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Coronavirus is a novel threat, but to many it seems like a specifically urban threat. As architecture critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in the New York Times, it preys on people’s desire for social connection, warping cities’ great strength, density, into an “enemy.” The pandemic “revives America’s suburban instincts,” writes the Boston Globe. In its wake, urbanist gadfly Joel Kotkin giddily predicts, Americans will surely retreat to the cheap land, solo driving, and sense of safety in the suburbs.
But the diagnosis of Covid-19 as a uniquely urban problem reflects historical tropes about the dangers of urban space more than current evidence. Statistical analyses do not show a consistent connection between big-city density and coronavirus impacts. Some of the world’s most heavily settled spaces — Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore — have proved to be the most formidable at containing Covid-19. In the U.S., small towns in Georgia and Louisiana suffer along with New York City.
The demonization of density harkens to the heyday of urbanization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. American civic leaders and reformers of the time embraced the notion that urban social problems — disease, poverty, immorality — stemmed from the physical environments of cities. This ideology of “moral environmentalism,” as historian Alexander von Hoffman termed it, formed the foundation of U.S. urban planning and reform for decades. Now this legacy is re-emerging with coronavirus, threatening, as it did in recent urban history, to lead to distorted, ideological responses that malign city life and obscure the root of the problem.
The belief that the urban environment was “pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man,” as Thomas Jefferson had famously written, reached a high point with the unprecedented urbanization of the 19th century. Between 1850 and 1900, New York grew more than sixfold to 3.4 million, Berlin quadrupled in size to 1.9 million, and Chicago — the “shock city” of the 19th century — grew nearly 60 times, to 1.7 million. In the United States, a rural society before the 20th century, the social changes were as profound as the physical ones. Observers noted the city’s physical disorder, crime, and disease, its extremes of poverty and wealth, and its startlingly diverse populations.
The civic reformers who sought to address these problems saw little difference between the city’s threats to residents’ physical health and its threats to their moral health. Both, they believed, sprouted from a common root: congested, squalid, and inhumane urban spaces. Jacob Riis, famous for his photos of grimy apartments, wrote that the tenements were not just “hot-beds” of “epidemics,” but also “touch the family life with deadly moral contagion” — which he conveyed to his middle-class readers in lurid detail. Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett, the pioneer authors of the 1909 Plan of Chicago, agreed that excessive “density of population… results in disorder, vice, and disease, and thereby becomes the greatest threat to the city itself.” Another housing crusader, Lawrence Veiller, agreed, telling municipal officials in 1911, “Environment leaves its ineffaceable records on the souls, minds, and bodies of men.”
Crowded tenements and inhumane conditions did indeed have deleterious effects on residents. But moral environmentalists tended to blame urban spaces while neglecting the economic system that created these spaces. If changing the urban environment could solve urban social problems, then the economic system of industrialization could be left more or less intact. No wonder that a standard method for improving impoverished, overcrowded urban neighborhoods was simply to demolish them.
The weaknesses of this reform vision — and its strengths — found clear expression in the era’s public parks movement, which touched cities across the country in the late 19th century. Landscape architects such as Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles Eliot, and Jens Jensen sought to solve urban social problems through the reform of urban space. They imagined parks as a vital source of fresh air and naturalistic beauty — features that take on special gravity in cities now under lockdown. But they also treated parkland as a mechanism for solving cities’ thorniest social problems.
Park advocates embraced careful design because they viewed aesthetic reform as a tool for social reform. According to Olmsted, the movement’s leader, the reasons the “amount of disease and misery and of vice and crime has been much greater in towns” were environmental: lack of fresh air and the constant stimulation of bustling city life. Only “relief from” city life could return residents to “a temperate, good-natured, and healthy state of mind.” Olmsted viewed urban life as a threat to “the mind and the moral strength” of residents: In spaces like New York’s Central Park, Olmsted and his design partner Calvert Vaux shunned the geometric designs popular in European capitals in favor of naturalistic environments intended to calm the mind.
