The cities that come after

When invaders started attacking in 290AD, the Romans built defensive walls. Those walls defined the city’s limits for the next 1500 years. Amsterdam’s famous canals defended the city from invasion as well as flooding. In Hong Kong the power lines are buried – not for aesthetic reasons (though it has that benefit), but to make sure the lights stay on – even in a typhoon. Tragedy shapes the built environment in deep and lasting ways.


Contagious illness is no exception. Heading north from downtown Manhattan, for example, the winding neighborhood streets give way to the straight, wide avenues that lead to Central Park. Both are legacies of cholera and typhoid: underground sewage pipes run beneath those long, straight avenues; Central Park was born out of concern for public health.


What impact will COVID-19 have on cities – and building – in the future?

We talked with board members and experts of the Holcim Foundation – including some of the world’s most visionary leaders in sustainable building – to hear their thoughts.

Maria Atkinson, Co-Founder of the Green Building Council of Australia, has her sights set high. “The crisis already shows what can be achieved with a strong common purpose," she observes. COVID-19 could create the consensus for large-scale change toward more sustainable cities.

Stuart Smith, Director at Arup, Germany/UK, agrees. He observes that the pandemic has broken the grip of routine, allowing us to think afresh about what we want our cities to be. For many urban populations, life under lockdown is already driving an appreciation for higher air quality, lower traffic and less crowded spaces.

This opens up the space to re-think the buildings themselves. “We all considered offices as essential, but this crisis made offices redundant, or at least something we could do without, almost overnight. Our buildings must be flexible enough to handle whatever may be around the corner,” Smith says.

Marilyne Andersen, Professor of Sustainable Construction Technologies at EPFL Lausanne in Switzerland, makes a similar point for a different setting. “Our homes will need to be more flexible as remote work becomes mainstream, as will our universities.” She imagines homes that can easily pivot between work and leisure, with more emphasis on natural light and air quality. Universities will move from large-scale auditoriums toward flexible, comfortable and stimulating spaces that encourage interaction.

Erwin Viray, Head of the Architecture Sustainable Design Pillar at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, emphasizes the growing importance of the relationship we have with digital tools: “They become crucial for the way we are connected, distanced, fed, kept alive, entertained and part of the working process.”


The post-COVID city

Meisa Batayneh Maani, Founder and Principal Architect at Maisam Architects & Engineers in Jordan, imagines the transformation of cities as we know them as they improve air quality, reduce contact points for virus transmission and build local resilience. The city could be a network of medium-density, mixed-use neighborhoods, replacing today’s common configuration of dense commercial centers combined with low-density suburbs. Retail could shift away from superstores and hypermarkets to online shopping, boutiques and local markets. Mass transit could simultaneously be made more efficient and green, while becoming less crowded. Food and energy production could be brought within city limits, for example through vertical farming and small-scale solar installations.

Kaarin Taipale, architect and urban researcher in Finland, is also expecting radical changes to cities: “Financialization and tourism will no longer be the strongest drivers of urban development – the citizens belong in the driving seat.”

Fernando Gonzáles Piris, architect in Spain, calls the pandemic “a wake-up call for our profession to reconsider the role of public space and way that built space is constituted.” And with regard to materials, Nada Nafeh, urban design researcher in Egypt, adds: “We will go through a revolution in terms of designing antimicrobial building materials.”


Darker futures

The experts are well aware that COVID-19 could just as well slow or even reverse the trend toward sustainable urbanization. “I am very concerned that we will see a return to the car, the suburbs, longer distances and private land,” says Enrique Norten, Principal and Founder of TEN Arquitectos, Mexico/USA. “In an extreme form of this scenario,” Norten continues, “only those without an alternative would stay in the city – to inhabit the uninhabitable.”

Before the pandemic and surely after, people will look to cities as centers of creativity and innovation. And as Andersen points out, in addition to revealing the benefits of clean air and decongestion, the pandemic has also exposed the costs of isolation. For cities especially, the serendipity and creativity of human interactions must be nurtured. “Humans crave connection,” Andersen says. “A screen-based world makes time pass, but it doesn’t make us happy.”


Which way forward?

Will COVID-19 open the way for cities to become more sustainable and resilient, even more creative and innovative? 

Or something else?

The answer will be critically important not only for the cities themselves, but in shaping our ability to meet global challenges such as poverty and climate change.