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A global view of design and urban planning post-COVID-19 (Part 4): How will cities change?

May 04, 2020

How can we redesign cities to fight future pandemics? 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 fourth in a four-part series featuring their answers.

Today’s question: How can we redesign cities to fight future pandemics? Thinking in time frames: short term, midterm, and long term.

Gwen Morgan—Plano, Texas, USA

Short term: Projects currently under design or about to be designed should consider how to build in additional flexibility, keeping in mind options for temporary reuse of space and design to maximize cleanliness.

Plano, Texas

Midterm: Plan for and design cities that are resilient and able to respond to unexpected natural forces such as hurricanes or flooding, as well as pandemics. A good example of this type of thinking is the work accomplished as part of the Stantec-hosted Houston Resiliency Workshop, inspired by the AIA Houston 2020 Visions. 

Long term: Perhaps we could maintain our reserved use of resources and see long-term improvements in air quality, biodiversity, and the overall environment for our planet!

Nels Nelson—Delft, Netherlands

Short term: Open more of the street space for people walking and bicycling so they can maintain social distancing. Focus attention on identifying and improving underserved and overcrowded housing, schools, workplaces, and areas in the public realm, rather than demonizing population density.

Midterm: Improve the level of service for all mass transit and active transportation choices, including sidewalks, bus capacity, and waiting areas. Remove unnecessary physical contact within urban systems, such as introducing contactless payments. Double-down on ensuring that everyone has access to public open space and health care services within walking distance.

Long term: Include communicable disease prevention as another evaluation criteria for all infrastructure projects, alongside sustainability, resilience, and community well-being. By addressing the root cause of communicable diseases consistently, cities will be more prepared for the next pandemic.

William Barling—Dubai, UAE

Short term: Maybe this will be the death of “the High Street.” The growth and ease of online shopping without the need to interact may remain and become a way of life.

Events, including sports and concerts, may continue behind closed doors, screened to homes, reducing event spaces. 

Midterm: Advancements in transportation technology were moving toward a growth in carshare and public transport. Will we now see an increase in private car ownership and use to allow for isolated movement in the knowledge that the car has not been contaminated? That would be an unfortunate effect of the pandemic.  

The downturn in the global economy may see a shift from a five-day working week to a three- or four-day week to reduce operating costs and potentially increase productivity.

The best way to overcome pandemic is to build economically resilient cities and socially healthy communities.

Air travel for business and pleasure will decline, with travel being localized.

Economies will reassess their reliance on import trade and ensure food security. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has typically been a country of oil and gas exports, with the import of all goods. Over the past decade there has been a growth in manufacturing and agriculture, although over 90% of food stuffs are still being imported, and the raw materials for manufacturing are shipped into the two main ports of the GCC. With rapidly growing populations, the country requires an increase in homegrown food stuffs, both arable and pastural.

Long term: There may be a shift in the amount of time we interact with others during the day, with more self-isolation through working from home for two to three days of the week, and allowing for hot desking, resulting in limiting the number of staff in the working environment on a daily basis, and the total required commercial space to be leased.

Auckland, New Zealand

Tom Young—Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Short term: As restrictions ease, there will be some significant snapback to old patterns, but hopefully pop-up infrastructure will help retain some of the more sustainable and active patterns that this lockdown has fostered. I would certainly hope that, as with this widespread experience with eWorking, many minds will have been opened to the possibility (and benefits) of doing things differently. Anything we can do to lock in some of those positive behavioral shifts before the memory of this different way of living fades, the better. 

Midterm: The pandemic seems unlikely to cause a revolution in these conditions. But I suspect there will be opportunities to reassess the shortcomings of how we build our cities in the post-COVID period, and that might result in some very positive evolution of urban form. 

Long term: I’m a bit skeptical that we will see a significant shift towards medium density in cities where the history has been for low densities with regenerating pockets of high density such as in urban cores. 

Keith Mitchell, Scott Witchalls—Reading, United Kingdom

Short term: Set up coalition for clean growth and change; promote investment in digital access and communications; establish cross-sector governance protocols; make better use of data through smart cities and digital twins; design in production capable facilities to produce, stockpile, and maintain essential equipment; design emergency access routes and logistics plans; and design places with the required infrastructure on-site, reducing the need to travel.

Midterm: Reassess the way we model our economies and successful communities from a social value and climate perspective, to design in use of autonomy and robotics (transport, production, construction). 

Long term: Integrated design with digital twin systems architecture that has been resilience tested through artificial intelligence—we already do this with weather and climate forecasting, so it’s not beyond possibility, but we need to start building data engines now. Fully autonomous production and connectivity, 3D printed materials, scalable urban agriculture, digitally reprogrammable buildings and spaces.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

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