In the era of Coronavirus, we have seen with surprise and agony the empty public spaces we all love. Those once alive and beautiful places have turned to empty deserted ones. Sadly, this is the reality we are facing right now. But what is the next level impact of “social distancing”? Currently, educational activities, conferences, plays, and even conferences have gone digital. Museums are offering free online tours. How will this crisis affect our perception, as individuals, towards public spaces and private ones on the long term? Furthermore, how can the crisis of Coronavirus reshape city design and urban planning?
Experts are exploring the influence of Coronavirus on different urban and city design issues in the meantime as well as on the longer term.
City Design and Planning
Why we need public spaces?
Public spaces gather people to enjoy various activities. It decreases our sense of isolation and loneliness. Over the years, people have found comfort in public space. This is especially after major events like terror attacks for instance.
Previous pandemics and public spaces
It’s an undeniable fact that facing fast-spreading epidemics can get really challenging for cities. Mainly the difficulty lies in the communities’ great dependence on mass transportation, consumption, and welfare.
The idea of a modern public space as we know it evolved between 1890 and 1918, after the industrial revolution. Then the world developed the idea of public schools, public transportation, and public entertainment. After that, between 1918 and 1920, the Spanish flu pandemic hit. That’s when a similar slowdown and an emptying out of public spaces had to take place.
Density of cities
The issue of density must come to the surface when mentioning epidemics. The overcrowdedness in cities has a major influence on the spread of diseases. But how can we change our city design to be more sustainable in facing epidemics like Corona Virus?
We can see that in her recent campaign, Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has proposed decentralizing or “deconstructing” her city. This proposes that each neighborhood has a mix of stores, homes, office buildings and other uses. Then residents can satisfy most of their needs within a 15-minute walk. Can other cities benefit from such a proposal? Moreover, can walkability in cities make it healthier?
Eugenie Birch, a professor at Penn’s Weitzman School of Design and co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research talks to WHYY about walkability and the density of cities.
Density in Egypt
Dr. Hassan Elmouelhi, senior researcher and lecturer, postdoctoral researcher, TU Berlin, Habitat Unit, and Urban development department- Campus El Gouna talks to Linesmag about the problem of density in Egypt.
“In almost all informal areas, the density is so high, and it is almost impossible for the residents to keep a social distance. Especially for those who earn their living depending on social closeness activities.” Elmouelhi said. He also added that many of those areas lack access to drinking water needed for simple hygiene measures.
Elmouelhi believes that redesigning public spaces is not an option anymore, especially in countries like Egypt. Almost all the Egyptians live in the Nile valley and delta. This represents only 5% of the whole country’s area. He urges that urban planners and experts have to advise the decision-makers on finding ways to push citizens to less dense cities.
City Design after Coronavirus
Will the Coronavirus crisis have a great influence on the economy? Definitely, it will. But how can it make a real influence on the cities’ population?
We talked with Anas Alhowaily, Dr. Eng. in urban development. He has a special opinion on economic development and urban migration as he thinks that we might see a great shift in rural and city design after the Coronavirus.
Alhowaily believes that rural area are the new population magnets, thanks to their economic competitiveness, self-sufficiency and food security. However, with the absence of active control and regulation of urban growth, Alhowaily believes that such a trend will backfire in the long term. This is through the uncontrolled creation of congested and unhealthy environments.
“We must reflect on how we shift our planning system to safeguard the creation of health and well-being.” Alhowaily says.
Infrastructure and its relation to the spread of disease
Throughout history, disease outbreaks influenced the development of the urban design. In the 1800s, the spread of cholera affected the infrastructure of cities. This is when the building of new plumbing and sewer systems became a necessity. Besides the new zoning laws that prevented overcrowding.
Sara Jensen Carr, an assistant professor of architecture, urbanism, and landscape at Northeastern University addressed the unhealthy state of cities in the time of Cholera. In her podcast with The Takeaway, she addressed the lack of waste management plans in the streets. Sewage required major improvements and health measures. Among them is the change from cubble stones to the street pavement to hold fewer germs. You can listen to the podcast here.
A network of parks and open spaces
Eugenie Birch has an opinion on parks and epidemics. Birch believes that in situations like facing the Coronavirus, parks don’t only help people stay healthy. They also serve as safe overflow spaces during both disease outbreaks and normal times.
How will the Coronavirus crisis change the concept of open spaces in city design? Birch explores the idea of having a connected system of open spaces through which people can move. This doesn’t mean each neighborhood will have a little park here and a little park there. In fact, these spaces need to be part of a network. Birch encourages having parks of different scales and different uses.
New measures affecting the design
Transportation infrastructure is the main pillar of the economy. Mainly airports are the pulse of modern urban economic flow. And regarding the current situations, special measures had to be taken.
“New and upgraded airports are being designed to increase security screening lanes and reduce pinch points in passenger flow,” says Arathi Gowda to Fast Company. Gowda is associate director of high-performance design at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). “This, along with automated screening lanes, reduces passenger wait time, congestion, and person-to-person contact”, Gowda said.
In another approach, Changi Airport recently shifted to contactless screening for returning citizens. This is besides using approaches like painting lines on floors or using barriers to ensure social distancing. This can mainly help in large waiting areas. In fact, these measures remind us of those happened after the events of September 11. The design of the airports was changed to fulfill the new security laws. The new measures included more security checks and screens. Therefore, wider spaces were designed.
Coronavirus and the housing inequality
Patrick Condon, the James Taylor chair in Landscape and Livable Environments at UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape, addresses the housing inequality we are currently facing. In UBC News, he expressed how we should quickly resolve this inequality when the Coronavirus crisis is over.
Condon predicts that the upper class will be more after the gated communities in order to seek protection. In hard times of pandemic, that’s when the housing inequality issue is clear. As the serving working class will still have to go to their overcrowded suburban settlements. This will consequently expose them to the danger of infection.
Social Behavior and Spaces
Work offices and online contact
This hard situation we are facing will eventually come to an end. Then there will be those who will be eager to get back to socializing like the old days. On the other hand, there will be others who would find more comfort staying in and managing their life online. How do you think this will affect different aspects of life? How can this affect the conventional work policies?
In her survey with Politico Magazine, Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown and author, addresses the effect of remote socializing after Coronavirus.
Our perspective on public spaces after social distancing
While some believe that people might have found more comfort in isolation and distancing, others believe fear and uneasiness are not to last for long. Experts believe that people would be more eager to get back to their normal life. We would see more activity in neighborhoods and busy street life.
“I think people would appreciate more the necessity of social life after this quarantine,” Elmouelhi says. “They will appreciate more social relations. Accordingly, people would appreciate more public recreational space, where they can gather and enjoy big companies.”
Believing that this will be reflected in the intention of designing public space. “Of course, this is different from a country to another and from city to another, as for instance in Europe public space is already appreciated by urban local authorities, urban designers and the residents. It has to become of higher priority by other countries of the global south as well,” Elmouelhi says.
Back to nature
Currently millions of people around the world are back to appreciating a good walk in the sun. Strolling down the park or having short walks in your neighborhood can benefit you both physically and mentally. Maybe one of these crisis’ silver linings is changing our idea of a public space. We might be more appreciating to open spaces and green areas rather than closed limited ones.
Towards an environmentally considerate environment
Surely Coronavirus will have a great influence on city design. We are hoping that after overcoming this pandemic, we will see a more environmentally considerate world. A world that questions our actions and how it will affect the entire planet. Maybe that will be our only hope and last chance.