In Fall 2019, the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University began planning a conference, Care for the Polis: Cities, Health, and the Humanities, to be held in May 2020. Hosted under the joint auspices of the Explorations in the Medical Humanities and the Public Humanities Initiative, this two-day event planned to bring scholars, designers, curators, and caregivers from across the humanities, medicine and design to share their research and experience on the intersections of health, policy, publics, and the built environment.

The meaning of Care for the Polis is both the same and substantially different from when we conceived the project. As we designed the conference, we were motivated to explore the following problems:

Urban environments and infrastructures play crucial roles in defining and mediating health and care. From the effects of metropolitan experience on mental health to the medical apartheids construed through urban segregation, from the healing or toxic powers of high-rise building and high density living to the racialized and gendered networks of care, health is as much a problem of the polis as the city is a category of modern medical history. Meanwhile, urgent policies of contagion raise the stakes of contemporary conditions of city living at a global scale. Ongoing crises of public health and urban inequality only put further pressure on the ways in which architectural and urban design inform the economics, sciences, politics, and public experiences of health.

These questions remain true and pressing. As COVID-19 emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019, the kinds of social, historical, spatial, political and humanistic relations that the conference was designed to afford and strengthen began to require less and less explanation, and to gain more and more urgency. Provoking an unprecedented closure in Wuhan, the virus has since affected cities, institutions, and homes the world over, taking full hold of Columbia University in the City of New York City, the hosts of the conference, in March 2020.

In response to the public health measures put in place globally, Care for the Polis has become an online platform that will serve as a resource for scholars, medical practitioners and designers who, also as members of the public, are grappling with the impact of health policy on the urban environment and on the shape of public and private spheres. Rather than responding to our current crisis with presentism, we intend to provide a media space to showcase and reimagine the humanities’ strengths in thinking about and building publics in its own terms—even from the privacy of the domestic and which include historical reflection, critical analysis, imagination, and attention to feeling. The platform will preserve our original commitment as we designed the conference: to establish a stronger conversation between scholars in the medical humanities and medicine and those invested in urban humanities and urban design. With work and social life forcibly and simultaneously moving into a virtual and a domestic space while the shape of public and urban space rapidly dissolves across the globe, the meaning of Care for the Polis has radically changed. Yet in keeping with the analytical distance we had in originally conceiving the event, Care for the Polis will nurture the critical perspective of the humanities—a distance necessary for understanding our current moment and imagining our future one.