Starting to reimagine cities post-COVID

More community-oriented spaces, fewer hubs

FROM THE OUTSET, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus drew the world’s attention to the need to quell the pandemic, while the implementation of various shelter-in-place orders became a phenomenon that revealed difficult truths about cities. All the while, the vast majority of the world’s population has altered how they interact with and behave in the physical environment.

The ways this pandemic has changed our daily lives are informing how we should rework our cities to prioritize safety and accessibility. With fewer cars on the streets, many cities have permanently reassigned hundreds of miles of roads for additional bike lane networks and wider sidewalks. Many designers are also proposing an office layout predicated on six-foot physical distancing and contact-free protocols as the new standard for future design decisions.

But we cannot simply take a reactionary approach to designing around the pandemic. The prolonged effect of the crisis has exposed larger, systematic flaws – some driven by institutional racism and inequality – that have been downplayed and inadequately addressed for decades. Neighborhood segregation, a drought of affordable housing, unsustainable land use, the blatant ignoring of climate change, and the pervasiveness of auto infrastructure have created cities that are divided and hurting.

In a post-COVID-19 city, we need to plan for long-term success and stability. The key to making our communities more livable, resilient, and self-sufficient is not about how we respond to the pandemic, but how we integrate considerations sprung from the pandemic into achieving a more holistic outcome.

Modern society has largely evolved from the notion of creating efficiencies. One of the outcomes of this focus has been the development of a massive infrastructural system for motor vehicles. Public recreational space, cycle lanes, pedestrian walkways, and bus rapid transit have been planned and built around this network as piecemeal systems. Planning should, however, happen the other way around.

As a result of the pandemic and the need to create more community-oriented spaces in all neighborhoods for health and relaxation, we have seen local municipalities take action to designate space for alternative modes of movement. Shared street pilots have become a popular mechanism of reclaiming space for bike and pedestrian use throughout the day. Moving forward, there must be even greater focus on diversifying how residents move throughout their community and on creating multi-use paths that bolster equity, walkability, and wellbeing.

 So much of development in the last few decades has focused on creating transportation, cultural, medical and financial “hubs.” The unbalanced distribution of these mega-centers in cities have made the advantage of urban life exclusive to those that have the resources to access them 24/7. Big city hospitals, urban parks, and financial centers draw in residents from surrounding communities for patronage. However, the COVID-19 crisis has proven that many of these spaces and services are limited by location and capacity. When taking mass transit became a health risk, many communities found themselves isolated. We need to embrace the idea of creating dynamic centers that complement one another, rather than investing in singular hubs.

To create self-sufficient neighborhoods, there will need to be a major reallocation of public funding and significant investment in smaller systems of public spaces, medical centers, working spaces, affordable housing, and schools to serve a greater population.

The surge of unprecedented climate-related storms and public health crises also calls for a built environment that can anticipate such events and respond quickly.

Public space has already adopted a flexible approach over the past decade to allow for ecological, social, and programmatic variations to take place. We should embrace this method and advance our public realm further to not only cater to catastrophic events, but also establish equity. Throughout the pandemic, we have witnessed stadiums, convention centers, and outdoor spaces being quickly converted into treatment centers. These quick conversions beg the question of whether there should also be a more rigorous rethinking for public space utility infrastructure to provide flexibility.

Design tactics that can help a space transform from one use into another are typically seen as “extra costs.” In a post-COVID-19 era, many of these ideas will be considered essential.

As we imagine the future, we need to ask ourselves how we will ensure that design responses benefit our society in the long run and in non-pandemic scenarios. The greatest strengths of urban life are the diversity of social connections and the democracy of opportunity that it offers.

Post-COVID-19 cities will be, and should be, different. Whether we create a dystopian reality built on fear or a more enjoyable, equitable environment for all to celebrate will be dependent on how we act now.

Kishore Varanasi is a principal and director of urban design and Sae Kim is an associate principal at the leading design firm CBT. CBT is an award-winning, Boston-based design firm working nationally and internationally on projects at all scales.