Never mind that park landscapes were themselves artificial: hills leveled and built up, ponds dug, and existing vegetation replaced with thousands of foreign and native plants. Above all, they were counterpoints to the 19th-century city. In reformers’ view, creating naturalistic spaces could improve public health alongside civic health, and cure physical ailments together with moral ones. They believed they could quell the threat of social disorder by providing a structured, common space for cities’ motley populations. Some contemporaries took their belief in parks’ healing powers to improbable lengths: As historian Paul Boyer writes, one park administrator claimed in a popular reform journal that with a bigger parks budget, he could decrease prostitution in his city by 98 percent.
By 1910, such parks had become ubiquitous. They brought fresh air to crowded neighborhoods, served as open spaces for the public, and remain beloved, vital features of urban life — perhaps never more so than right now. But for all their good, they did not solve disease, misery, and vice. Parks, predicated on the idea that space was the problem, did not address the larger system that created inhumane urban spaces in the first place. Convinced that the environment was both disease and cure, park builders put their faith in spatial reform, not structural reform. More direct interventions — such as social housing, robust regulatory protections, and the elements of a welfare state — had to wait for reformers with different worldviews.
What lessons will today’s city leaders take away from the pandemic? As in the past, the answer partly depends on how they diagnose the problem. If they follow the precedent of moral environmentalism, they will fault the city itself. But doing so distorts the reality of the pandemic and obscures the systemic policy failures that have made certain places and populations — particularly urban African Americans — far more vulnerable.
The dense urban environment can also be an asset in fighting disasters like Covid-19. Density means cities can more easily concentrate resources and social services where needed. Residents, in theory, have quicker access to hospitals and health care. And when nurtured by “social infrastructure” — community centers, libraries, and yes, public parks — cities can generate lifesaving networks of social ties which combat isolation and mitigate the effects of disasters.
Building on these strengths can make cities more humane and resilient in the pandemic’s aftermath. As Covid-19 enlarges the window of policy possibilities, city leaders should remember their problem is the virus, not urban life. They can improve their public health and transportation infrastructure by learning from the dense places that have managed to avoid the harshest impacts of the virus. They can strengthen the social infrastructure that serves as a first-line defense against pandemics, supporting neighborhood institutions to promote cohesiveness while allowing for distance. They can tailor their responses to meet the threat of climate catastrophe, which cities — for all of their flaws — remain best positioned to address. They can relieve the deep-rooted inequality that has contributed to Covid-19’s urban spread.
Cities are vulnerable amid the pandemic, but they are not the problem. Recognizing that fact is the first step to addressing coronavirus on its own terms, as it appears not just in cities, but also in suburb and countryside — and to building a more resilient, humane urban life afterward.
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Since the 1970s, the United States has relied on one primary strategy to deal with poverty, pollution, and various other social problems and challenges: quarantine. We have carved up cities and communities with spatial barricades, built fortified enclaves for the affluent, and pursued solutions that relied on segregating the haves from the problems of the have-nots.
Now comes the coronavirus, a crisis that refuses to be contained by the barriers we’ve built. (Indeed, because of its connection to international airline travel, it alighted in the booming global cities first.) In a nation that has learned to solve problems by trying to isolate them in space, how can we come together to defeat this virus?
To find an answer, we have to look back and understand how we got to this point.
In the early 1960s, the dominant approaches to solving the challenges of the moment were grand, public, collective. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson put forth a vision of what the United States could become. In 1964, Johnson told graduates of the University of Michigan, “in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.”
But just a few years later, this vision had faded. A horrific war in Vietnam raged on. Pollution was turning skies hazy and making rivers toxic. Violent crime rose sharply in major cities, and riots tore through hundreds of cities from 1965 to 1968. Steady jobs disappeared, the gap between the rich and the poor widened, and poverty and desperation became more visible on city streets.
We had two choices, as a nation. One option was to pursue the vision Johnson had presented that day in Ann Arbor, and the kind of wide-reaching proposals put forth in documents like the Kerner Commission Report of 1968: We could make enormous investments to reduce inequality and build thriving cities, and come together to solve the challenges of urban decay, concentrated poverty, economic dislocation, segregation, pollution, violence, and racial injustice.
Instead, the United States made a different choice.
