How will our cities change after COVID-19?

There are many things that pre-COVID-19 that we took as “normal” such as going into the office every day, travelling on public transport, eating lunch out and shopping late.

Many city streets have been empty for several weeks with governments planning for opening up the current restrictions to allow people to return to work, shop and eat in cities. The question we have to ask is how will our cities change after COVID-19?

Changes in the ways we live and work
There will be changes in ways we live and work, with people working from home, shopping online and looking to gain more of a work-life balance we will changes in education campuses, office buildings, shopping malls and residences.

SUND Nature Park | Copenhagen, Denmark | SLA | Photographer: Stamers Kontor, © SLA

Working
With the new realisation that many people can work from home without having to “go into the office” every day, there may be a shift by companies to reduce their office space and a greater move to a hot-desking and pods. This will see a reduction in the number of people needing to travelling to business districts by car and public transport opening up opportunities to rethink these districts. Will high-rise office buildings become residential housing? Will declining suburban shopping malls due to online shopping become more mixed-use (office, retail, dining) to cater to working parents who realise they can work remotely but need some separation between work/life but want a shorter commute? Will there be more houses and apartments with studies/offices? The way work has changed and many companies may see the cost benefits of less floor space and work-life balance for employees creating different typologies of working.

Times Square – 20 March 2020 | credit – Flickr Dan Deluca

Open Space and Recreation
During COVID, many states and cities have only allowed people to do undertake essential activities and most importantly exercise in the outdoors has been seen as essential. This is a great endorsement of the importance of open space to cities and the mental health of people. People now place a greater value on open space due to the physical and mental health benefits and the environmental benefits (carbon sequestration, water catchments, etc) that open space brings to its residents.

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All nations park. Northcote.

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People have established new habits of daily walks and this will hopefully see residents will ask for more open space especially parks and green networks as we have seen crowded parks (especially in large parks) as they seek refuge from their homes.

Living in the Square and Streets

We may see changes in the way that we live in our city squares and on our streets. Activities such as outdoor dining are the lifeblood of many cities and tourist districts. Cities will have to grapple with allowing indoor and outdoor dining, there are many issues around physical spacing between diners, servers and pedestrians to consider. There may need to be a reduction in a number of people able to dine outside or allowing greater spacing or no sit down dining areas allowed. This may a temporary issue until either the COVID-19 has disappeared or we have a vaccine.

Square and streets in many cities have 1.8-2.4 metre long benches which do not allow for the 1.5-2 metre physical spacing guidelines. There may be a need to have temporary seating (single or long seats) added to plazas and parks to allow for social distancing and the standard bench may extend to 3 to 4 metres or we may see more individual seats spaced at 1.5m or markers placed on seats. I hope that it doesn’t come to this and that cities use common sense and spend budgets on improving the public realm.

Temporary Measures for Social Distancing

Many cities are looking to create temporary and permanent changes to allow for physical (social) distancing on city streets and how this may manifest itself in our cities?

City governments around the world (Auckland, New York, Paris, London, etc) have announced funding for temporary measures to close roads, widen footpaths(sidewalks) and increase bike lanes in their cities to allow for physical (social) distancing and space for exercise. Some cities are already taking action by temporarily widening of paths and bike lanes to promote social distancing, pedestrianisation and bicycling.

Washington DC, USA
Temporary park in Fosnavåg
Design Firm and Image Credit | karres+brands with Ghilardi+Hellsten arkitekter

New York has announced that it will temporarily close 40 miles of roads with a plan for 100 miles of road closures to provide more space and activity for communities during the pandemic. The majority of the road closures (60 miles) is adjacent to parks.

“These unprecedented times require us to think outside of the box, to be creative with how we look at and utilize the public realm,” said NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver, FAICP. “The additional open space that this plan will provide by way of our parks, their perimeters and so much more, will go a long way at helping New Yorkers socially distance and ensuring our city’s stay safety and health.”

