Over the past few months the world has come to a halt due to the Covid-19 pandemic and has restarted again slowly and steadily. Many industries have fallen and some have faced an economic crisis but what about the architectural field? 

Where do we stand today as this is not the first time we are facing a crisis, but does that mean the cities don’t function and no new progress is seen for years?  So, how do we face this 2020 pandemic, how do we adapt and grow with this.

1. Is this the first time humanity is facing such a crisis?

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Cholera Epidemic in Victorian London ©upload.wikimedia.org

The ratio of health to cities is really interesting and certainly has been around since the 19th century and even the early ’20s. City planning was then carried out in many cases by public health officials rather than trained urban planners as cities for decades have been epicenters of infectious diseases, but they always bounced back stronger than before. 

Some significant epidemics that affect the formation and development of cities are – Bubonic Plague, 19th-century European cholera epidemics in stimulating the construction of piped water and sewerage systems, following the discovery in London that one contaminated drinking water point was the source of the 1854 outbreak; Yet, after battling such pandemics New York, London, Mumbai, Hong Kong, Paris – all boomed in its wake which signifies that great cities will survive coronavirus if they adapt to the changing conditions like they always have in the past.

Cities have continuously proven themselves to be the symbols of globalization and urbanizations in the past decades. They were built to be and have always been the platform for positive social health and a sense of community creating economic opportunity for our populations. 

2. How did the Pandemic affect cities before?

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Social distancing and reduced community engagement of people through the Bubonic Plague. This led to people moving out of the city and once it had passed, the population started moving back to the city in search of work and a better lifestyle. ©quillette.com

Great history has shown us that cities recovered from these pandemics pretty quickly. Although, during the pandemic due to recession and great population density, many individuals migrated out of the main cities and moved towards the outskirts due to a safer living environment. But as the economy started to recover, people often moved back from the countryside or outskirts to the cities after pandemics because of better job opportunities and the higher wages they offered after the sudden drop in population in the area and increasing manpower requirement. 

Pandemics have transformed cities into urban settlements – contagious diseases shaping urban fortunes as urbanization has always been a greater force than infectious diseases.

3. Is this pandemic pointing us towards the existential issues of cities? 

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An empty Plaza de Catalunya in Barcelona during a partial lockdown of the city as part of a 15-day state of emergency to combat coronavirus, which could have been avoided with proper latest infrastructure development and controlled measures. ©www.weforum.org

This pandemic points out more issues to look at in terms of the systems involved in a global trade economy rather than a specific design of the city itself. 

It also reveals just how much cities depend on essential workers—and how much essential workers depend on public trains and buses to reach jobs at hospitals, grocery stores, and other links in the supply chain. Our ability to endure this pandemic relies on new safety protocols to keep passengers and public transport workers safe, and on investing in extensive service expansions to make the next crisis easier to manage. 

This pandemic is already exacerbating the urban divide that has resulted from a long-term failure to address fundamental inequalities and guarantee basic human rights. 

The post-COVID-19 response will require these failures to be addressed and all urban residents provided with basic services—especially health care and housing—to ensure everyone can live with dignity and be prepared for the next global crisis. Yet, it’s hard to transform cities built along lines of segregation. 

4. Were cities already embracing changes before COVID-19?

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‘Digitalization of business’ – the digital transformation of cities. ©www.networkworld.co

Although Coronavirus has made the world less global and more isolated, even before COVID-19 struck the globe, the decades-long trend toward ever-more globalization of trade, investment, supply chains and people flows was beginning to grind to a halt. Cities were already facing chronic revenue shortfalls and budget deficits before the pandemic, for example, the retail world had been changing before the pandemic by accelerating into deeper, long-term trends affecting cities such as digitalization of store, moving to a cashless economy, shifting to remote work, and virtual delivery of services and pedestrianization of streets. Buying locally produced products was the new trend and hence smaller businesses were gaining momentum, which will continue after the pandemic due to travel and business restrictions. But simultaneously, the bigger companies would also survive the situation due to their financial capability and global outreach. 

On the whole, this crisis may provide a short window for our unaffordable, hyper gentrified cities to reset and to re-energize their creative scenes. 

