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Healthy Planet. Healthy People.

Cities / Public health

Architects pen letters envisioning the role of urban design after COVID-19

By Andrew Sansom 23 Jun 2020 0

A series of ‘letters’ from architects reflecting on architecture and urban design post COVID-19 have been published by the British School at Rome (BSR), founded in 1901 as a ‘school’ for research in archaeology and Italian studies.

During lockdown, the school’s architecture consultant, Marina Engel, asked several architects to consider or dream about the role of the architect and urban design in a post-pandemic world.

While national and regional governments in a number of different countries begin to ease the restrictive measures implemented to contain the coronavirus, it seems highly likely that some sort of change will occur in the way we experience space in our work, social and personal relationships. 

With billions of people all over the world sent home to work, some of the changes in working patterns – already on the rise prior to the pandemic – could become more prevalent, suggests the BSR. Increased home working would reduce transport and related carbon dioxide emissions, as well as decreasing costs notably. Workspaces and domestic spaces, the public and the private, could increasingly overlap. Rising numbers of “working homes” might need to be designed in an expanding “shut-in” economy.

At the same time, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have suggested that forms of social distancing are here to stay, at least until we manage to supress COVID-19 and future viruses. Architects could be faced with the challenge of having to incorporate social distancing into the design of high-density cities, of managing public spaces, not only of mass gatherings but also of infrastructure, shopping malls, cinemas, restaurants, gyms, etc. 

Different viruses could reappear in the future, and forms of restrictive government measures, now in place to contain COVID-19, could remain for some time, says the BSR. The Italian government  employed drones and geo-fencing to restrain the movements of its citizens, Israel relied on its secret services, and South Korea, among other countries, followed contagious and quarantined citizens through GPS-based apps. Growing government surveillance in an expanding smart city – already on the ascent before the COVID-19 outbreak – could persist, suggests the BSR, which asks: will architects need to negotiate expanding digital infrastructure to control not only citizens’ movements but even their body temperatures?

If the destruction of nature and biodiversity is seen as a cause of COVID-19 and other viruses, will it spur a more concerted effort to respect natural habitat and biodiversity? If there is a link between air pollution and higher death rates in urban centres from COVID-19 and SARS, how will we protect those cities from future viruses? Will this be a wake-up call to commit to a greener and more sustainable environment? 

Paradoxically, says the BSR, social distancing has so far provoked a sense of community, with support groups developing for the elderly and vulnerable. The crisis could lead us to rebuild a “better world” once the pandemic is over, and Li Edelkoort, a Dutch trend forecaster, argues that the present “quarantine of consumption” could help reform our values.

The ‘letters from lockdown’ series began with contributions from three leading authorities in Italy: Pippo Ciorra, Cino Zucchi and Stefano Boeri. The design of homes and infrastructure was the subject of Ciorra’s reply, as he imagines a new form of dystopian space, while Cino Zucchi urges us to reflect on the enduring qualities of Italy’s historic urban spaces and monuments. Stefano Boeri, focused on the topics of sustainable design, natural habitat and biodiversity. Boeri describes how the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the urgent need for a radical change in the way we think about our spaces. 

Joseph Rykwert, one of the foremost architectural historians and critics of his generation, offered an historical perspective as well as some thoughts for the future.

And Carolyn Steel contemplated the relationship between food and cities. She writes: “The virus that is killing us has also done us a favour, by reminding us of what a good life really means. If we are to thrive in the future, we shall need more resilient, localised, seasonal food systems; more flexible local supply networks and stronger links between city and country.

“Social resurgence almost always revolves around food: the shared problem of how to eat, after all, was how we evolved as a species. It is only in times of scarcity that we remember what food really is. Food is life: if we treat it as cheap, we cheapen life itself.”

Read Carolyn’s full letter here.

Organisations involved