As Machiavelli wrote, “Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis”. In the midst of the worldwide Covid-19 crisis, people all around the world are considering what the world will and could look like post-Covid-19. There are an increasing number of articles out there on this topic. The following is a brief summary of some of the issues raised:
Historically, many changes to cities have happened as a result of health crisis. Cholera outbreaks in London lead to the sewerage scheme, which people now see as the Victoria Embankment, and the Garden City Movement promoted by Ebenezer Howard was a reaction to smoky city slums.
Already with many people (including school children) working from home, and with many businesses shut, people have rapidly changed their movement patterns.
A relevant planning issue to consider is the density of our urban areas, in particular our cities. To curb the spread of Covid-19, one of the key aims is to achieve physical separation from others. While this is mostly achievable in our living spaces, it is often not achieved in places like our public transport systems, night-clubs, restaurants and in other public spaces and in cramped public housing. A heading in the New York Times states: “Density Is New York City’s Big ‘Enemy’ in the Coronavirus Fight” (23 March 2020).
To escape high density environments, people have historically escaped to the hills or the country. Consider the sanatoriums providing health treatments for people in Victorian times or the group of wealthy Florentines who escaped the Black Death by moving to live on the outskirts of the city. However, given the mobility of people (in normal modern times), people living in more rural settings are often no longer isolated from others, and therefore lowering city density to manage disease is generally not a sensible solution, especially when balanced against the many efficiencies of dense cities. Furthermore, many Asian countries with high densities such as those in South Korea and Taiwan have already been successful in limiting the spread of Covid-19 despite having high density.
The movement of residents even in the short-term, to avoid disease also has its drawbacks as often medical facilities in large cities are much better resourced to deal with large numbers of people than small regional facilities.
In planning however, it is necessary to also consider wider socio-economic issues. As a result of Covid-19 many businesses are likely to close or greatly reduce in size, thus decreasing the cultural and socio-economic vitality of cities. During the current lockdown many people have been required to work from home. A trend towards working from home was predicted many years ago as a result of improved technology, however, this has now become a reality for many, and many people are now experiencing the pros and cons of this. The question for planning is whether given the likely reduction in the number and size of businesses and a potential increase in the number of people working from home, will we see the popularity of living beyond urban areas increase, with possible implications for the viability of cities?
Others argue that rather than perhaps focussing on density, focus should instead be placed on the design of public spaces. Already we are seeing tactical urbanism with many cities temporarily widening footpaths and establishing temporary cycling infrastructure in many cities around the world. Notable examples so far are those in Calgary, Bogota, New York, Philadelphia and now New Zealand.
The intensification of digital infrastructure could also potentially change life in cities. Technology has been used in many countries to trace people and to predict future transmission clusters. The development of such “smart cities” has the potential to improve our knowledge of people’s behaviour within cities. Alongside this though, people’s rights to privacy may be threatened, and, together with increasing authority by Governments, this is likely to concern many people.
Finally, as with other disasters, the social consequences of Covid-19 must be considered. As we saw in Christchurch after the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, and the mosque attacks of 2019, especially in the immediate aftermath, there are many examples of great community spirit and a desire to help those in most need. This is also evident in relation to Covid-19, and with unemployment set to increase, it is likely Covid-19 will have adversely affect the poor disproportionally to the wealthy. Perhaps a greater awareness of the inequalities that exist within our societies will lead to future change or perhaps because Covid-19 affects men more than women, this may also have effects on populations.
Despite so much current uncertainty, what we can be certain of is that Covid-19 will change our living environments as we currently know them. These opportunities have been created as a result of Covid-19 and as Machiavelli said, should not be wasted (bearing in mind of course climate change and other environmental degradation).
The following is a list of a few articles relevant to this topic:
Will COVID-19 Spell the End of Urban Density? Don’t Bet On It.
While crowded sidewalks and packed subways are obvious vulnerabilities, cities also have remarkable resilience in the face of pandemics.
Cities after coronavirus: how Covid-19 could radically alter urban life
From food to tech, Covid-19 to spur urban planning rethink
Pandemics Are Also an Urban Planning Problem
In a Global Health Emergency, the Bicycle Shines
Generously Fund Cycleways, Experts Say As Covid-19’s Spread Boosts Bicycle Use
New Zealand First Country To Fund Pop-Up Bike Lanes, Widened Sidewalks During Lockdown
Calgary to reduce lanes on some roads to help walkers, cyclists keep their distance during COVID-19 pandemic
Bogotá expands bike lanes to curb coronavirus spread