Post-coronavirus: what next for urbanism and placemaking?

Urbanism is one of the few professions that considers the city holistically - so is uniquely-placed to help shape our post-pandemic world

Urbanism and placemaking are one of the few professions that consider and understand the city holistically. 

Urbanists are therefore in a unique position to help shape the new post-pandemic urban ‘normal’ – a transition which is both inevitable and essential.

These transitions can be considered in one of 3 broad categories, in line with the
3 pillars of sustainable development (UN, 2006):-

  • social
  • economic
  • environmental

Social Transformation

One thing the coronavirus pandemic has forcefully underlined is that whilst we may all be in the same storm, we are most certainly not all in the same boat. Even at this early stage of understanding, the analysis of data collated to date on infection and mortality rates already exposes cruel divisions related to age, ethnicity, social status, pre-existing health, and, to a lesser extent, gender.

We are all in the same storm at the moment… but we’re not all in the same boat

The virus is now acting as an invisible divider of society.  Those in groups shown to be most vulnerable to this virus will inevitably have at the very least a residual anxiety of social mixing, if not an outright nervousness, or even an aversion.  In particular mixing with young children – whom data suggests are far more likely to be asymptomatic carriers of the virus – is a particular concern. And not just to those in vulnerable groups, but to responsible parents too.

For urbanists, encouraging social mixing has been accepted for many years an essential key for good urban health.  One challenge will be how we can continue to develop and promote social mixing in the post-pandemic environment, prior to the existence of a more universal safeguard eg. a vaccine. 

Urbanists the world over face very real immediate practical challenges: for example, how do we engage and consult with communities on developing new urban policies and strategies, masterplans, etc, or adapting existing ones, in a communal way when we cannot assure safety in mass gatherings of people in one space, as we need for full community consultation?  Yes, we have a wide range of digital and online tools at our disposal already, but how do we ensure that these are fully accessible, inclusive – and hence properly representative – of that community? Especially when we know that certain constituents in our communities have variable skills, knowledge and access to digital technologies?  How do we promote debate and the development of consensus through digital and online tools which are by nature singular and cannot reflect a real-time face-to-face engagement?  How do we replace the ‘water cooler / bakery queue’ moments – the regular impromptu conversations and exchange of ideas which have proven benefits for productivity, teamwork, community cohesion and resilience?

public consultation in Puebla, Mexico

Those of us who regularly work across continents and timezones were familiar with the pros & cons of “Zoom-working”; but those who have had to suddenly switch to it during the pandemic may already recognise that it is not a 100% replacement for face-to-face communication in a room with other human beings.

Another aspect of society that the current pandemic has brought centre-stage is the impact on mental health and well-being that our urban environments can cause.  Good health is not just about physical condition.  The pandemic will perhaps at last force a major change in the conversation between stakeholders involved in creating our urban environment – in particular those stakeholders who have valued short-term delivery and profit ahead of long-term costs to society.  Urbanists like me, along with supra-national agencies like the WHO, who long shouted about this, must ensure that we drive home the message about the long-term societal benefit of good urban design – including residential space standards; equable quick access to free public space and green & blue infrastructure – to ensure that it is elevated from the ‘nice-to-have’ category to the ‘essential’ category.  The experience of many citizens during this pandemic will have reinforced their understanding of and desire to live in healthy human-scale environments: urbanists can and must support & enable this bottom-up pressure. 

There is no doubt that the vast majority of humans *want* to remain connected to, and supportive of, their communities – as illustrated in the wonderful array of bottom-up community support initiatives that have sprung up in many cities across the world.  In some countries this is being fuelled even more by a growing mistrust of national-level Government, and within some a consequential shift back to trust in government at the local scale.  Urbanists have considerable assets and tools to support of the growth and resilience of neighbourhood-level ecosystems, whilst guarding against the dangers of insularity, or hostility to “outsiders”.

Economic Transformation

Across both the developed and developing world rates of employment have been pounded down as a result of the pandemic.  Whether we have reached the peak of these rates, or how long-lasting these will be, is yet to be established, but the general consensus outlook for the majority of the world’s economies and economic sectors is gloomy.  For many reliant upon the informal economy the crisis is even more stark, with no safety net at all

Formal and informal businesses in Puebla City, Mexico

For towns and cities whose income is reliant upon local taxation, these decreases in local employment rates will feed through quite quickly into declines in tax revenues.  This will create a fairly immediate shortfall of committed or pre-planned funding for ongoing plans and programmes. If there is no substitution from national government, the longer-term ability of municipalities and neighbourhoods to support those in society most impacted by coronavirus may well be strongly-curtailed, and require more imaginative, lower-cost interventions.  We are likely to see an increase in interim ‘urban acupuncture’ schemes to safely re-animate existing urban spaces, or try to stimulate re-use of urban spaces which may become abandoned in the fall-out from the pandemic.

