The pandemic will end eventually (hopefully). For many, the post-pandemic world can and should be different from what we knew before.
This is especially true among designers of the built environment, who’ve watched as lockdowns and social distancing have drained activity from many of the spaces their work is intended to enliven. How to bring that life back, and how these spaces should function going forward, is something to start thinking about now.
That’s the concept behind a new report, “Future Cities: 20 Reflections on the Post-Pandemic Reawakening of Our Cities and Neighborhoods,” which compiles the thoughts of architects, designers, urban planners, and sustainability experts from different parts of the world. Produced by the Hong Kong-based communications firm CatchOn, the report poses a single question: What should architects, urban planners, developers, civic leaders, and governments be thinking about now as they envision our future cities and the viability of our neighborhoods and communities? Here are some key takeaways.
Learning from Singapore’s hierarchical city
“Urbanization will continue to drive city growth globally. However, we have to think more holistically about cities as complex ecosystems. In Singapore, how we have conceptualized and implemented town planning since the beginning of nation building remains a viable paradigm. The notion of spatially distributed and self-contained towns, each with a hierarchical structure—from neighborhood to precinct to town center—works extremely well to address many pandemic-related issues. Residents can access essentials for daily living in an organized manner within walking distance, including nature, through the Park Connector system. We can still embrace density in our future cities to conserve scarce land resources but we need to adopt a people-centric approach in dealing with high density. For too long, we have conceived our cities in 2D gross floor area rather than in 3D volumetric space. However, health is related to the volume for each inhabitant, both outdoor and indoor. The challenge is to rethink the 3D physical manifestation of our built environment. Besides offering visual delight, it should provide city-level ventilation by creating unobstructed urban wind paths and integrated with indoor ventilation of individual buildings to promote overall wellness while mitigating energy demands.” —Khee Poh Lam, Dean of the School of Architecture, National University of Singapore, based in Singapore
Mixed spaces for post-pandemic socializing
“As an interior designer in the hospitality field, there’s been a shift toward mixing of typologies, such as combining co-working spaces with gyms or a bookstore that also has a cafe; we’ve received some interesting briefs from clients already looking ahead of this pandemic. There’s been a previous obsession with making social spaces out of restaurants and hotels, through which the idea of the social club was born. Now that the idea of social-distancing has become our way of survival through this pandemic, and some of us will have surprised ourselves how well we have coped or even thrived, we might want to hold on to this valuable time where anti-social behavior is accepted and respected. This change in behavior will certainly breed new typologies of space for our communities.” —Joyce Wang, principal, Joyce Wang Studio, based in London and Hong Kong
A renewed focus on the environment
“In the urban realm, I think we’re looking at relatively minor changes of the kind Hong Kong implemented after SARS: perhaps more hand sanitizer stations; plastic covers on elevator button panels for easier wipe-downs; dedicated serving utensils for shared dishes at restaurants. We’ll probably see more facial recognition, touchless payment systems, and automatic doors, too. Hopefully, some cities will make their social distancing-prompted street closures—which have banned cars in favor of pedestrians—permanent. But in essence, I do not see the pandemic ushering in any radical changes to the way we design, build, and inhabit our cities—unless we somehow find ourselves in some sort of permanent state of pandemic, which I suppose is possible, but unlikely.
This does not mean that we shouldn’t totally change the way we design, build, and inhabit our cities. In fact, we must. Not because of the pandemic, but rather in response to the even more serious problems of climate change, mass extinction, biodiversity loss, and all the other ways in which we are destroying the environment (of which the pandemic is, of course, just one consequence). What should we do? We should be looking at the massive, unprecedented financial packages that governments all over the world have been unleashing to prop up their economies at such astounding scale and speed, and asking them: Why can’t you do this to save the planet, too?” —Aric Chen, independent curator/curatorial director of Design Miami, based in Shanghai