April 27, 2020 – Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Johnson Announce Plans to Implement Up to 100 Miles of Safe Streets

Reassessing Streets

The width of a standard footpath/sidewalk does not allow for physical distancing and is pushing people out into road lanes to ensure social distancing, although cities have announced funding for temporary measures, this is also an opportune time to reassess city streets including lane widths, on-street parking (change angle parking to parallel parking), and bike lane widths. Below are some examples of how a narrow street may change over time.

Standard Street (12m/36ft)
Standard Street (12m/36ft) with temporary sidewalk widening
Standard Street (12m/36ft) retrofitted with permanent sidewalk widening and change to one way with shared zone drop off and parallel parking
Change to Shared Street with rain gardens / infiltration strips and wider paths (12m/36ft)

Cities can take this opportunity to reassess all their streets and see how they can improve circulation and connections to improve the walkability of the cities and neighbourhoods.

Street Crossing and Automation

Around the world, there are many pedestrian crossings that are still manual push-button systems. Many cities have changed these crossings to be automatic from early morning to late at night to stop people having to touch the button and possibly spread the virus. This will become permanent and many cities may phase out push button systems all together especially in activity (business) districts. Expect to also see wider paths, corners and more diagonal crossings (scramble intersection or ‘X’ Crossing) to promote greater pedestrian flows at major intersections.

Shibuya, Japan | Image Credit: Flickr nakashi

Bike Lanes and Shared Paths (Bike, Pedestrians, Runners)
Numerous cities including Milan, Paris, London, Bogata, Mexico City, New York, Berlin and many more are taking advantage of the empty streets and moving forward with creating more bike lanes and cycle highways across their cities to lead a green lead recovery from COVID-19.

Cities are seeking to provide safe (individual) modes of transport for people as they return to work and providing bike lanes is the cheapest and quickest way to achieve this especially as people will avoid public transport until they feel that the transport systems are safe.

Dafne Schippers Bridge | Utrecht, The Netherlands | Bureau B+B
Images | Jeroen Musch, Sybren Lempsink, Maurice Iseger

Some countries are using financial incentives to get people to travel by bicycle including France who have allocated 20 million euro for residents to spend up to 50 Euros at a bike mechanic for bicycle repairs. Also noting that bicycle sales in various countries have increased dramatically during the isolation period with online sales bike on websites like Bike Exchange which saw an 86% increase in sales during March.

Scioto Greenways | MKSK |
Te Ara I Whiti – Lightpath | Design Firm and Image Credit: LandLAB & Monk McKenzie

Wider shared paths (bike, run, walk, skate) will be required to ensure physical distancing in two directions, many shared paths systems are too narrow at 2-3metres wide when 4-5 metres is optimal. Cities will need to look to widen their shared path networks to allow for safe distancing and future increases in activity.

BAU – Urban Necklace in Jiangyin, China | Photography: BAU

Community Involvement and Initiatives

Community Garden | Flick User Karen Blakeman

We will see people become more involved in their communities and requesting more green open space as we have seen parks that have become crowded (especially on weekends) when the people feel the need to go outside and exercise in their local community. This will result in cities looking to create more open space whether taking over streets adjacent to parks or converting parking lots into new parks or upgrading linear green networks (along rivers, train easements and utility corridors)

Community Engagement During A Time of Social Distancing | Image – Design Workshop

After an extended period of isolation, many people will wish to reconnect with their communities and seek out programs such as community gardens, conservation and revegetation initiatives and they look to join non-profit groups and also look to local government to provide funding. Cities will be seeking out tools and different ways to consultant with communities and landscape architects will have to create methodologies to get good outcomes.

Change for the better
This an extraordinary time like no other in modern history with cities grinding to a halt and people taking a pause and spending more time with their families, I am hopeful that we will see many people change their priorities and look at how they can create a better-balanced life with a more active outdoor lifestyle that will have wide-ranging impacts on the health of people and the health of the environment.

Article Written by Damian Holmes is the Founder and Editor of WLA.

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