Americans—particularly white Americans, economic elites and their political representatives—no longer considered making massive investments to confront the problems of the cities. Instead of taking bold steps to reckon with entrenched racial inequality, they asked how to maintain racial separation in increasingly diverse urban areas. Sidestepping the problems of joblessness and deep poverty, they sought ways to preserve economic advantage in a time of rising inequality and state retrenchment.
During the Great Depression and World War II, the challenges of the moment were met with bold, national plans of action. But from the 1970s onward, America’s major crises and challenges have largely been met with a response driven by the goals of avoidance and separation. Instead of collective movements and public investment, we have tried to carve up space and quarantine social problems, to allow the most advantaged segments of the population to isolate themselves from those problems, and to restrict who can access areas of opportunity. To deal with the most pressing challenges we face, we have created an elaborate system of barricades in space.
Our spatial barricades have come in many different forms over the years. In the early 20th century, Jim Crow laws, racial zoning ordinances, and redlined (and yellow-lined) neighborhoods were used to create rigid boundaries in space that maintained racial separation; in the postwar era, interstate highways and urban renewal projects accomplished the same feat. Today’s forms have shifted. We have converted an age-old barricade, the prison cell, and made it a core institution in our society, locking up millions of Americans, disproportionately young men of color, behind the bars of state and federal prison cells. And we continue to find new ways to divide up and fortify our communities.
In cities like Atlanta , for example, groups of neighbors near the city’s border have created their own governments, forming an administrative barrier between them and the city next door. In new municipalities like Sandy Springs, Georgia, affluent residents no longer needed to share their tax dollars with the rest of the city. Nearby, new cities are still forming and residents are still voting to reject the expansion of rail lines in an effort to maintain separation between the city and the surrounding areas. Other barriers are more literal: Hidden Hills, California, a small bloc of land just west of Los Angeles that was incorporated as an independent city back in 1961, now sits behind gates that protect its wealthy residents. When fires raged outside Los Angeles in November 2018, two famous homeowners, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, decided not to rely on public resources and instead called on private firefighters to protect their property and their neighborhood behind the gates.
That’s an extreme example of a nationwide phenomenon. Every inch of American soil is demarcated with political, administrative, and physical barricades erected to hoard resources, to quarantine social problems, to restrict access to advantaged spaces, and to preserve and reproduce social inequalities.
As trust in the federal government has fallen rapidly over time, we have become a nation that has been taught to respond to great challenges by avoiding them, rather than bringing people together and working toward a solution. This approach has meant that the most pressing challenges facing us have gone unaddressed, the burdens of our national problems have been shifted toward the most disadvantaged, and inequality has continued to grow.
Can the crisis we now face be any different? Why would we come together to solve this challenge of a new pandemic virus, when we’ve been conditioned to avoid the major problems that have arisen over the past half century? The map of confirmed cases reveals a sobering answer: A spatial solution to Covid-19 is not possible. The virus is everywhere, or will be soon, directly affecting the lives of every American. The disease has demolished spatial barricades and party lines; it may force us to come together.
We have seen signs of this reluctant and fitful cooperation already, as the initial relief legislation put forth in the House generated more expressions of bipartisan goodwill than any piece of legislation in recent memory. (The Senate, so far, is a different story.).
The good news is that we have evidence from national efforts to deal with crises like the threat of terror and the financial meltdown of 2008 to suggest that it’s still possible for the United States to come together and respond to national challenges, even if those responses are slow, imperfect or incomplete. But we can only do so when the problem transcends the barricades we’ve erected for decades to reinforce American inequality. This, clearly, is that kind of problem.
If we can muster the collective investment needed to fight back against Covid-19, perhaps it will provide a reminder of a basic fact about our species: Our fates are intimately connected. Once coronavirus stops spreading, we will face a global recession, extreme inequality, and the ongoing existential threat of climate change. We have become a nation that responds to these kinds of challenges by giving people the chance to separate themselves from the problem. This virus should show us there’s an alternative way to solve the challenges that face us, collectively.
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Disease shapes cities. Some of the most iconic developments in urban planning and management, such as London’s Metropolitan Board of Works and mid-19th century sanitation systems, developed in response to public health crises such as cholera outbreaks. Now COVID-19 is joining a long list of infectious diseases, like the Spanish flu of 1918 in New York and Mexico City or the Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa in 2014, likely to leave enduring marks on urban spaces.
