Covid-19 has appeared and turned our lives upside down, forcing us into lockdown. We find ourselves in survival mode – within a new set of constraints, we try to carry on as best we can. Our lives immediately reduced down to their simplest and most basic forms. Those that that work from home do so. With schools closed, working and childcare have to be juggled somehow. We start to rely on our local communities to support us. Safety demands that we live our lives within a confined area, staying among those we trust.
Adjusting to the new reality
After a while, we begin to adjust to our new contained lives and start to appreciate some of its positive attributes. We are much more active – walking and cycling a lot more. We might have actually become better chefs since the restaurants and takeaways closed. We certainly haven’t driven our cars for weeks and haven’t especially missed doing so. Technology has enabled people to continue working from home, without the need for daily face-to-face contact. We now Skype and Zoom with our families and friends to ensure everyone is OK. We miss the real human contact though. Our lives have become people focused and we feel better for it!
Now everything is slowly starting to open up and life can resume. There is talk of a ‘new normal’. What will this be? The ‘old normal’ but with disinfectant dispensers on the walls and stickers on the floor ensuring we stay two metres apart? Many companies are now convinced that home working actually works and looking at blended home and office working.
This whole experience has forced upon us a number of fundamental changes many of which, although restrictive, have made us reassess our priorities and how we’d like to live our lives long term. Society has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take a new direction, making the necessary changes to improve our lives, our health, our communities, our cities and most importantly our environment.
What changes have we made already?
We have proven that we can function within smaller geographical realms and reduce our dependence on cars. We have also come to the realisation that a substantial proportion of our historical travel was in fact unnecessary and that travel essential to our real needs can be performed in more sustainable, healthier ways. We have rediscovered the joys of walks in our parks and woodlands, the joys of cycling and collecting experiences rather than things. We also became for a period completely reliant on our local communities and businesses, for not only our daily provisions but also for support and for our personal health.
This is a wake-up call for Governments around the world to take positive action. We’ve already made the first step towards improvement and can already begin to see the benefits. If we can maintain the positive changes we’ve already made and supplement them with additional longer-term strategies to deal with the global environmental problems we face, we can emerge from the current crisis progressing along a far more humane and sustainable trajectory.
Issues to address
At a global level it is clear that if we are to survive on earth we need to take our impact on the planet more seriously. At a global level we need to carefully consider how we use our land, utilise our resources and consume energy. At an individual level we need to assess all the components and the functioning of our lives; where we live, work, meet, educate, socialise and cultivate ourselves. How we stay healthy and importantly how we travel between them. Only by making adjustments at a global combined with changes at an individual level can we create a better environment for ourselves and our planet.
What we’ve achieved so far
A number of the issues have been tackled head on by the recent changes we’ve been instructed to make. By being in lockdown and prevented from non-essential travel we are already leading lives within a smaller geographical footprint and using our cars far less. Technology has allowed us to work from home and keep in touch with our friends and families, reducing travel even further. We are shopping locally and supporting our local businesses and high streets. The impact of the reduction of car usage is already being felt with improved air quality in our cities, towns and villages. Now that we are slowly being allowed to venture further afield our local authorities are pedestrianizing roads and widening pavements and recreating public spaces to meet our needs for space and social distancing. Our urban centres have become pleasurable, safer, car free healthy environments, exactly what we need. We are seeing the rebirth of communities and the reprioritisation of cities away from private transportation and back towards humans, their needs and human powered transportation. All very positive steps socially and environmentally.
One step further
When we finally emerge from this pandemic we must capitalise on our progress. While we were forced into home working we were able to substantially reduce the dreaded peak hour commute. Those that didn’t have to commute benefitted by the reduced stress and gaining more time in their days, those that still did still travel appreciated the substantial drop in congestion and increased public space.
The urban transformation is already apparent and as yet no substantial or long term changes have been made. If we continue to control the car numbers and maintain the recent qualitative spatial improvements, we can easily predict the rebirth of our cities.
Rather than simply widen pavements and pedestrian roads, we should use our newly gained public realm to create parks, public seating and gathering spaces, real destinations all connected with cycle paths. Bring nature back into our cities. These new carless, calm, safe spaces will attract businesses and will start to create thriving communities that people will want to live and work in.
Key to achieving this is the continuation of residential accommodation returning to our towns and cities, otherwise this will all only be a dream. Communities only thrive if they have a working and resident population to support. Our urban centres have very little affordable housing in them which is why most of the working public live in cheaper properties in a ring of urban sprawl in the periphery of our cities.
To take the next step in the rebirth of our cities we need changes to the city planning laws or at least greater flexibility on the real estate definitions we currently have. Our city centres have minimal residential space in them and what is there is usually priced way beyond the budgets of the working public. In order to encourage the public back into our cities we need to provide cost effect accommodation in them. Currently this is easier said than done. City planning constraints define the functional usage of all city centre building plots. Traditionally most city centre land plots were zoned for commercial space, not residential.
To accelerate a return to city centre dwelling city planners need to play their part. Developers need to be able to develop and convert existing properties for residential use around the primary public transport nodes in our cities. It would be impractical to simply squeeze new residential buildings into our already built-up city centres. There is a an opportunity for the city planners to stop zoning building plots in cities by their usage and only control them by development areas and volumes leaving the functions flexible and able to be adapted to market demands? As society flourishes, people’s lives, roles and expectations can no longer we so easily pigeonholed into neatly predefined functional types. At AHR, as architects and master-planners, we are already seeing hotels, office, co-working and co-living briefs all converging towards a common spatial arrangement and interior fitout style. It is no longer possible to define what spaces perform what function. Certainly, residential space can no longer be defined as a single type. Only by being able to convert existing buildings into residential or locate new residential buildings in areas currently zoned as commercial can we hope to complete the transformation of our cities.
As a society we can come away from the Covid episode with qualitatively better, future proofed (virus ready) cities that are not just sustainable but that enhance our lives on all levels. Cities can return to being joyous, nurturing, delightful places that we feel we belong to, thrive in and are proud of.