The healthy city
Five lessons from pandemic
Under lockdown, social distance and indoor life became the new normality with drastically reduced public life. How should we design cities to respond to the next pandemic? We answered this question through 5 lessons showing that we can respond to pandemics by pursuing healthier, more resilient cities.
Urbanity: advantage or penalty?
Cities are systems that concentrate essential services in densely urbanized and highly interactive territories. Transportation, housing, sanitation, businesses, and education represent the "urban advantage" that is accessible to city-dwellers.
Nevertheless, interaction and density have recently appeared to be dangerous and the cause of a sort of urban penalty. Under the lockdown for the coronavirus pandemic, social distance and indoor life became the new normality, the only way to keep cities safe, with drastically reduced to non-existent public life.
Are desert cities still cities?
Although this situation is extraordinary, it's worth asking how to design cities for any future pandemics and how to increase the urban resilience to such events through urbanism and architecture.
Urban resilience is the city's ability to withstand contingent stresses through adaptation, but also of developing longer-term transformation through a deep change in the system. The recent sanitary crisis made evident what this "deep change" is for contemporary cities: the transition towards environmental, social, and economic sustainability.
The five lessons for healthier cities we learned from the coronavirus pandemic are, in fact, lessons for increasing urban resilience.
1. Affordable housing
Staying home has been crucial, but not an option for those who cannot secure a shelter.
As individual households are the space where security, peace and dignity begin, guaranteeing access to affordable housing means providing the base for the community to thrive. The actors and institutions involved in improving access to affordable housing span from the Government, to the private sector, the third sector and community-led organizations.
By reducing construction and operations costs, unlocking low-cost financing and diversifying property arrangements (e.g. home-ownership, social rental housing, private rental housing, co-operative housing, etc.), it's possible to broaden the accessibility to the fundamental right to housing.
2. Safe public space
During the past weeks, squares, parks and streets have looked like post-apocalyptic, empty scenarios. As life starts to get back to normal rhythms, we seem to enjoy these spaces even more than before.
Easing pedestrian flows through wider sidewalk sections can turn useful in a situation when social distancing occurs: more space available allows for increased distance, while still being able to enjoy a little walk. During pandemics, and always, well designed squares and plazas are precious areas where families and individuals can seek comfort outside the house and see the life happening around them.
Similarly, it's wise to provide opportunities for shared use when it comes to semi-public spaces in residential buildings: collective gardens, terraces, rooftops. Even when gatherings are not allowed, having a common space to share with your close community represents a resource for times of isolation.
3. Preserving urban ecosystems
To prevent density from being an urban penalty, blank spaces are needed in cities. Open visuals, urban voids, green infills, buffer zones shouldn’t be leftovers from the built space, but rather planned as vital infrastructures that ensure positive interplays between built and ecological components. These mutual exchanges are known as urban ecosystem services.
Where urbanization takes over natural habitats, nature will eventually respond: floods caused by the impermeabilization of soil, urban heat waves, and spillover effects at the base of virus transmission, caused by the loss of biodiversity.
Considering cities as ecosystems means acknowledging the vital interrelations between natural and built components and providing the adequate space for a safe coexistence.
4. Air quality
As all transports had drastically reduced, clear, blue skies have been the one good thing of the past lockdown. It took us a pandemic to enjoy some clean air in cities. It is well known that air pollution is a major risk to the health and scientists confirmed that it worked as a flywheel for the viral transmission of Covid-19 as well.
The World Health Organization prescribes the limits for fine particles (PM 2.5) but these guidelines are still largely unattended. More than half of the world population is experiencing an increase of particulate matter, and poor air quality is affecting the more sensitive groups within a city, like children, the elderly, and people with respiratory diseases.
In light of the connection between air pollution and coronavirus mortality rates, it's even more urgent to adopt solutions to improve air quality. Besides switching to cleaner transports, a simple solution is planting more trees along the roads. A study from the University of Helsinki revealed that the air was cleanest on the street level with rows of trees of variable height situated along a boulevard-type city street.
5. Global partnership
Despite international closures and feelings of isolation, the key to overcome global problems keeps being global partnership. Cities are interconnected to each other because of the vital collaborations across governments, agencies, and institutions.
In a global stage, digitalization plays a crucial part and raises citizens’ expectations for transparency and productivity. When it comes to sustainable development, establishing a global partnership means being able to exchange data and best practices between cities, achieving ambitions that single cities alone cannot reach, unlocking innovation and access to resources.
Can we design cities for the next pandemic?
Yes, we can. To reinforce the capacity of a city to cope with social distancing, life indoors, animal infections, and everything that we have experienced in the past months, it takes no more than what is already needed to pursue healthier, more resilient cities.
BBC, How air pollution exacerbates Covid-19 https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200427-how-air-pollution-exacerbates-covid-19
University of Helsinki, Variance in tree species results in the cleanest urban air
Lorenzo Chelleri, James J Waters, Marta Olazabal and Guido Minucci, Resilience trade-offs: addressing multiple scales and temporal aspects of urban resilience, 2015
McKinsey Global Institute, A blueprint for addressing the global affordable housing challenge, 2014
UNHabitat, Housing at the centre of the New Urban Agenda, Position paper, 2015