For Michele Acuto, professor of global urban politics in the School of Design at the University of Melbourne, the intersection of urban design and public health is an increasingly critical territory. He’s the director of the Connected Cities Lab, a leading center for advancing urban policy development; he’s worked on urban health in a number of capacities, including with the European Commission and the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific Regional Office. While the University of Melbourne scrambles to accelerate a COVID-19 vaccine, the Lab is working to understand the urban planning dimensions of pandemic preparedness.
CityLab spoke to Acuto about why COVID-19 could change how we study cities — and how we live in them.
Much of the coverage of the new coronavirus feels unprecedented, as if this is the first time urban spaces and global movement of goods and people have given rise to the threat of pandemic. But the stories of cities have always also been those of infectious disease.
Anyone you talk to on the urban or medical side would tell you this is not new. You can do parallels between COVID-19 and many other epi- and pandemics, from the plague to SARS and Ebola. The line of caution we need here is not to draw too many parallels or rushed conclusions without evidence. COVID-19 is not as deadly as Ebola, which had a mortality rate of 60%, or SARS and MERS at 30%.
But if the risk of death is lower, transmission is much higher, and that makes it challenging globally. Quarantines only work insofar as you can identify all dangerous cases, and with COVID-19’s symptoms and delayed onset, you can’t spot it that easily. In that way this is much more similar to the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, or a swine flu like the one that inflected 500 million and killed up to 50 million in 2009. The question is whether we are prepared to avoid that.
Looking back, did we miss something in the way we were thinking about the intersection of urbanization and infectious disease? Were we looking in the wrong places?
Yes, to a degree. We have perhaps been a bit too biased toward global cities. COVID-19 is really a story of peri-urban and rural-to-urban connections, in places that are often not on the global map. Roger Keil, Creighton Connolly and Harris Ali recently argued for this suburban view. They tell the story of how the spread to Germany starts with a car [parts] factory in the outskirts in Wuhan. A person travels from Wuhan to Germany to help with training. This is a story of peri-urban Wuhan to semi-suburban, tertiary-city Bavaria. So sure, you have some of the global connections at airports, but it’s a much more complex urban system.
This is a rich point. It’s easy to look at these major cities and global supply chains, and say of course we have an epidemic — this is how globalization plays itself out. But you’re telling a different story — one about non-global cities, tertiary cities and peri-urban areas.
Yes, it’s actually about a much wider set of urban areas. This is the story in Washington state [where COVID-19 first emerged in Snohomish County], or the Italian story, which is still largely suburban.
Part of the history of urbanization is building and managing your way out of infectious diseases, such as cholera outbreaks in the middle of the 19th century. Here’s Richard Sennett on how Joseph Bazalgette and his colleagues went about developing London’s response: “They were not practising an exact science. They did not apply established principles in particular cases, there were no general policies that dictated best practices.” They experimented and learned as they went along, he argues. How do you conceive of the design approach to managing outbreaks in everything from global to tertiary cities?
It’s a bit early to take on lessons learned from COVID-19, but you’d probably have a big conversation about the value versus the risks of densification. Clearly densification is and has been the problem with some of this. COVID-19 puts a fundamental challenge to how we manage urbanization. Hong Kong has 17,311 people per square mile. Rethinking density management is a key for long-term survival in a pandemic world, really.
Part of this means thinking about decentralization of essential services. Singapore had to shut down its main hospitals during SARS. Many countries such as Italy are considering door-to-door testing. But we need to also rethink the ways, perhaps digital ones, we test and contain. How would we manage to do door-to-door testing even just in Melbourne alone, with 5 million residents, and in giants like Shanghai and London with upwards of 10 million dwellers? Bubbling up are some core questions about what we’ve been told is desirable urbanization versus what makes sense from an infectious disease perspective.
Here’s a difficult question. Even Le Corbusier, who prized efficiency and movement, understood the value of people bumping into each other. It gives cities their energy and cosmopolitanism its effect. I wonder if you think this decentralized city — a London of villages, Mayor Hidalgo’s 15-minute Paris — will be part of our response in urban form?
