Post-pandemic urbanism: why embracing street life is central to the future of the city

Stefano Boeri Architetti's Tirana Riverside urban regeneration project, designed in collaboration with SON-Group.

If, several months ago, you had asked most urbanists, economists and policy makers what London’s biggest flaw was, they would likely have responded: ‘It isn’t dense enough’. While in the 1960s activists like Jane Jacobs were seen as outliers for calling for more concentrated forms of urban living, by the second decade of the new century, think tanks like Centre for Cities were lobbying for the idea that denser neighbourhoods were essential to the future of the UK. Meanwhile grassroots campaigns like YIMBY (yes, in my back yard), established in 2018, sought to empower city residents to vote to allow more housing on their street. Its cofounder John Myers, writing in City Metric, argued that authorities needed to get creative to develop ‘hundreds of thousands of beautiful new flats a year’ in order to ‘build attractive, dense places like Covent Garden again.’ As recently as March the British government asked London mayor Sadiq Khan to amend the London Plan – a spatial development strategy for the city – to include far greater efforts towards densification.

And London isn’t an outlier. Across the world, national executives have been pushing to densify urban centres as a means of achieving key targets. The strategy offers economic benefits by bringing people closer to employment hubs and hothousing innovation; it reduces carbon emissions via reductions in commuting time and an emphasis on public transport; it increases quality-of-life indexes through proximity to better education, healthcare and cultural provision; and it creates a social dividend by broadening support networks. With over half (55 per cent) of the world population already living in urban areas, and the United Nations having previously predicted a further 13 per cent increase by 2050, density was the tool that was supposed to help us live more sustainably on an already overpopulated planet.

This period has highlighted some fundamental flaws in how many cities currently operate – chief amongst them being lack of access to outdoor amenities

Urban Exodus

But how does the drive towards density play in the post-COVID age? After years of migration from rural to urban centres, the idea of city living has had its shine taken off by several months of enforced isolation in high-cost, small-size apartments and an increased wariness of enclosed public spaces. This period has highlighted some fundamental flaws in how many cities currently operate – chief amongst them being lack of access to outdoor amenities. As a result, property-search site Rightmove revealed that 51 per cent of enquiries from Londoners in April were for homes outside of the capital, while careers-advice service Escape the City said the number of Londoners wanting work outside the city had jumped from 20 per cent to 51 per cent. There are similar reports from other capitals, such as Paris and New York. Some in positions of power might welcome such an exodus, and will perhaps even plan to perpetuate it. Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo recently tweeted that ‘there is a density level in NYC that is destructive’ and that the city ‘must develop an immediate plan to reduce density’.

This push-pull effect is likely to redefine the landscape of major metropolises for years to come. As The New York Times’ urban-policy expert Emily Badger questions: ‘How, then, do we reconcile the benefits of density for a healthy society with the threat of density in a pandemic? And what happens if we lose sight of those benefits – including the ways they are operating even now – while we are preoccupied by the harm?’

Re-categorizing how we perceive and use outdoor urban spaces, as well as who these spaces prioritize, is now increasingly urgent

Erase the Roof

The answer might be right outside your front door. Or rather, in rethinking the nature of that boundary altogether. ‘We will need to transform the link between indoors and outdoors, to reshape streets as the prolongation of indoor areas,’ Carlos Moreno, professor of territorial entrepreneurship at IAE Sorbonne and adviser to the city of Paris, told Bloomberg.

Re-categorizing how we perceive and use outdoor urban spaces, as well as who these spaces prioritize, is now increasingly urgent. ‘Public spaces provide a hierarchy of rooms in which to linger and breathe,’ Savill’s director of urban design Andy Dowding wrote in a recent white paper. 'The onset of social distancing requires unique solutions to enable these spaces to function and everyday business to be undertaken.’

Over the next two weeks we’re going to catalogue exactly how architects, designers, urban planners and city officials are already undertaking this transformation, 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 latter space has seen the most dramatic reevaluation during the pandemic and will now take centre stage in any truly livable urban plan. In doing so we will show how almost every sector, from housing to healthcare, retail, work and wellness, will start to adapt to a life that is, in every sense, more outward-looking.

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