work at the time. He attended the most prestigious private secondary school — the Kaisei Academy, of which about half of its graduates go to the University of Tokyo.
However, after failing three times the entrance exam to , Kishida finally settled for Waseda University. Coming from a family where virtually all the men went to UTokyo, this was Kishida's first great failure in life.
An invitation for Obama
After he graduated from college, Kishida worked for five years in a bank before serving as secretary for his father, Fumitake Kishida. In 1992, his father suddenly died at the age of 65. The following year, Kishida inherited his father's legacy to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives for the Hiroshima constituency. Since then, he has been elected successfully nine straight times, and served as Shinzo Abe's foreign minister for four years, beginning in December 2012. A former subordinate of his from that time commented on Kishida:
"If we are to sum him up in one sentence, he is an excellent actor. Whenever he was meeting his peers from other countries, we would remind him what should be emphasized, or when a firm, unyielding 'No' was necessary, and so on ... At the meetings, he would then put on his best show, just like an actor."
According to some insiders, during this period as foreign minister, his toughest stance was on nuclear weapons. This is due to the fact that his family hails from Hiroshima.
In 2016, following his suggestion, the G7 Ise-Shima Summit was held in Hiroshima, which meant that President Barack Obama visited the city — the first visit by a U.S. president to Hiroshima, where 118,661 lives were annihilated by the U.S. atomic bomb.
Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida in Hiroshima in 2016commons.wikimedia.org
In September, 2020 when Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister, Kishida put out his candidacy for the first time for LDP's presidency. He didn't even get close. This was his second great failure.
But reading his biography, Kishida Vision, I must say that besides the two aforementioned hiccups, Kishida's life has been smooth sailing over the past 64 years
When one has had a happy and easy life, one tends to think that human nature is fundamentally good. Yet, the world doesn't work like that. And Japanese tend to believe that "human nature is vice," and have always felt a bit uneasy with the dovish Kishida diplomacy when he was foreign minister.
Leftist traditions from Hiroshima
Hiroshima has always been a city with a leftist political tradition. Kishida's character, coupled with the fact that he belongs to the moderate Kochikai faction within the LDP, inevitably means that he won't be a right-wing prime minister.
How long will a Fumio Kishida government last?
Kishida would never have the courage to be engaged in any military action alongside Japan's ally, the United States, nor will he set off to rewrite the country's constitution.
So after barely a year of Yoshihide Suga in office, how long will a Fumio Kishida government last? If Japan can maintain its relatively stable health situation for some time, it could be a while. But if COVID comes roaring back, and the winter brings a sixth wave of the pandemic as virtually all Japanese experts in infectious diseases have predicted, then Kishida may just end up like Suga. No sponge can clean up that mess.
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