Here’s a way to think about it. SARS got some people to think about cities and their connectivity as a fundamental factor. Fast-forward to Ebola and that got people to think about the coexistence of cities in the Global North and South, and the ferocity of the city itself — the impossibility of just cordoning it off. The city is not a thing: it’s an amorphous blob.
Fast forward to now, and we’ve moved beyond Global North-Global South thinking. It’s one very large system, given it’s really about that connection between, for example, [the Italian village of] Codogno and the outskirts of Wuhan. Hopefully this gets us to think about some fundamental principles.
We need to begin with a new imagination of the urban data we rely on. The best thing a professional probably looks at in this moment is Johns Hopkins’s CSSE aggregator of information. It splashes together data sources from WHO, NHS, and so on. Many national governments’ “official” numbers lag, so there’s better information by aggregating different sources of information.
But this also brings into play the current digital revolution and the challenges of evidence that has different levels of legitimacy. Had this happened not, say, in China but in some place like India with very strong informal settlements, you’d potentially be arguing that something like Slum Dwellers International, which uses local mapping and communities to source data, would probably be the best-suited entity to support the collection of information. You’ve gotten something there about the legitimacy of different types of urban knowledge and the need to rethink who are the right sources of it.
Moving from that information to changes within the built environment again, we know the management of water and waste helped remake cities. Can you predict the area where we might see a radical transformation coming out of this?
We must remember you will be weighing such changes in the context of climate change and sustainability as well. If you spread the city rather than densify, that would have to go with much better connectivity of public transport. What should change — the decentralization of services, better managing of supplies, nets of smaller entities in food delivery, for instance — is different from will. Will market forces sway the things we do towards what’s marketable and economically profitable versus saying this clearly is a call for redundancy in public health and public transport?
One thing I’ve barely heard talked about is the digital response here, which didn’t exist at all at the time of most of our historic parallels. It existed a bit during Ebola, but not in the same size as this. Major services like Tencent and AliBaba can tell you who is sick in your neighborhood, and people are making daily decisions based on the whole digital infrastructure. I come from an hour from the “red zone” in Italy, and family and friends make a lot of decisions based on digital connectivity information.
Modern planning and civil engineering were born out of the mid-19th century development of sanitation in response to the spread of malaria and cholera in cities. Digital infrastructure might be the sanitation of our time.
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Last September, Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald, a longtime foe of police reform, testified before a U.S. congressional committee that the reported “epidemic of racially biased police shootings of black men” is false.
In fact, “if there is a bias in police shootings, it is against white civilians,” she said, citing a recent study released by the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Mac Donald’s take on the study was generous. Its authors, University of Maryland psychology professor David Johnson and Michigan State University psychology professor Joseph Cesario, weren’t actually making a point about police bias at all. The study was about identifying the race of police officers involved in fatal shootings and showing whether or not it matched the race of their victims, not shedding light on motive, Johnson told CityLab. But after the study came out, other scientists in the field criticized its methodology, prompting Johnson and Cesario to concede a mistake in the way they characterized the study.
Despite the apology, the study has continued to fuel a long-running debate of great significance as localities grapple with how to improve disproportionate rates of police violence against African Americans: Is police violence towards African Americans mostly explained by cops’ racial prejudice? The short answer is that it’s difficult to arrive at a scientific conclusion, because the data is lacking.
Princeton University politics professors Jonathan Mummolo and Dean Knox were among the academics who criticized the study and questioned the value of knowing the race of police officers involved in fatal shootings at all. In January, they published a letter in PNAS and an op-ed in The Washington Post stating that the Johnson-Cesario study “was based on a logical fallacy and erroneous statistical reasoning, and sheds no light on whether police violence is racially biased.”
To determine whether racist motivations are fueling police shootings, you would need to know the race of the people killed by police in a given department, and also the race of all the people who police shot, but didn’t kill. Perhaps the most difficult datapoint is that you would also need the race of all the people police came in contact with, but did nothing to at all. This cumulative data is called the police encounter rate, and the scientists who have been studying police violence say that it is the most critical yet most elusive data needed to register racial bias.