2015 summer Serpentine Gallery, London by SelgasCano

One inevitable outcome of the pandemic will therefore be a greater division, at least in the short-term, between those with economic stability and those without.  Reductions in disposable incomes are most likely to be felt in many of the parts of the leisure economy that many cities have reinvented themselves upon: cultural & tourism facilities, cafes, bars, restaurants may find that, even if they survive the sudden economic shock of extended national or regional lockdowns, their patronage on re-opening is significantly reduced for the foreseeable future.  Retail has already seen a rapid increase in the ongoing shift to online, hastening the existing long-term structural change to our high streets.  What happens when the hubs of our neighbourhoods and city centres no longer have reasons to attract high levels of footfall?  Do they revert to being empty and void of life? Or could this herald a more positive change?

The future for our city’s ‘high streets’ & main shopping areas?

One answer may lie in the physical changes that are already starting to emerge in many of our cities.

Environmental Transformation

The daily rhythm and choreography of our cities has changed over the past few months.  The drop in commuting has significantly reduced vehicular movement and traffic, creating a calmer environment that suddenly feels more spacious and clean – with anecdotal accounts substantiated by statistical evidence of the latter.  Many countries are reporting significant increase in walking and cycling, due to a combination of restrictions on public transport services; nervousness about social distancing and virus transmission on public transport; an increase in available leisure time for those who have temporarily or permanently lost their employment; and the need to exercise for mental and physical health and well-being.  Real-life social media stories have documented the rapid increase in quality of environment and re-colonisation of our cities by local wildlife, fauna and flora

Yamuna River, Delhi: pre-lockdown and now

As highlighted earlier in this blog, the impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of urban dwellers without access to outside space – balconies, terraces, parks, open space – is suddenly now newsworthy to the mainstream media.  We urbanists must seize this opportunity to ensure that the creation of urban environments that support healthier and more active lifestyles becomes the norm, rather than the award-winning exception.

Essential green infrastructure in cities (Arup)

And we urbanists have active allies in this pursuit: we are already seeing cities take advantage of reduced lockdown vehicular traffic to re-allocate space for pedestrians and cyclists.  I’m happy to see my former home city, Manchester, amongst them – taking the opportunity to fast-track delivery of the 2019 £1.5bn ‘Beelines’ strategy, spearheaded by the city’s newly-appointed Cycling Commissioner, Olympic & World Cycling Champion Chris Boardman.

Bruxelles awakes to new permanent cycle lanes created overnight in April 2020

Many global cities are introducing temporary redesigns or calling ideas as to how they can re-open public spaces with safe temporary physical distancing, until a more comprehensive solution to controlling the coronavirus can be found eg. a universal vaccine.  This is even being applied to beaches!  Designers of urban spaces are proactively responding, with new conceptual ideas for for socially-distanced public spaces such as parks.

concept for socially-distanced micro urban food market, by Shift Architecture & Urbanism, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Similar to Manchester, for some cities the pandemic is accelerating existing plans for long-term structural urban change: for example under the leadership of Mayor Anna Hidalgo, Paris has since 2014 set out a long-term mission for a series of major urban adaptations.  The panic-buying and food shortages seen in many cities early in the pandemic served as a valuable reminder that initiatives such as the 2016 ‘Parisculteurs’ (rooftop urban agriculture) are one of the many ways in which urban areas must change the way we use our finite supplies of land to feed our growing urban populations, and in doing so how they are critical tools in climate change, food security and economic resilience.  The experiences for many people over the past 3-4 months will make many wish that the city’s new ‘Le Paris du Quart-heure’ initiative – the notion that citizens should be able to find everything they need for their lives within 15 minutes of their home – was launched & implemented in every city 10 years ago, not just launched in January this year!

In summary urbanists have a unique range of skills, experiences and tools to aide the transition of the world’s towns & cities to the new ‘post-pandemic normal’. I have long been a passionate advocate collaboration and co-working across all disciplines involved in the urban environment, and for social scientists, anthropologists and health professionals to be included within that sphere.  We need to lead the way on building those new professional partnerships – and quickly.