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A global view of design and urban planning post-COVID-19 (Part 2): Changing perspectives

April 27, 2020

How will we look at workplace and urban design differently post-COVID-19? Global leaders share their thoughts.

We asked an international panel of our experts to weigh in on several topics focused on the impact of COVID-19 on urban planning and design around the globe. This is the second of a four-part series featuring their answers.

Today’s question: How will we look at workplace design and urban design differently post-COVID-19? (e.g., How will we balance designing communities with residential and commercial spaces with the needs and infrastructure necessary for supporting remote working? And how will we address spaces for bringing people together to build community, with the need for potential social-distancing requirements?)

Pandemics have a history of disrupting and altering life in cities and communities. Though being deeply destructive, they have led to great improvements for the life of city dwellers. Examples range from changes in policies and legislations, to investments in the public realm, sewage management, indoor ventilation, and clean drinking water.

Pandemics and climate crises have a similar disruptive impact on societies—think of the impact of droughts or flooding. In today’s world, both must be taken into consideration due to their increasing probability. Cities are part of the solution.

Arnhem, Netherlands

Health as well as resilience is closely related to three factors:

  • Physical health
  • Social well-being
  • Economic well-being

The community plays an important role in good health, and interaction and communal spaces to meet are crucial to well-being. This could seem contradictory to the prevention of pandemics, but health and resilience—things that make us happier—are critical to fight a pandemic. It requires continuous effort to keep the balance between these factors.

The response to COVID-19 and the impact on urban planning will shift over time. The short-term response should focus on damage-control, prevention, and reducing the impact. Human behavior and protecting the individual have high priority.

Mid-term focus and investments should aim on improving livability and resilience in cities, reducing polluting mobility, strengthening socioeconomic well-being, and reintroducing the community-scale in high-density housing areas.

Long-term planning and investments should be focused on the big impactors of healthy environments, socioeconomic well-being, inclusiveness, as well as substantial green space, clean living and a circular and inclusive economy.

Pandemics have a history of disrupting and altering life in cities and communities. Though being deeply destructive in themselves, they have led to great improvements for the life of city dwellers.

Wendy Rabel—Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

In reacting to COVID-19 and its effect on day-to-day life, perhaps the biggest shifts are required of employees who are working outside the office for the first time, as they recontextualize their home environment on the fly. And for leaders, the challenge to maintain engagement of their teams in a completely virtual space requires a shift in mindset and a pivot to managing from a distance. There is no playbook for these changes, and we are all being stretched outside our comfort zone.

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Often, the stretch is where we discover the opportunity to change our thinking. We are in a unique position to reimagine the workplace—both the physical space and the concept of how we accomplish our work each day. The conditions of the pandemic have created a forced global pilot of a virtual workplace: from setting up an ergonomic and functional home office where we can be productive, to balancing the demands of work and personal life, to finding effective, meaningful ways to connect with colleagues, and how we manage talent. The world of work will be forever changed by the events of 2020. 

We will have the opportunity to redesign the workplace when we return to it and the choice to keep the best of what we discovered under the most challenging conditions in a generation.

Tom Young—Montral, Quebec, Canada

The pandemic has revealed some interesting truths that we probably always knew but rarely tested on such a scale.

Firstly, e-working works well for some types of work. Office jobs have been able to carry on essentially as they had done before pandemic restrictions. In-person meetings have shifted to email, phone, or teleconferencing, and for many purposes it has worked. We tended to treat e-working as an exception before, usually as a backup option. I suspect this pandemic experience might loosen up many employers to treat e-working as a more acceptable approach, and that could accelerate the shift to smaller office spaces as hotdesking increases. This might lead to a corresponding demand for more home space as people try to set themselves up better to work comfortably from home. Lots of other jobs, though, have had to stop entirely. There’s no e-work alternative for physical labor or many service jobs.

At the same time, it has also underlined the fact that digital interaction mimics but does not replace human interaction, whether at work or in our personal lives. As restrictions wear on, people are feeling more isolated and are craving human contact, even as they try harder to stay connected with friends and family. Some of the busiest spaces I’ve observed during the lockdown have been public parks and open spaces. They’ve become even more important as people use them to stay active and to enjoy the company of other people (with appropriate physical distancing measures applied, of course).

They are extra important for people whose home environment does not offer a garden, or even a balcony. Amenity space, private or shared, may become more important to people when looking for a place to live. Where zoning bylaws don’t require these types of spaces, it might be an opportunity for cities to step in and beef up requirements. Ensuring that good quality public space is available within every neighborhood should be an enhanced priority, especially in high-density or densifying neighborhoods that may not currently have enough to meet demand.

Keith Mitchell, Scott Witchalls—Reading, United Kingdom

All of us will have already read the reports and seen data relating to things like reduced pollution, less travel, reduced economic activity, etc. Also, some of the related anecdotal stories such as now being able to see fish in the canals in Venice or blue sky in parts of Asia for the first time in years.

For decades, we have been tackling the fear of action on big issues such as health, social isolation, and inequality due to a lack of knowledge of the consequences to the economy.

We are now able to start learning, through seeing the consequences of radical societal actions taken in response to COVID-19.

Reading, United Kingdom

What would we find if we looked at the response to the governmental lockdown policies through the lens of the clean-growth grand challenge? What if we examine the action to reduce movement, limit interaction, and reduce resource consumption as a radical means of reducing the impact of humans on our planet? Could this be an unprecedented opportunity to critically and intelligently see what can be learned about the necessary and acceptable actions needed to both improve quality of life and reduce social inequality and the climate impact to future generations?

What has become clear is that we can function with much less physical infrastructure than we all thought we needed. According to a recent Gartner survey, 74% of companies plan to permanently shift to more remote work, so commercial real estate demand could dramatically reduce while delivering the same economic output. Future communities will likely be built even more around digital—not physical—infrastructure. COVID-19 has forced behavior change and has proven that we should not be basing our infrastructure needs on historic or current consumption trends fed into predict-and-provide models.

Valentina Zanoni—Milano, Italy

It is important to propose ideas and projects that help to strengthen relationships of trust. Many recent projects, co-housing settlements with mixed age and socioeconomic groups, have been found to have great resilience.

Mixed housing realities have shown that neighborhood relationships and internal services capable of supporting these small communities can be established spontaneously. A good example is groups of young volunteers organizing home delivery and support services for the elderly.

The presence of shared spaces within these mixed residences—with proper regulations for use—have allowed residents to share IT tools (computers and network access), making them available to those who do not have computers of their own. These spaces also provide the possibility of sharing food services and the chance to avoid social isolation.

The need for protected open space available to the inhabitants within the house or the building—shared space—is a necessity that emerged in Italy during this pandemic.

In this regard, a reflection raised about houses and urban accommodations: the common feeling was a strong need to have a balcony or a small outdoor space that allows residents to be outside for a few hours and for the children to play. For a long time now, living in the city has accustomed us to life in very small apartments, satisfied by the possibility and option to utilize collective services offered by the cities themselves: parks, restaurants and bars, retail, etc. When looking at what has happened during the COVID-19 pandemic in Italy, and looking forward to the future, I believe a reexamination of the flexibility and environmental quality of our urban homes is necessary for us to be better prepared—more resilient—in the future.

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