In explaining why the encounter rates matter in this discussion, Mummolo and Knox offer a thought experiment with an unrealistic but easy-to-follow fact pattern: Let’s say an all-African-American police force encountered 90 black civilians and 10 white civilians in a given week, and among those encounters, the officers shot and killed five African Americans and nine white civilians. Then, imagine a white police force encountered 90 white and 10 black civilians in a week, and also killed nine white people and five black people.
Both departments are responsible for an equal number of lives from both races taken. However, the percentage of lives taken in each race is different when the encounter rates are considered: The black police force shot 5.6 percent of the black civilians and 90 percent of the white civilians they encountered, while the white police force shot 50 percent of the back civilians and 10 percent of the white civilians they encountered.
Viewed through the lens of the thought experiment, one can see why it’s inaccurate to say there is an anti-white bias or any other kind of bias in police shootings, as Mac Donald testified.
“I’m not happy with the way that [Mac Donald] characterized our study,” said Johnson. “She characterized it as if we gave information about bias on the behalf of officers. We’re not trying to make statements about the likelihood of being shot by police officers if you’re black, and we don’t have the data to do that.”
But he and Cesario made the mistake of writing in the study’s statement of significance that “White officers are not more likely to shoot minority civilians than non-White officers.” In a response to critics published last August, Johnson and Cesario wrote:
We should have written this sentence more carefully. … What we should have written was a sentence about what we did estimate: As the proportion of White officers in a [fatal officer-involved shooting] increased, a person fatally shot was not more likely to be of a racial minority. This was our mistake, and we appreciate the feedback on this point.
While Johnson says their study was not intended to infer racial bias, Mummolo is concerned that leaving the bias question unresolved has consequences, such as leading policy influencers like Mac Donald to make their own incorrect inferences.
“I don’t know what [Johnson’s study] teaches us,” says Mummolo. “It does not teach us that one [racial] group of officers is more or less likely to shoot, and we all seem to agree on that now. They say there’s this absence of a correlation, but that could mean any number of things. Without the other information and the data that are missing, there’s just no way to say what it means.”
Johnson agreed that having the encounter rates is important, but not for the purposes of his study, and he and Cesario are standing by the utility of the analysis, as seen in their reply to Mummolo’s PNAS letter. What the study tells us if nothing else, said Johnson, is the racial demographics of the police officers involved in fatal shootings, which he says has not been previously accumulated in any nationwide studies on police violence.
“I want to stress how hard it was to get information about these police officers,” said Johnson. “It took over 1,800 hours requesting information from police, looking at legal cases and legal documents as well as media accounts. We didn’t know any of that before we started on this analysis.”
It’s debatable what simply knowing the race of the officers tells us. In the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, people are concerned with how to eliminate anti-black prejudices, if that’s what is driving cops to be more violent towards black people. And an anti-black bias can come from a cop of any race, including black. According to Phillip A. Goff, president and co-founder of the Center For Policing Equity, the data on officer characteristics are neither unprecedented nor necessary for understanding police violence.
“Nobody who had done responsible analyses of this would be surprised by that,” said Goff, “because as they admit in their paper, black officers are more likely to be patrolling in black neighborhoods. So of course they’re more likely to shoot black people because of proximity. If that is their only argument, then they are saying, ‘We have nothing novel to say.’”
What they all agree on is that there is too little data collected on police violence—the Calvary hill that almost all studies that attempt to address police brutality and racial bias get crucified on. Mummolo said that it is possible that there are ways for academics to get close to police encounter rates, such as by using traffic camera footage in some instances, or using responses from the Police Public Contact Survey. But these would still fall short of the data needed to draw solid conclusions about race and policing.
“The rigor around the science of racism and discrimination is less than it should be, on all sides, and it reduces science to conversations about ideological entrenchments rather than about novel discoveries about the way that the world is shaped,” said Goff. “That makes us all less well-positioned to improve the world as we find it. We should feel badly about that, and we should do better.”
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After the trick-or-treaters have gone home, what becomes of the Halloween pumpkins that have outlived their decorative purpose?
