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A global view of design and urban planning post-COVID-19 (Part 3): New infrastructure

April 29, 2020

How will our approach to urban infrastructure design be different after 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 third of a four-part series featuring their answers.

Today’s question: How will our approach to urban infrastructure design be different post-COVID-19? (e.g., public transport, density and character, patterns of urban life, physical and mental health facility access, sanitation systems)

Richard Hsu—Taipei, Taiwan

From Taiwan’s experience, the planning of urban infrastructure should integrate the construction of national public epidemic prevention and treatment systems. Hospitals, residential schools, or training institutions should be designed to be quickly transformed into infectious disease hospitals. At Rambam Hospital in Israel, 1,200 underground parking spaces can be quickly transformed into 2,000 beds for patient care within 72 hours. A pivotal decision that allowed this flexibility, was including hospital-grade requirements for ventilation and filtration systems from the beginning of the design process.

On the other hand, how can we combine the transportation system with virtual space planning to be able to quickly reorganize logistics management systems into urban disaster-prevention planning and response? For example, at the beginning of the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, the distribution of basic disaster-prevention materials led by the public sector was immediately crushed. Later, it was taken over by a commercial logistics company—who, with the help of big data—was more easily able to handle the distribution of disaster-relief materials.

Taipei, Taiwan

A bicycle-sharing system also can play a crucial role under an epidemic situation. According to the Mobike Report on Wuhan War Epidemic by the Meituan Dianping Group, a bicycle-sharing system in Wuhan provided services for the travel of 286,000 healthcare workers who took approximately 2.3 million rides—more than 3.25 million kilometers—while the city was under the lockdown and traffic suspension from January 23 to March 12. This study pointed out that the bicycle-sharing system provided more than half of the traffic service occurring, and in combination with the government’s designated epidemic prevention fleet, was able to maintain necessary healthcare staffing under the serious epidemic situation.

Farah Kassab—Abu Dhabi, UAE

Technology and digital infrastructure will likely become another “element of infrastructure” that a planner will need to start delving into and considering when designing.

As I think of this, I wonder what the possible manifestations are of this digital infrastructure once the internet capacity needs to increase dramatically? What are the impacts of having to accommodate this new invisible traffic?

Just as major offices have their own servers, will neighborhoods eventually need their own “server stations” that will support the network but also house the community’s data? Many phone applications have been launched requesting residents to log their movements and daily health indicators to support monitoring outbreaks. This may become the norm, with health authorities having access to this data in order to be able to identify outbreaks in advance.

Technology and digital infrastructure will likely become another “element of infrastructure” that a planner will need to start delving into and considering when designing.

COVID-19 has required us to adapt quickly. E-commerce is dramatically on the rise and we are now utilizing technology and applications that may have been around for some time, but that we may have never needed before. Many of us have also been required to learn how to coordinate projects and presentations via online collaboration tools.

We need to consider these lessons as we think about the new normal. Perhaps an office employee will only need to go to the office once or twice a week for major meetings. As you have gotten accustomed to creating an online grocery order and having it delivered, your weekly grocery visit may be viewed as an inconvenience. It’s likely the need to commute to these daily destinations may dramatically reduce and accordingly result in potentially revisiting traffic and parking requirements for commercial office buildings and public amenity spaces. Similarly, we may revisit utility demand requirements for land uses may have to be revisited to allow for the proportion of time users utilize those spaces.

Nels Nelson—Delft, Netherlands

In the 21st century, cities need to protect their citizens from both noncommunicable and communicable diseases. The goal of addressing communicable disease in cities should be to address the root causes, with projects that efficiently integrate health by attracting new sources of funding from public health, healthcare, and urbanism sources to create a plan for cost-effective interventions.

Understanding cost-effective ways to address communicable disease is important for avoiding extremely costly stand-alone frameworks for disease control. Communities looking for an evidence-based wellness standard, such as equitable access to care facilities, might find the WELL Community Standard useful.

