Post-pandemic urbanism: how access to open outdoor space will redefine high-density housing

Over the next two weeks we’re going to catalogue exactly how architects, designers, urban planners and city officials are undertaking the transformation of outdoor urban spaces, helping turn the city inside out in the process. We’re going to do so schematically, breaking down the street into its constituent parts, from the facade to the pavement to the roadway and the point at which the street meets, or more likely becomes, the park. This is the second instalment of the series – read more here.

One of the defining early images of the global pandemic was that of Italian households, from Naples to Salerno, taking to their balconies to sing and host ‘street’ parties. These moments highlighted the value of ensuring city dwellers have access to personal outside space, even in a limited capacity. Similar scenes did emerge from other countries, but rarely from major urban centres like London, New York, or any hyper-inflated property market where the provision of balconies, terraces or usable roof space is a luxury developers can afford to overlook. 

Only 62 per cent of renters in the 15 most populated US metro areas have access to a ‘balcony, patio, deck, or a porch’, according to the American Housing Survey. In the New York metro area that drops to 21 per cent. Moses Gates, vice president of housing and neighborhood planning at the Regional Plan Association, has been calling for a redefinition of roofs as public space since 2017, but believes current events create even more impetus. ‘Most buildings without an actual deck prohibit roof access for insurance purposes and to prevent wear and tear,’ he wrote in a recent open letter to New York Daily News, ‘[but] being outdoors isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity of human life and mental health.’

The outlook is similar in the UK, with 81 per cent of Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors members forecasting a rise in demand for balcony or garden access. ‘The pandemic has emphasized the need for new high-density schemes to be able to guarantee residents access to amenities and outdoor space, not to mention the liberating power of balconies,’ writes Martina Rotolo, a member of LSE London, an urban research group based at the London School of Economics.

Paris-based Studio Belem’s Aula Modula concept puts a premium on integrating open, semi-public space within urban residential units.

One vision of how that could be realized has been put forward by Stefano Boeri Architetti, who has designed what the team claims is the first masterplan to directly address the fallout of the COVID-19 crisis. Named Tirana Riverside, the Albanian capital’s new 12,000-resident neighbourhood will feature 29-hectares of green space, much of it covering the buildings themselves. Most vertical surfaces will host some form of planting, either the form of balconies or  hanging gardens, while the roof of residential structures will be reconceived as a what the architects describe as a ‘fifth facade’. This will fulfil a variety of uses, functioning as a reception point for drone deliveries, a space to play sports, pursue leisure activities and engage in agriculture.

We must consider the thresholds between the private sphere and the flows of the city as the first line of prevention

‘We must consider the thresholds between the private sphere and the flows of the city as the first line of prevention, points of contact that become multiple garrisons on different scales and extension of the private life,’ explain Stefano Boeri and practice partner Francesca Cesa Bianchi.

Paris-based Studio Belem’s Aula Modula concept puts a similar premium on integrating open, semi-public space within urban residential units. A simple post-and-beam grid creates a modular superstructure that allows the insertion of terraces and roofs that can adapt to a variety of communal programmes and planting schemes, as well as encouraging natural ventilation.

Just pre-dating the pandemic but nonetheless addressing many of these same concerns is Sou Fujimoto’s L’Arbre Blanc, a 2019 residential tower in Montpellier adorned with oversized balconies that architect believes will encourage a new form of relationship between residents. ‘The building’s walls are thick and porous, making it possible to live both inside and outside’, explains the studio. ‘Outside areas are unusually large and designed as fully-fledged living environments.’

These proposals address what urban theorist Richard Sennett, writing in Domus, describes ‘as the need to find different physical forms for density, permitting people to communicate, to see neighbours, to participate in street life even as they temporarily separate’.

The current crisis provides an opportunity to "reevaluate the policy mistakes which have been made in recent years"

Achieving such an end requires more than just purpose, however; it needs policy. Neither Boeri nor Studio Belem’s designs are unprecedented as strategies for residential architecture. Rather they standout because they’ve diverge so abruptly from how most new mass urban residential developments figure in our current market context. Indeed in the UK, permitted development rights – which enable the conversion of commercial properties to residential with little municipal oversight – currently allow the creation of dwellings without the provision of even windows. As Cédric Van Styvendael, president of Housing Europe, the Federation for Public, Cooperative and Social Housing, outlined in a recent op-ed, the current crisis provides an opportunity to ‘reevaluate the policy mistakes which have been made in recent years,’ not least the ‘adequacy’ of building homes that lack outdoor space and natural light. ‘Public authorities should now take a serious look at planning guidelines to make sure that our homes are not just places to eat and sleep, but also places to truly live in.’

Read more reportage on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on spatial design here.

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