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Blurred visions – how cities are coping with Covid

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown up big questions about urban planning, and the extent to which cities are equipped to handle these kinds of challenges. Abi Millar speaks to Subharthi Guha of Zaha Hadid Architects, Alfredo Brillembourg of Urban-Think Tank and Doug Farr of Farr Associates about the urban design flaws that have been exposed and the changes that might be here to stay.  

During the coronavirus lockdowns this spring, cities took on an unprecedented character. With office buildings deserted, shops shuttered and the roads devoid of cars, it was hard to avoid parallels with the post-apocalyptic film 28 Days Later. Never before had the streets been so eerily empty. The air grew cleaner, the thrum of traffic gave way to birdsong, and in some cases wildlife began to recolonise the roads.

Clearly, this version of the city was never going to persist past lockdown. By the summer, many cities were returning to a tentative version of business as usual. However, the lockdowns did prompt a widespread moment of reckoning, and potentially a moment of reset. The quality of our urban planning has been open to scrutiny, with its flaws, foibles and inequalities impossible to ignore.

“Covid 19 has exposed many countries’ medical systems and the need for better public healthcare support and infrastructure,” says Subharthi Guha, an architect and urban planner at Zaha Hadid Architects. “Amenity sectors, such as care homes, hospital support systems and cycling networks, should not be afterthoughts for a city, but should be at the forefront of every city growth model.”

An age-old debate

To an extent, Covid 19 has revived an age-old debate around the relative merits of city and country. The question in point is whether cities are inherently unhealthy places, compared to rural areas. On the one hand, having too many people in close proximity does encourage the spread of communicable diseases. On the other hand, cities typically offer better access to healthcare facilities, and are often better placed to mobilise resources.

In fact, the design of cities has historically been closely tethered to public health initiatives. For instance, the Broad Street cholera outbreak of the 1850s led to the redevelopment of London’s sewage and water treatment facilities. And the ‘garden city’ movement, spearheaded by Ebenezer Howard, was a direct response to diseases like tuberculosis. On the basis of the data we have so far, there doesn’t appear to be a clear correlation between population density and Covid transmission.

Where cities do run into problems is the lack of space. According to research by the Centre for Cities, people in UK cities have an average of 35.3 square metres per person – less than their rural counterparts and an issue during times of physical distancing. The smaller the apartment, the more challenging the edict to ‘stay at home’. It’s no wonder that many wealthy people, aware the lockdowns were coming, attempted to make a getaway to their second homes in the country.

“Covid struck at the core of what makes cities great,” says the American urbanist and architect Doug Farr. “I’m a die-hard urbanist and believe that we are wired to like being close to others and close to things. But with Covid, you’re among the people you suddenly don’t want to be around or shouldn’t be around.”

On top of that many cities lack sufficient parks and open spaces, and others implemented confusing rules around which parks were allowed to stay open during lockdown. With green space at a premium, access to a garden became an issue that separated the haves from the have-nots.

“If your only place to be was either in your dwelling unit or out in the public realm, there wasn’t enough public realm,” says Farr. “There was also lack of preparedness on how to pivot streets from being more or less car dominated to pedestrian and bike dominated.”

Venezuelan architect Alfredo Brillembourg, co-founder of Urban-Think Tank, adds that the pandemic has forced us to think about space at every level – from the importance of balconies in the apartment block, to the need for courtyards in the street. With this has come a re-evaluation of how public areas should be navigated.

“Increasingly, people have taken over the streets and the car is becoming a thing of the past, especially in city centres,” he says. “What I really imagine is a city that is composed of thousands of little electric tuk tuks, that transport you in a more informal way. We could get rid of all this heavy car traffic and designate that as only for certain hours of the night.”

A sustainable direction

With social distancing measures in place, public transit systems have been unable to run at full capacity. At the same time, encouraging the use of cars could spell gridlock on the roads and environmental disaster further down the line. A number of cities, ranging from London to Milan to Mexico City, have taken the opportunity to build new bike lanes and close residential streets to traffic.

“Most modern cities are based on the 1960’s model of car-centric road patterns,” says Guha. “Pedestrianising cities has been talked about by urban planners for many a decade, but this is the best opportunity we have had in the last century to exercise this mission and bring it to reality.”

While Guha concedes this may be a challenge in the context of 1960s urban design, there are many new ideas in circulation and anything is possible with enough governmental resolve.

One concept that’s beginning to gain traction is that of ‘hyper-proximity’ – in essence, meeting people’s needs closer to home. This would involve phasing out vehicles and creating self-sufficient communities, in which all the services you need are just a walk or bike ride away. The idea first emerged pre-pandemic, with the ‘15-minute city’ central to Parisian mayor Anne Hidalgo’s re-election campaign. However, it was given a boost during lockdown as remote working practices took hold.

“I’ve always been very in tune with this idea of working remotely in a larger network that’s more rhizomatic and less static,” says Brillembourg. “I think the future city of the 21st century won’t be the horizontal city of the 20th century, with its extension to suburbia. And it won’t be the vertical city of Dubai and China with its high rises. I believe that the future city will be more of a diagonal, cross cutting the vertical and horizontal, and the most important thing in this new city concept will be mobility. We’ll be assembling to work and live in new ways.”

Spread out

In a similar vein, Guha believes the remote working trend will encourage cities to move towards a low-rise, high-density model. Rather than separating out work districts, residential areas and so forth, we will start to congregate within mixed-use developments in walkable community clusters.

However, sweeping changes of this nature are unlikely to happen overnight. Farr points out that urbanism is not that agile.

“My expectation is that office space allocations will shrink over time, and that office spaces will convert to be residential spaces,” he says. “I think we’ll also see a kind of spreading out of the population – it may be that young people flock into the cities forevermore, while risk-averse older folk move out to lower density places. So the thinking may change, but that doesn’t mean that our built environment will pivot quickly.”

While he concedes we will see some short and medium-term changes, he thinks these will be tactical and directly related to our fear of proximity. For instance, we’ll probably use our streets differently for a while, while buildings and public spaces will be re-kitted to support social distancing.

“For low and midrise buildings, stairs suddenly seem like a very good idea,” he says. “Buildings with 100% fresh air, rather than mechanical ventilation systems, will advertise that fact as a public health enhancement. I think there’ll be a general push to more separation between things, and being able to get to and from a dwelling without traversing a common quarter. It’ll be interesting to look at the projects that are in the pipeline but haven’t been built yet – how will Covid thinking inform them?”

Unfortunately, the economic consequences of the pandemic are likely to persist a long time, especially in the developing world. According to the UN, 1.8bn people worldwide live in homelessness or grossly inadequate housing, many of them concentrated in informal settlements and slums. Brillembourg – whose practice was founded to bring new infrastructure to these areas – feels that secure housing has never been more of a life or death situation, and that Covid-19 will push this up governments’ agendas.

“In order to make cities safe, inclusive and resilient, we need to map these zones of crisis and direct public funding to the areas in greatest need,” he says. “We need to revisit some of those great utopian ideas from the 1960s and 70s about community building and collective infrastructure – that would solve a lot of the issues facing vulnerable populations today.”

It’s hardly surprisingly that Covid-19 has prompted a wave of new thinking about cities. At this stage, it’s impossible to say which ideas are here to stay and which will recede along with the virus. But with ‘the new normal’ yet to be determined, this may be a rare opportunity to enact genuine, ambitious and lasting change.

This is the cover feature for the Summer 2020 edition of LEAF Review

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