There are many purported benefits of “reclaiming” the streets during a pandemic. Encouraging cycling may reduce crowding on buses and subways, where people can struggle to get distance from one another. Vehicle-free roads also offer those without access to parks the ability to exercise safely.
A woman cycles through a bike lane in central Milan. Credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images
But few other cities have been so committal. And it will be harder to make the case for pedestrian- and cycle-friendly streets once their benefits are weighed against the knock-on effects of congestion elsewhere — especially in countries as dependent on cars as the US.
A recently expanded bike track in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. Credit: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images
In other words, the pandemic may only have served as a catalyst. But urban planning is a long game in which change is piecemeal and the legacies of past decisions take time to overcome. Public spaces and amenities cannot always be expanded or reconfigured at will.
So, looking to the coming years rather than the coming months, how else might the virus — or attempts to prevent future ones — re-shape our cities?
Reimagining public space
Austrian design studio Precht has imagined a maze-like public park that encourages social distancing.
It is too soon to know which, if any, may be realized. But each idea suggests that the practice of social distancing and unease over shared surfaces could continue long after the current crisis.
“Planners talk about creating ‘sticky’ streets — places where people linger and stay around. So the question now is: Will those efforts continue, or how will they need to be changed? Can we still achieve connectivity if we all keep social distancing?”
“Everybody from Daniel Burnham — who was the planner of Chicago — to Le Corbusier came up with arbitrary measurements on their own,” she said in a phone interview. “Le Corbusier writes extensively that every ‘unit’ in the Radiant City (or “Ville Radieuse,” the celebrated architect’s proposed utopia) needed a specific amount of light … and a certain amount of cubic feet of air to circulate within it.
“So six feet could be the new unit we use when we think about cities and public parks.”
Yet, the idea of keeping people apart seems to contradict the emphasis planners have traditionally placed on human interaction. Architects, whether designing parks or social housing, have often valued meeting points as sources of collaboration, inclusion and community-building.
“In fact, if you look at the literature on the health benefits of green spaces, one of the primary (advantages) is social connectivity — people seeing their neighbors and being part of a community.
“Planners talk about creating ‘sticky’ streets — places where people linger and stay around,” he added, speaking on the phone from lockdown in Barcelona. “So the question now is: Will those efforts continue, or how will they need to be changed? Can we still achieve connectivity if we all keep social distancing?”
Credit: Antonio Lanzillo & Partners
Milan-based architect Antonio Lanzillo has envisaged public benches equipped with acrylic glass “shield” dividers. Credit: Antonio Lanzillo & Partners
Rather than outlining solutions at this early stage, Honey-Rosés’ paper (which, subject to peer review, is set to publish in the journal Cities & Health) instead lays out the questions facing urban planners. Many relate to how cities manage the green spaces that he thinks “will, overall, be more valued and more appreciated” after the current crisis.
Neither line of inquiry has yielded conclusive results. But should a definitive link between pollution and the virus emerge, it would “really be a game-changer” for green urban planning, Honey-Rosés said.
“Then, cities will be able to say, ‘We’re going to redesign our streets not only because we need social and physical distance, but because we need to increase our probability of survival,” he suggested.
A matter of density
The biggest questions may center around population density. Fears that disease spreads more easily in busy urban centers could already be having an impact on people’s attitudes towards living in cities.
A desire to distance ourselves from others in public may continue long afer the pandemic. Credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images
“Space now means something more than square feet,” Harris CEO John Gerzema said in a press release. “Already beset by high rents and clogged streets, the virus is now forcing urbanites to consider social distancing as a lifestyle.”
So will there be a long-term push for cities to sprawl outwards in order to reduce downtown populations?
According to Carr, the backlash against city centers may be especially acute in America, where high rates of car ownership make suburban life less inconvenient. “The United States has always been a country that somewhat fears density,” she said.
Credit: miss3/Hua Hua Architects
A proposed “Gastro Safe Zone,” which uses brightly colored ground markings to encourage passersby to keep their distance from outdoor diners. Credit: Hary Marwel/Hua Hua Architects
“I think as designers and urban planners we have to think about how we emphasize the benefits of density,” Carr added. “Because now, whenever anyone tries to build new housing anywhere, it’s probably going to be the first question that people have.”
“Six feet could be the new unit we use when we think about cities and public parks.”
Sara Jensen Carr
Whether the use of public transport is a significant factor in Covid-19’s spread is a theory still being explored. And while, again, the findings remain far from conclusive, mistrust of buses and subways may nonetheless see their use decline.
Honey-Rosés suggested we may instead see the growth of “micromobility” — vehicles like scooters and e-bikes — though this could be accompanied by reduced demand for initiatives like bike-sharing schemes.
“The sharing model is going to have additional costs related to hygiene and cleaning, which will be very challenging,” he said, adding that sharing schemes “might get hurt in this pandemic.”
A man rides an electric scooter across the Parco Sempione park in Milan. Credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images
Epidemics can have radical and unexpected effects on architecture and design.
So although considering the impact of Covid-19 is, at this stage, largely speculative, there’s plenty of scope for innovation.
A recent skyscraper design competition was won by a prefabricated emergency healthcare tower dubbed “Epidemic Babel.” Credit: Gavin Shen/Weiyuan Xu/Xinhao Yuan
Regardless of such proposals’ viability, there is plenty of optimism that this crisis can improve the way cities are designed and run, said Honey-Rosés. But he caveated this by saying politics and opportunism may play significant roles in dictating which ideas come to fruition. (“I’m seeing a lot self-interest in the optimism — the cyclists are talking about having bigger bike lanes, because that’s in their interests,” he offered as an example.)
A man rides along a temporary cycle lane put into place to relieve pressure on public transportation in Grenoble, France. Credit: Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images
But despite his self-professed skepticism, the researcher nonetheless believes that the pandemic has presented real opportunities to rethink public space.
“This is a time for humility on the part of pundits,” he said. “And researchers need to be asking good questions. But I also think it’s time for city leaders to be bold.
“Things that were not possible before, now are.”