You might be tempted just to throw them all away—and that’s certainly what many people do. Every year, more than 1 billion pounds of pumpkin get tossed out and left to rot in America’s landfills. Some are thrown away the day after Halloween, contributing to the 30.3 million tons of annual food waste in the U.S. When left to decompose in a landfill, that food waste produces methane gas, a greenhouse gas that’s far more potent than carbon dioxide. (It’s not just in the U.S.; the Guardian reported that in the U.K., people are expected to throw away a record 8 million pumpkins this year.)
That’s why cities and environmentalists are encouraging residents to find other ways to say goodbye to their gourds. Pumpkins are, after all, a fruit, and uncarved ones can be used as food for people and animals. Composting pumpkins, meanwhile, can capture nutrients and water that can be put directly into parks, gardens, and farms.
In Illinois, the recycling and composting nonprofit Scarce has been hosting a one-day pumpkin collection after Halloween every year since 2014. The organization has 31 collection sites at public spaces across the state—including churches, libraries, schools, and parks—and since its first event, it has saved 254 tons of pumpkins from landfills. In 2016, it collected 56 tons of pumpkins, according to its website, and with gourds being 90 percent water, that means that year, the organization diverted nearly 12,000 gallons of water back into the state’s soil.
Smashing #HRPK’s carbon footprint & records! Thanks to the 1,200+ of you who smashed 2,000+ pounds of pumpkins at today’s Pumpkin Smash! Our Community Compost Program will turn today’s 🎃 into nutrient-rich compost for Park plant beds, supporting a greener HRPK. pic.twitter.com/bQOAH1SG6t
— Hudson River Park (@HudsonRiverPark) November 2, 2019
And then there are the rituals of getting groups together to jump-start the decomposition process… yes, we’re talking about smashing pumpkins. In Tucson, Arizona, residents enjoy the spectacle of pumpkins getting flung into the air via giant slings. Newton, Massachusetts’s first pumpkin smashing event used pumpkins for basketball and target practice—but the most popular event, as the Boston College newspaper noted, is an open field where people simply throw their pumpkins on the ground. (The remains are collected and composted after the fun is over.)
When Hudson River Park’s Community Compost Program held its first pumpkin-smashing event last year in New York City, it brought more than 500 people together to break down nearly 1,000 pounds of organic waste. The city of Elgin, Illinois—35 miles northwest of Chicago—meanwhile, has held such an event for the last four years, and said its 2018 event kept 3.72 tons of pumpkin out of the landfill, up from 2.96 tons in 2017, according to the Chicago Tribune.
And so it begins. #PumpkinsforthePeople is on! Through November 16th, we’ll be rescuing jack-o-lanterns for #compost, and donating edible pumpkins to friends including @FoodPrintsDC. https://t.co/HZKxT3eTmp for more info, to volunteer, or to receive pumpkins. #squashfoodwaste pic.twitter.com/2eJ8G4M90i
— Compost Cab (@CompostCab) November 1, 2019
Saving pumpkins from the landfill can also help tackle food insecurity. Howden pumpkins, the variety used in carving projects, aren’t the tastiest on their own, but can nonetheless be used as ingredients in soups and desserts. In Washington, D.C., the company Compost Cab, which offers composting services to residents and businesses, hosts a program each year where it collects whole, un-carved pumpkins and donates them to community anti-hunger organizations. In 2018, Compost Cab collected five tons of pumpkins, 3,000 pounds of which went to hunger-fighting groups. The company also provides educational programs teaching kids and their families how they can cook their own pumpkins.
As for carved pumpkins, they can still be a treat for farm and zoo animals. In Missoula, Montana, members of the nonprofit compost group Soil Cycle have gone from house to house, knocking on doors and collecting unwanted pumpkins to send to a local farm to be used as animal feed. Last year, according to the organization, the group collected 2,000 pounds of gourds. In Little Rock, Arkansas, the city zoo is asking for pumpkin donations to give to its animals. The Oakland Zoo in California also lets its animals destroy and devour leftover pumpkins.
A whole, uncarved pumpkin can last a long time—up to 12 weeks, according to NPR. Its usefulness is usually much shorter than that after Halloween, but there are plenty of ways to keep it from becoming just another piece of produce rotting in a landfill.
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