Diseases, Cities And The Coming Crowded Future

I’ve been away on assignment, and while I was gone, wow: Suddenly a ton of public important public health news. While I catch up, a quick placeholder, on the importance of cities to the spread of disease.

Recently I was in Dublin, where I gave a talk at the Science Gallery as part of their summer-long, city-wide, interactive and generally fantastic Hack the City celebration. My theme was this:

We think of cities as the engines of civilization — the place where population density stimulates innovation and jump-starts architecture, fabrication, differentiation of trades, commerce, and governance (and politics). But just as they offer new opportunities to humans, cities also offer new avenues by which diseases can attack humans: storage of harvested food, offering nutrition to rodents to rodents; coralling of animals for raising or slaughter, bringing animal diseases into close proximity; concentrations of garbage and waste offering new territory for insects; conversion of flowing water to standing water, so friendly to mosquitoes and waterborne parasites; and mixing of populations, drawn from wider areas and with different degrees of immunity to pre-existing pathogens.

Along the way I talk about some of the great plagues of antiquity, from the fall of the Han Dynasty to the Black Death to the 19th-century surge of cholera in the West. Plus, I look at how the mega-cities of this century recreate conditions that were notorious for fostering disease little more than 150 years ago — and that will become increasingly important as we become a planet of cities, with 50 percent of humanity already living in urban concentrations. (I also recommend these books: Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map and P.D. Smith’s great new City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age.)

Here’s a piece that Claire O’Connell of the Irish Times (who introduced me at Science Gallery) kindly did in advance of the talk, and here’s a podcast from a studio visit to Jonathan McCrea and team at the great radio show Futureproof. Plus, below, video of the talk itself. Enormous thanks to stealth science-communication guru Shaun O’Boyle, who masterminded it all.

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Maryn

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