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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.

Nels Nelson—Delft, Netherlands

Density without associated quality infrastructure and affordable housing results in overcrowded homes, schools, workplaces, and transport. From an environmental perspective, the urban development community has focused on increasing density to reduce travel distances and improve the efficiency of infrastructure, but this must be done while considering the other co-investments necessary for services and amenities.

Population density does influence the number of contacts a person is likely to have; however, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that density does not necessarily equal transmission. For example, while Manhattan represents the densest area in New York City, the highest percentage of patients testing positive for COVID-19 are in the less dense outer boroughs like Brooklyn, the Bronx, Astoria, and Queens, which could be related to the relatively higher quality of services and housing in Manhattan. In terms of amenities, cities should pay attention to housing stock quality and quantity, the number of people living in the same room, the density of workers in workplaces, and the density of children in schools.

Where people live versus where they work in the cities can also create vectors for spreading diseases. Scientists linked the spread of tuberculosis in Cape Town to close contact in cramped and poorly ventilated minibuses, highlighting the potential contribution of transportation investments on reducing infectious disease transmission. Levels of service for walkways, waiting areas, and transit as a higher priority than level of service for vehicular travel. Cities should be thinking about how people interact with transport options themselves. If there is a step up onto a bus or subway, the handrail needs a disinfectant protocol. Contactless payment should be prioritized. Higher levels of service on buses and subways can ease crowding.

Monitoring and surveillance have the power to predict outbreaks for enhanced prevention. While no systematic disease-surveillance programs were in place to effectively understand the 2014 Ebola outbreak, a Swedish computer model based on weather patterns accurately predicted a Dengue outbreak in 2011. The growing field of digital epidemiology can leverage investments in big data—a common feature of the urban resilience agenda—for effective communicable disease early warning systems. Beyond early warning, more mayors need to have targets and indicators linked with communicable disease risk factors (water, sanitation, primary health coverage, disease vectors) as part of their priority dashboards.

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.

Alan Kerr—Wellington, New Zealand

I am sure that we’ll look at urban design and planning differently post COVID-19. It is important to note, however, that we rarely can start projects with a completely blank slate. Urban areas have evolved over centuries and will continue to evolve but I don’t envisage any form of post-urbanist revolution. Cities and urban areas have always had issues—crime, pollution, disease (the great plague in London killed about 25% of the population in 1665-66). However, people continue to live in cities because of the opportunities that living and working with other people provide.

I think that there will be some changes, however, and the scale of these will probably depend on how long the effects (health and economic) of COVID-19 are felt. Data from the SARS pandemic in 2002-03 indicates that public transport use in Taiwan/Hong Kong recovered to pre-SARS levels within about three months. The effect of COVID-19 is likely to be more significant as governments release restrictions slowly. I suspect that we’ll see increased home working for quite some time, and that this might lead to a response in the built environment. Urban units may become larger to provide for improved working space. Smaller public spaces for small scale interaction may become more important—European style medium-density sustainable communities, may become more popular. Retail spaces may tend to become smaller and more community focused in nature. Cities may become more like inter-connected villages.

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. As Alan notes above, 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.

This is the second 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. The first focused on pandemic prevention. Next Up: How will our approach to urban infrastructure design be different post-COVID-19?

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