The concept of ‘Triage’ in medical terms refers to “the assignment of degrees of urgency to wounds or illnesses to decide the order of treatment of a large number of patients or casualties.”
Could we apply this term to thinking in urban terms to repurpose elements of the city strategically to fight the Covid 19 Virus ? At this point social or more explicitly physical distancing in large dense urban areas is forcing us into ‘lockdown’ scenarios, which must be supported by support logistics that keep our frontline supplies and essential services running.
Behind the frontline of every war is an extremely complex support structure with complex logistics. In the First World War, whilst the soldiers battled in the trenches – the imagery we are familiar with from the movies, behind the lines were field hospitals, canteens and medical and equipment supply lines.
Our soldiers are now our nurses and doctors, army and police, garbage collectors, food producers, supermarket workers and drivers.
The frontline is now in our cities and our supply and logistic lines extend beyond our cities in an extended global footprint. Lockdown has disrupted this.
In South Africa, Covid 19 has laid bare the divided Apartheid city. Apartheid was at its base, a spatial system, separating people and dividing our city. Despite 25 years of the post-Apartheid state we still have a city where workers have to traverse large distances from their homes to places of work. Our urban infrastructure is still based on structural inequality and Covid 19 has hit the ‘reset’ button on this. Troops are in the Townships. Lockdown is an impossible task in crowded inner city rooms and informal settlements.
How can we re-purpose our city infrastructure to support our frontline services and in doing so re-purpose jobs, our economy and indeed our sick city.
This requires flexible thinking, quick responses and collaboration. None of which have been present in recent times in government or even the private sector.
We’ve seen some wonderful collaborative and innovative thinking in South Africa where we must, by necessity harness scarce resources. Examples such as repurposing existing testing equipment, re-engineering ventilator designs, businesses re-allocating resources to making PPE and farmers who can no longer supply overseas markets supplying local markets.
But I am not an economist or logistics expert. I am an Architect and Urbanist. In my practice I have specialised in adaptive re-use, turning a stadium into university teaching spaces, factories into affordable housing and a shopping mall into a town centre.
The concept of ‘urban triage’ entails identifying existing facilities that can be quickly and efficiently re-purposed for other uses. These may be existing sites and buildings such as exhibition halls, stadia, schools, university residences that can be temporarily re-purposed into field hospitals or temporary accommodation. But after Covid 19, what if this philosophy of re-purposing underutilised infrastructure could become mainstream ?
The more radical concept of ‘urban triage’ would be to consider the city as a network of potential resources and support structures. Can we pivot existing commercial resources which are currently not operational and re-purpose skills without endangering people, to supply essential support and services to our Covid 19 ‘foot soldiers’. Consider this, that our fast food grills are fired up to provide meals to police, nurses and soldiers. Our empty shopping mall parking lots provide space for medical centres and temporary accommodation. Provide human dignity with permanent public toilets and bath houses in the city. An act of ‘urban ubuntu’.
What we should be considering is how the ‘abnormal’ could become the new ‘normal’ and embrace the idea that spaces and infrastructure could have a dual purpose. What if we reclaim these spaces for the greater good of the city and we finally accept and work towards an inclusive city that considers all its residents.
And perhaps at the end of this we may consider thinking about our city in a different way and seriously re-purpose it to serve all its people in a radically different future that awaits us.