The current pandemic has invited discussion on how urban design could evolve in response to changing priorities.
Around 4 billion people live in cities. High rents compel urban dwellers to live in proximity to others in exchange for job security, while overcrowded commutes are a norm. The current infrastructure across urban services such as transport, housing, sanitation, and amenities is unprepared for a pandemic. This promotes the rapid spread of COVID-19 and changes people’s experience of their cities.
The World Health Organization has concluded that city dwellers are most vulnerable to diseases such as tuberculosis or waterborne and vector-borne diseases (WEF, 2020a). In response to the novel coronavirus, the negative effects of urbanisation are now being highlighted by the intra-urban disparities in public health. Global cities, secondary cities, and urban hubs are at risk of contagion as viral diseases are transmitted via transportation corridors and supply chains (WEF, 2020b).
The pandemic has also challenged neoliberal urbanisation and the commodification of services. Social movements in various cities have previously tried to develop healthy and sustainable ways to cultivate a democratic urban community (Zárate,2020). According to a global survey conducted by GEHL (2020), communities are increasingly relying on their neighbourhoods for physical and mental well-being. Sidewalks, streets, and parks are currently major sources of social life and exercise, as people prefer such accessible areas to maintain their lifestyle.
Future urban designing processes must evolve along with people’s interpretation of urban space post COVID-19.
Future urban designing processes must evolve along with people’s interpretation of urban space post COVID-19. Streets that were primarily designed for cars can potentially incorporate pedestrian facilities and be versatile to be repurposed. Similarly, buildings and urban spaces can be redesigned to allow for flexibility in terms of need. Empty streets, hotel rooms, and community spaces across the world are being used as shelter and security for isolation of homeless people, refuge for victims of domestic abuse, incubation of those infected or temporary housing for frontline workers.
Considering the potential of the ad hoc spaces noted above, a de-commodification of services and goods is eminent in future cities. Exploring transit areas as spaces for public life within neighbourhoods would be a start. Forward-thinking architectural firms have started to work on reimagining certain urban spaces such as Rotterdam based Shift AU’s 4×4 grid model of a hyperlocal micro-market (Stirworld.com, 2020).
Similarly, Austrian firm Studio Precht has proposed a maze-like park (Stamp, 2020). These designs have taken into account social distancing and mitigating contagion as part of their core principles. These examples of future sustainable urban design prototypes can be replicated on unused urban land and in local neighbourhoods.
On a multisectoral level, policymakers, urban planners, strategists, and architects must strive to design cities as urban spaces that are prepared to mitigate and prevent the spread of contagious diseases. This will be possible if cities of the future are reshaped by a narrative that puts redistribution, transformation, and consensual use of urban space at the forefront.
By Samia Khan
A contributor and member of the Public Health Pathways team
29 May 2020