How Cities Will Be Better in the Wake of Coronavirus - Jorge Socarras


5 min read

Forest City project in Liuzhou, China

From the Black Death during the Middle Ages to the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, cities worldwide have suffered pandemics and endured. While the latter killed as many as 50 million people, by the 1920s New York, London, Paris and Berlin made “roaring” comebacks. Now in 2020 city governments around the world are studying and planning ways of making urban life after Covid-19 safer and more livable. As well as the concerns of job recovery, they are also looking to the environmental benefits that resulted from reduced transportation and industry during lockdowns.

Cities have always been agencies for transformation, innovation and progress, factors nourished by their diverse influx of people and the ideas they bring with them. The pandemic however, along with the attendant job depletion, has prompted numbers of people to move out of larger cities. In the US, a recent Harris Poll indicated that nearly a third of Americans were considering relocating as a result of Covid-19. Nonetheless, when cities become less desirable they tend to become cheaper to live in, making it likely that new people will be attracted to them, potentially starting a new growth cycle. Regardless whether populations rise or fall, the common denominator for all cities post-pandemic is that they need to change the way they operate, and many cities are already coming up with new approaches to the challenges.

The first challenge cities have to assume is that of disease preparedness and response, making sure that necessary practices, technology and supplies are in place for protecting the population in a health crisis. As a result, health departments that were underfunded and understaffed will become more robust. Another critical concern cities have to address is housing. With 1 billion of the world’s people living in slums, many of them densely populated and with limited or no access to basic necessities, cities need to create secure, affordable housing, as the lack thereof results in disproportionately high incidences of contagion in a pandemic. 

One of the biggest changes in city life is the way we work, shop and do business. The pandemic having already necessitated working from home for many people, working remotely will continue to be either an option or requirement across different fields. This together with the digitization of services such as retail and delivery, and increased dependence on robotic technology and production will transform concepts of workplace, business, and even how we see a doctor. A continuing shift towards a cashless economy can also be expected, as is already the case in Stockholm, eliminating problems and inconveniences relating to accounting, banking, and cash crime. Asides from making cities safer health-wise and crime-wise, all these workday changes also interface with improvements in the transportation sphere.

The pandemic offered a glimpse of cities as walkable, vehicle and pollution-free that has set a new standard. Strategies for minimizing traffic and air pollution are being expanded and accelerated in an effort to promote public health, safety and comfort. As well as increasing and/or redesigning public transit, many cities are widening sidewalks and creating more pedestrian spaces, allowing for social distancing while encouraging less dependence on automobiles. Most evident perhaps is how cities are re-configuring streets for biking. From Oakland, California to Bogota, Columbia, and New York City to Paris, hundreds and hundreds of miles of streets have been closed to automobile traffic to allow for biking. The Scottish government is investing £10m in walking and cycling routes. Milan, one of the cities hardest hit by coronavirus and among the most polluted in Europe, is adding 22 miles of new roads to ease traffic and facilitate biking, while Barcelona is adding 13 miles of biking lanes and 30,000 square meters of pedestrian space. All around the world, urban spaces are being re-imagined.

Bubble dining in Vancouver

City dining, leisure and social life are all looking different as well. Along with the boom in food delivery, the experience of eating out is also changing as restaurants take measures to make diners feel safer and comfortable. One Czech architectural firm has come up with “Gastro Safety Zones” that utilize brightly colored markings to keep passersby at social safe distance from al fresco diners. In Canada, dining in transparent bubbles has caught on from Toronto to Vancouver. With six feet (or 2 meters) becoming the new critical unit in public and recreational space, designers keep coming up with new solutions. In Milan, a leading city in urban design, Antonio Lanzillo has designed public benches with plexiglass dividers, while Umberto Menasci’s plexiglass boxes give beachgoers private space. Cities are also likely to see widespread proliferation of automatic doors and even hands-free elevators. Cinemas, concert and events venues are all also having to be rethought if they are to survive.

Antonio Lanzillo bench design

All these challenges are opportunities to build back better, and cities such as Amsterdam, Bristol, and Melbourne are developing plans that prioritize climate resilience. In France, President Macron has mandated that all state-funded buildings be at least 50% wood, and Japan’s Sumitomo Forestry Company proposing a 70-story wooden tower for Tokyo. Because concrete is a source of up to 8% of the world’s CO2, new techniques in timber engineering position it as a cheaper, more flexible, and surprisingly safer alternative to steel and concrete that significantly reduces the carbon footprint of new buildings.

If green space was already a priority in urban development, post-pandemic it’s essential. Baltimore has set a goal of 40% urban tree canopy, with 4,000 new trees already planted throughout the city. Milan’s “Library of Trees” provides a huge green space in the heart of the city. Brooklyn’s 19th century Domino Sugar refinery has been transformed into a 6-acre park with white circles on lawns marking safe social-distance spaces. Sydney’s One Central Park high-rise towers are covered in plants and have mirrors that redirect sunlight onto its lower levels. In Toronto, building developments over a certain size are required to install green roofs, which asides from their aesthetic appeal, release oxygen, help prevent flooding, and can provide food for people and habitats for birds and bees. In Liuzhou, China, the world’s first “Forest City” is being completed. Designed by Stefano Boeri architects, it will be house 30,000 people and harbor a million plants and 40,000 trees, absorbing 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide while producing 900 of oxygen annually.

Domino Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

The continuing movement towards more public green spaces, improved public transportation and walkability, less air pollution and water consumption, more renewable energy and city-wide recycling will make cities more appealing than ever. What’s more, better cities will create more jobs. A recent United Nations report on the future of urban planning determined that in the aftermath of the COVID-19, creating greener, environmentally friendly cities and transportation will create 15 million jobs worldwide.

Milan’s Vertical Forest

Among the most promising developments post-pandemic is the C40 Task Force. Comprising leaders from 25 countries, their unified mission is to coordinate a green response to the pandemic, with C40 cities making climate action and sustainability an integral part of their future. The first tenet of the C40 mission reads: “The recovery should not be a return to ‘business as usual’.” Indeed if cities take the opportunity to build better, they will not just recover from the pandemic; they will come back stronger.

To see how your city can invest in environmental initiatives, check out the Green Cities campaign.

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