5. How do the cities need to be reformed?

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China’s reformation and opening-up policies introduced private business and market incentives to what was a state-led communist system which is a step towards reviving their economy after COVID-19. ©www.china-briefing.com

If we take this chance to create better, cities won’t just recover but provide greater opportunities than they did before the coronavirus struck. it’ll provide opportunities to urban planners and entrepreneurs to create back better. a number of them are currently exploring ways to upgrade their zoning and procurement policies to market smart density and greener investment. Cities are and always are the right testbeds for innovations but they have to be better lobbyists for themselves. They play a prominent role and are the driving force of national economies. They generate 80% of the worldwide GDP today. But in current times, the reformation of cities isn’t about building cities better than the agricultural areas, but about prioritizing saving lives, delivering essential services, and maintaining law and order. This is often especially important in developing-world cities and informal settlements where rising food prices increase the danger of hunger and social unrest. It’s also their responsibility to deal with social issues and inequities. 

Let look at some elements the cities would have to inculcate considering the new normal conditions – 

  1. Investment of billions of dollars in anti-pandemic health care infrastructure, so that this terrible outbreak can remain a one-time aberration.
  2. Development of driverless cars and micro-mobility schemes as transportation systems will struggle to retain ridership without social distancing adjustments.
  3. Development and increased utilization of technology as its the quickest mode of interaction now. it’s something we’ve had access to for a really while but haven’t utilized its potential up so far that it’s being forced upon us. This may aid in reducing the carbon footprint worldwide because traveling would be reduced providing us with cleaner air and less crowded outdoor spaces.
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Peri-Urban settlement. ©www.rmit.edu.au
  1. Return of Agriculture as an occupation and hobby again. To guard themselves against interacting with people around their area, most of the people would turn their beautiful gardens into urban agricultural lands, cultivating their vegetables and fruits -‘peri-urban’, integration of developed cities with the agricultural world. 
  2. Closing down of many of our favorite bars, restaurants, and cafes, but others will take their place. 
  3. The migration of the population out of the town and into the countryside will be experienced on a large scale. But when people do return to cities—as they always have within the past—new policies and technologies will be leveraged to make urban life cheaper and sustainable for more people. 
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Cost-effective timber constructions. ©edition.cnn.com
  1. Usage of cheaper and more flexible building methods like tall timber construction to lower the value of housing and dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of the latest buildings. 
  2. Energy innovations will reduce the utility bills by enabling all-electric neighborhoods that reduce their climate impact.

We have to try to do a far better job of managing the extremely rapid changes happening where agriculture and urbanization are happening within the same space. Models like Copenhagen’s City and Port Development Corporation or Cincinnati’s Center City Development Corporation, long admired but rarely replicated, are going to be fundamental to urban and agricultural recovery. Without radical institutional change, the inclusive recovery of cities is going to be real while in coming.

It will also take the cash and political will, but between stimulus packages and global public investment, Covid-19 could also be the right time to start. Cities have already been rolling out policies that might have seemed radical at the other time, like moratoriums on evictions, to wide public approval which shows us that if such drastic changes are often adapted in an emergency, it is often implemented as a long-term practice.

6. Would ‘De-globalization’ and ‘De-urbanization’ lead to the end of the cities as we   know it?

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Urbanization, globalization and its social impacts are very prominent in all aspects of current and developing city plans. ©www.policyforum.net

Developed country’s response to coronavirus will only strengthen this consensus, as all things international will be viewed as incurring unnecessary and dangerous risks. 

As we are being told this ‘de-globalization’ will make us all more resilient, it will also make us less prosperous — with less choice and higher prices. It may also make us less established, as international cooperation will decrease and the potential for international conflict will increase.

Simultaneously, ‘De-urbanization’ would harm economic development because cities generate enormous scale economies and have always proved to be remarkably effective incubators of creativity and innovation. It could be true in developing economies where the movement of people from rural areas to rapidly expanding cities has been perhaps the key driver of poverty reduction. 

As a response to COVID-19, the new world would be far less global and urban, which would be the end of cities as we know it and also be far less appealing to me, personally. But it is also a world that would hurt economic prosperity, reduce shared understanding among disparate people, and increase the prospect of conflict among them. 

Although ‘Globalization’ and ‘Urbanization’ generate challenges, the solution to a post-COVID world is to manage them, not to reverse them.

Sumedha Singh
Author

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