Six topics: how cities will change after the Covid 19 lockdown

In cities, proximity prevails, but the pandemic requires physical distance. How can this dilemma be solved? And how will the public space change? GDI researcher Marta Kwiatkowski identifies six topics that will shape the post-coronavirus city.

Park Corona Social Distancing

Crises have always led to spatial changes in cities. After the "Great Fire of London", greater distances between houses had to be maintained, and the streets became wider. And the ideas of the urban planner Georges-Eugène Baron Haussmann – moving away from medieval architecture to wide boulevards – have made Paris a city of seeing and being seen.

Metropolitan regions such as New York, Paris or Milan with a high spatial density and a highly mobile population are particularly hard hit by the current Covid 19 pandemic. What impact will the pandemic have on our cities, if its containment depends on physical distance?

1. Rural Remote: Those who can afford it commit city desertion

On average, 46 square metres of living space are used per person in Switzerland. In Tokyo it is only 14, and under these circumstances it seems almost impossible to spend several weeks in one's own four walls. How will these experiences affect the residential architecture of the future? Are we bidding farewell to the goals of denser construction and micro-living in urban spaces? Or are we even experiencing the renaissance of the dream of a home with a swimming pool? These are primarily social questions. How much social proximity and intimacy do we allow and to whom? And how do we define density for ourselves? That there are clear cultural differences in these questions, we could observe in the individual political measures of nations.

During the hard lockdown, at least those who have a city garden or own a second home seemed privileged. Those who could afford it committed urban exodus. Home offices also work in remote areas. In the countryside or in the mountains you could move freely, almost without meeting anyone.

2. Fluid public space: density stress in the local recreation area

Although Switzerland did not experience a curfew like Italy or Spain, playgrounds, sports facilities, city parks and lakeshores were also partially cordoned off in our country with the effect that it suddenly became cramped in the woods. People were looking for their free spaces – completely independent of rigid zoning plans. If you close one lock, the pressure on the remaining ones increases. Similarly, the closure of part of the public urban space has led to a worse distribution of people in the remaining public space.

In cities such as New York City, social inequality becomes even more evident through access to recreational areas. City parks are mostly located in privileged residential areas. Especially when the use of public transport does not seem opportune, access to such areas within walking or cycling distance is crucial.

Compared to New York City, Swiss cities are small and distances to forests or lakes are short. But do our cities have enough easily accessible recreational areas? Or are the calls for more green spaces becoming louder? In this context, the experience from the lockdown could intensify long-term concerns about the impact of climate change on our cities and thus fuel the desire for natural shade and recreational space in core cities.

3. Wellness city: streets as wellness, sports and games space

The pandemic has not been able to slow down the increasing social awareness of well-being and health. If fitness centres, sports facilities and swimming pools remain closed, alternative options are needed. During the lockdown, the outdoor and street space has become an open-air sports facility. People have taken their bikes and inline skates out of the basement or have become joggers and walkers. The beautiful weather even tempted the city residents to go outside with their own chairs to sunbathe. In the Berlin district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, for example, 30 street sections were closed off to give children space to play.

The fact that Covid-19 is a health crisis has further fuelled the desire for well-being and balance. This has accelerated the ruralisation of urban space that has already taken place. In addition, with an ageing society and rising health costs, fitness will become even more important. Prevention is socially desirable and is encouraged. The trend towards an urban infrastructure that promotes the well-being of its inhabitants is likely to continue.

4. Safe mobility: safe mobility means virus-free mobility (at the moment)

The bicycle becomes the preferred means of transport, "a bicycle rush" has broken out. The long-standing goal of many cities to become more attractive for bicycles and thus to attract more commuters to the bicycle seems to be achieved. In Brussels, the roads in the so-called inner ring are being opened up to pedestrians, and cars are only allowed to travel at a maximum speed of 20 kilometres per hour. However, if the distances are too far, the car will experience a revival in pandemic times. If there are viruses and bacteria around, people prefer to travel in their own vehicles.

Mobility concepts for the future are based on a further increase in public transport, models of sharing autonomous vehicles and mixed mobility, which makes our mobility as efficient, space-saving and ecological as possible. Are all these concepts now finished?

Even if working from home will become widely accepted in the long term and business trips will be partly replaced by video conferencing; further relaxation and increasing mobility will not only lead to conflicts among road users of private mobility, but will again make the limits of this private mobility become apparent. Motorised private transport requires more space, space which, especially in dense cities, people prefer to use for picnics or sports activities rather than for parking and multi-lane roads.

5. Public vs. private: open-air catering and queues in front of shops

Many companies suffer from the consequences of the Corona measures. Low-margin sectors such as gastronomy or food retailing are particularly affected by the economic consequences and cannot utilize their rental space as densely as before if they adhere to the required distance rules. As a result, the outside space is also used. Now that summer is just around the corner, tables outside can be placed far apart when the weather is fine. In return, the restaurateurs use part of the adjacent public space as an extension to existing or non-existing garden taverns. Public space is being privatised and thus commercialised. In Rotterdam, for example, the city administration even allows caterers to convert parking spaces into garden taverns without a permit. Similar concepts exist in German and Swiss cities.

Even before the Corona crisis, parts of the population criticised this commercialisation of public space. It is in competition with the individual appropriation of public space for other, temporary purposes such as lounging or playing sports, for art interventions or political rallies. Consumption is compulsory, which excludes user groups in such places.

6. Beyond urban farming: the city as an agricultural zone

The Corona crisis has made many people aware that their everyday products are flown around the world before they land on their plates. In some cases, the supply chains could no longer be secured during the lockdown. The dysfunctionalities of the global food system have become vividly visible: Corona has increased the food-waste percentage. The restricted radius has also shifted the focus to people’s own districts and regions. The shop around the corner became a central supply station for many city dwellers, and solidarity with local businesses grew. The demand for locally produced agricultural products also increased, and some vegetables even became scarce. There are already voices saying that Switzerland's degree of self-sufficiency needs to be increased.

New technologies could also help turn the city into an extended agricultural zone. For one thing, vegetables grown under laboratory conditions are more germ-free than organic products. On the other hand, structural changes in the world of work and trade are freeing up a lot of land.

The city has experienced many crises, has been shouted down, hated and abandoned. But it has always reinvented itself. It lives from its density, which is both its quality and its challenge. De-urbanisation will hardly be the consequence of this crisis. We will find ways to create a "healthy" city that knows how to deal with the potential dangers of density. However, the issues listed above illustrate one thing: The next era of urban transformation will not be defined by architecture, buildings, zoning plans or an urban planner; the city will be made by the people who use it, who appropriate, redefine and reuse space. It is first and foremost social issues that need to be addressed, and only secondly structural ones. New technologies will facilitate this transformation and the necessary flexibilisation of space usage.