Urban planning experts from Abu Dhabi to Houston weigh in on the legacy of the pandemic and are beginning to mull what kinds of cities we should hope to return to.
Previous encounters with mass illness – from the Plague of Athens in ancient Greece to the Spanish Flu that swept the planet coming out of the Great War – show us that these crises always bring societal shifts. Past pandemics and epidemics have led to a rebalancing of social strata, the establishment of public health, cleaner affordable housing and buildings cleared to make way for public parks, among other changes.
So what will be the legacy of Covid-19? Urban planners say now is not the time to ask what we think will happen, but instead to ask for what we want.
“The tricky bit right now is thinking about urban resilience with regard only to pandemics, because then we’ll get the answer wrong,” Huda Shaka, an associate director of Middle East planning at UK design firm Arup and a board member of the Emirates Green Building Council, says.
It is highly unlikely the next shock to a community will be another pandemic, she adds. “It could be economic, climate, it could be 100 other things.”
While in the short term, experts say there may be a small exodus or a slight uptick in preference for single-family housing, the drive towards urbanisation will continue apace. The UN forecasts that 2.5 billion people will pour into megacities in Asia and Africa between now and 2050.
For these economic power centres to thrive amid rising uncertainty, they must be flexible. “We always need to build in flexibility to communities, governments and healthcare systems,” Shaka says. “We need to be prepared, full stop. Not prepared for X or Y, but prepared to be flexible and to bounce back from anything.”
She has observed that in her home country of Jordan, the community networks have not been strong enough to address a humanitarian crisis of getting adequate food and water to the most vulnerable. Deploying the military is not the right resource to connect locals with food and water, as happened in Jordan, she says. Instead, the government should have been able to tap “fully connected, fully functioning” local community networks that know “where the vulnerabilities are, how to get to them, what they are likely to need and how to reach out” to people.
Better networks, what Shaka calls “soft infrastructure”, may be a legacy of this pandemic.
Social distancing “is a very rigid measure in a time of crisis”, Shaka says, that she “hopes does not become the new normal” in the UAE or globally. “What I hope does remain is thinking around how do we allow our streets to be more flexible for more walking space? And building with a sensibility for need.”
Jens Aerts, an urban planner from New York who works with Unicef and the Bureau for Urbanism (Buur) in Brussels, agrees. He has been thinking a lot about the concept of “urban health”, whether that means confronting pandemics or adapting to a rising tide of digital tools that can make cities more energy-efficient.
“Because we cannot return to the former normal,” he says. Instead, he is looking out for more “human-centred” urban planning in the future.
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