How Covid-19 will reshape our cities

Can we contain future pandemics by changing the way we design buildings and urban spaces? 

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A complex set of factors have influenced how Covid-19 has played out across the globe. But despite these variations from country to country, it seems clear that population density and international connectedness have made some areas particularly vulnerable to the spread of the virus.

London and New York – manifestations of the “Big City” par excellence – thanks to their unique combination of high population density and diversity, cultural magnetism, and financial dynamism, were almost inevitably “high-risk”, and both have experienced high infection rates.  

The state governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, identified in his daily press briefings that it was that density, dynamism and sociability of New York that gave it both its unique mojo and its vulnerability to exponential infection. So, what does this mean for the future of urban design?

It was the agricultural revolution that catalysed millennia of relatively small-scale city development, focussed around markets and political power; cities which were themselves vulnerable to plagues and environmental crises.  It was the industrial revolution though that kickstarted the growth of the Big City, in which so much of the world’s population now lives.

Ever since that moment when generations of rural dwellers left the land for good, we have been at once magnetically attracted by the opportunity of prosperity, freedom and vitality offered by the Big City and simultaneously repelled by its impoverished, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.

Urban density seems to come in waves. Back-to-backs were a form of terraced house that dominated the urban landscape across the new industrial cities that sprang up across the United Kingdom from the late 18th century.  These dwellings provided cheap, quickly built accommodation for working-class families who worked in the factories and industrial mills.

They shared party walls on three of their four sides, with only one front wall having an external door and windows. Toilets and washing facilities were in communal courtyards. Concerns soon merged about the lack of light and ventilation and proper sanitation, and as early as 1875 the Public Health Act enabled municipal councils to ban the construction of back-to-backs, but they continued to be built until the 1930s. Most were demolished as part of slum clearance in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

If the attractive forces of employment opportunities, bright lights and mass entertainment and sport continued to fuel city population growth, then the repelling forces of polluted, overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions were also getting stronger.

The Garden City movement sought an alternative. Ebenezer Howard envisioned an urban model that combined the town with the country, to provide the working class a sustainable alternative to crowded and unhealthy Big City life. The movement never achieved widespread adoption, but the commuter garden suburb certainly did, first through the metro lands of London and Paris and then reaching its apex in Los Angeles – the city which is in its essence a collection of garden suburbs. Indeed, the semi-rural, suburban enclaves of LA were often directly promoted at the turn of the twentieth century to "lungers" seeking a recovery from tuberculosis in the clear sun and clean air of the West Coast.

In recent decades, conventional city planning wisdom has returned to increasing urban density. Higher densities of living, grouped around public transport infrastructure, are perceived to be more sustainable than low-density urbanisation. Many former industrial cities have been rejuvenated by bringing back high-density living, enlivening the social and economic fabric.

Our individual buildings have also seen an increase in both density of occupation and opportunity for intense social interaction at close quarters. Open-plan offices and hot-desking create high-density work environments, and no tech start-up, shared workspace or university building is complete without its social hub where the worker and student bees can swarm together for the benefit of the hive.

So, what changes can we expect to see in the short to medium term? Initial reactions to Covid-19 are undoubtedly likely to be driven by emotion as much as science. We can probably expect to see some degree of reactive flight to the suburbs and dormitory towns, as middle-class city dwellers note how lower population densities and access to greenbelt have eased the privations of lockdown for those in commuter land. Building design will adapt to accommodate social distancing, with lower occupation densities in offices, education buildings and perhaps even medical care facilities.

In the longer term, urban spaces may be reconfigured to discourage large-scale public gatherings and we may see more intrusive pedestrian management in the UK’s urban centres with their narrow footpaths and alleyways. At first such changes may seem inconvenient and invasive but, just as with anti-terrorism measures, we will get used to them and architects and designers will get better at their visual integration. Innovative planning, design, delivery and funding models – as demonstrated through the RIBA Future Place programme – will be vital to aid the recovery of communities post-lockdown.

In the midst of a global pandemic it’s easy to lose perspective and forget that the coronavirus is far from the only public health challenge that we face today. The seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) range from eliminating poverty and hunger and responsible consumption and production to establishing peace, justice and strong institutions. SDG7 – creating sustainable cities and communities – sits at the confluence of a large number of the SDGs. That goal must surely be on our minds as we think about the future design of the buildings and urban spaces.

It is striking that so much that has served us well in avoiding previous pandemics and coping with Covid-19 is based upon the physical infrastructure investments of the Victorians, not least municipal parks, and the welfare investments of the post-Second World War period. Perhaps the most important lesson to learn is that we need to continue to invest in updating, improving and making more environmentally sustainable our infrastructure, and to see better and healthier housing as part of that infrastructure investment. Nothing promotes confidence in the future better than building does.

Adrian Dobson is executive director for professional services at the Royal Institute of British Architects.

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