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.”
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.