An urban perspective of the pandemic in Panama
José Antomio De Gracia
The following essay seeks to highlight the effects of the pandemic on the way we inhabit and build cities. We understand that before the outbreak of the social-health crisis of COVID-19, as in many places in Latin America, Panama was at a time when its urban, social and economic model had entered a phase of exhaustion and is now escalating at an even higher level. The pandemic has revealed the negative effects of urban sprawl, segregation of housing and disappearance of public space that now become an obstacle to controlling the spread of the virus.
Firstly, we analyze the relationship between the pandemic and the urban society; that is, the link between urban life, mainly that of the groups most affected on the outskirts of the city, with the new dynamics of everyday life in the midst of the complicated panorama that we face now. To this we add a few considerations on the effect of excessive centralization on the form of government that has left many cities in the world,
including Panama City, with little capacity for response.
Additionally, we understand that, in a society that needs to maintain physical distance on the street, the Panama City metropolitan area is not prepared to fulfill this task after decades of urban policies oriented towards the private vehicle. Emergency actions in public space by Panamanian municipal offices and local assemblies have been scarce or non-existent. Despite this, some initiatives of tactical urbanism have emerged trying to respond to the pandemic, and we compare them with other previous interventions to understand if they have been carried out as a process where the benefit is for the communities.
Furthermore, due to recent news against it in some international media, we address the controversy of the density of cities from a theoretical perspective and with current data to understand its relationship with the spread of the virus in Panama. The result of the research suggests that the problem does not lie in high density, but in the overcrowding of the houses and in the lack of urban accessibility in the most remote neighborhoods. All this is born from the construction of a city where segregation and territorial inequalities prevail. In this way, the consolidation of public space and access to better housing together with the redefinition of the current city are objectives that would have served to confront a pandemic that arrives without warning.
center-periphery; COVID-19; density, inequality; public space; overcrowding; proximity; tactical urbanism.