Delft, Netherlands

Darren Davis—Auckland, New Zealand

An increased willingness to work from home—now that vastly more people have experienced this and are properly set up to work from home—could have significant positive effects on demands to travel at peak commute times, which is good for reducing congestion but could have negative effects on funding for public transport.

Alan Kerr—Wellington, New Zealand

Focusing on the transport elements that may need to be addressed, the short-term effects are likely to include a reduction in all forms of travel. The possible exception to this could be active travel demand—during the lockdown there has been an increase in both pedestrian and cycling activity in New Zealand’s towns and cities. This trend may extend beyond the lockdown as people choose to take cost-effective forms of transport that are not perceived to carry the same health risk as public transport. Supporting these moves will be a priority for planners.

Aviation is likely to experience the greatest reduction in the short to medium term as leisure travel reduces due to economic constraints and businesses seek to reduce costs by encouraging more virtual meetings.

Public transport may experience a significant short-term reduction in demand as people are fearful of large numbers congregating on buses on trains. Over time, and if the health effects of the virus can be controlled effectively, I anticipate a significant bounce back in patronage. Municipal authorities may investigate forms of transport that reduce vehicle occupancies if the health-related concerns are more enduring. This may include reducing on-bus capacity for existing fleets, investing in new vehicles with lower capacities, or investigating new technologies that maintain physical distancing between commuters (autonomous shuttles, gondolas, etc.).

“During the lockdown there has been an increase in both pedestrian and cycling activity in New Zealand’s towns and cities. This trend may extend beyond the lockdown." —Alan Kerr.

Jonathan Riggall, Keith Mitchell, Scott Witchalls—Reading, United Kingdom

Prior to this pandemic, we were already seeing radical new ways of approaching the investment, planning, and design of infrastructure in our response to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is truly disruptive and comprises a range of new technologies fusing the physical, digital, and biological worlds in a way that impacts all economies and industries. Examples include the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, 3D printing and satellite mapping, genome sequencing and stem-cell breakthroughs, resulting in technologies such as autonomous vehicles, smart buildings and cities, virtual connectivity tools and faster access to medical data.

The foundations of this infrastructure (superfast broadband, 4G, decentralized power infrastructure) have proven to be critical to communities during the COVID-19 response, enabling many workforces to stay operational, and families to remain socially connected while physically distanced.

We are now in the position to start understanding where the stresses are on that infrastructure. When we plan for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, whether it be the implementation of 5G, autonomous vehicles, or robotic pharmacies, we will do this from a new baseline of information.

This requires us to think differently about this information including using approaches to mine that data using mathematics and computational modelling to support decision making on urban design. 

This requires us to rethink the concept of capacity and supply vs. demand. We need to be developing and applying digital-twin AI tools to scenario test future ways of life and look to optimize our infrastructure in a different way (i.e., instead of “how much capacity should we build to enable everybody to do x at the same time for y economic benefit?” we should ask “what is the optimal minimum infrastructure needed to deliver x economic return whilst ensuring y societal and climate impact?”).

Valentina Zanoni—Milano, Italy

Certainly, in European cities, where urban mobility is mainly based on public transport, a rethinking of shared mobility will be necessary. It is unthinkable to direct our model, based on the sharing of public transport, toward a type of mobility mainly based on private transport. It would be a step back, and it would cause both an increase in pollution and a substantial increase in congestion of traffic circulation—a situation that is already critical in many cities.

One possibility will be to better understand and support through proper planning individual light and ecological choices in mobility, such as bicycles, scooters, and electric scooters.

This is the third in a four-part series devoted to highlighting the views of Stantec international staff around the effects of COVID-19 on Urban Planning and Design globally. Read the first two on pandemic prevention and changing perspectives. The final blog: How can we redesign cities to fight future pandemics? Thinking in time frames: short term, midterm, and long term.

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