This article was originally published in Catalan in Espai Salut, a bulletin published by the Diputació de Barcelona
[Jordi Honey-Rosés is an Associate Professor at the School of Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia and was a Visiting Researcher at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) in 2020]
COVID-19 has raised new questions about what the cities of the future will look like. Architects, city planners and the public at large are engaged in a debate over how cities and public space will evolve as a result of the pandemic. Less than a year ago, unprecedented restrictions on the use of public space were introduced as a key measure to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. The goal now is to prevent another round of total lockdown and devise alternative measures to keep cities functioning while guaranteeing sufficient physical distancing and protection. Urban design and changes in public space can play a central role in this regard.
Faced with this new challenge, we must ask ourselves a series of questions about the future of cities: Will residents flee big cities en masse, in favour of medium-sized cities or towns? Will the visible changes to public space made thus far be permanent or temporary? Will more public space be given over to pedestrians and cyclists as a result of the pandemic? What other pandemic-driven changes in habits or use of public space will we see in the future?
It is still too early to have definitive answers, although the experiences of cities around the world point to some clues. For now, there are more questions than answers, but the answers to these questions are sure to define the post-pandemic city.
The key question is whether or not there will be an exodus from big cities, either to avoid crowds for health reasons or simply because of the belief that suburbs or villages offer a better quality of life. Teleworking creates new disadvantages in small (but well located) spaces and new opportunities in more distant (but larger) spaces. Some people have even predicted the rise of a neo-ruralist movement that would revive small, abandoned villages.
Despite the chatter, the data show that a mass exodus from cities has yet to materialise. Moreover, experience tells us that people are less likely to relocate during a period of economic stagnation. Although many people may want to move, economic and work-related realities may put this luxury out of reach. The urban studies theorist Richard Florida argues that the demographics of cities could change because those who can afford it may leave, but that urban centres will continue to attract the younger population. In such a scenario, the total number of inhabitants would not fluctuate greatly, but the resident profile would change.
So far the pandemic has brought about temporary modifications of public spaces: widening of pavements, traffic-calming measures and changes in how village markets operate. During the pandemic, hundreds of cities—Boston, London, Portland, Vancouver, etc.—have reconfigured their streets to accommodate more cyclists and pedestrians. Roadways and parking spaces have been reclaimed from vehicles. This trend has swept not just large cities but also medium-sized ones.
During the pandemic hundreds of cities—Boston, London, Portland, Vancouver, etc.—have reconfigured their streets to accommodate more cyclists and pedestrians
The most optimistic voices argue that the pandemic is accelerating the transformation of cities into greener and more sustainable places to live. Milan was the first city to announce that the transformations it introduced during the pandemic—such as the widening of pavements and 35 km of new bicycle lanes—would be made permanent. Many other cities are now proudly touting their ambitious plans. But when it comes down to it, have they really been so visionary? What cities have leveraged the pandemic to achieve real change?
People walking down the street of Creu Coberta in Barcelona taking advantage of the "We open streets" initiative. Photo: Laura Guerrero / Barcelona City Council.
Post-pandemic actions in cities around the world have been complied in a number of databases, including the “Shifting Streets” COVID-19 Mobility Dataset and the database created by city planner Mike Lydon. The data show that cities such as Cali (Colombia), Lima (Peru), Lisbon (Portugal) and Auckland (New Zealand) have been more ambitious than, say, Barcelona in expanding their network of cycle lanes in response to the pandemic.
During the first wave of the pandemic, some of us noticed a masculinisation of public spaces. We also saw that the most vulnerable people were forced to continue working and using public transport, while the more affluent were able to flee the cities and enjoy green space. Specific research on cities, neighbourhoods and squares is needed in order to understand the new dynamics of how people use public space—and the data must be analysed by, at least, age and gender.
The most optimistic voices argue that the pandemic is accelerating the transformation of cities into greener and more sustainable places to live
Research using mobile GPS data is starting to shed light on the new dynamics of post-pandemic movement. But such studies merely record the presence or absence of people—they do not explain who they are or what they are doing. Hence the importance of in situ observation—a tool that enables us to understand the profile of people by age, gender and place of origin. In situ observation also makes it possible to determine whether there have been changes in how spaces are used or in how people behave in public spaces.
Under our current circumstances, when we go outside we are more likely to notice how many people are in the streets with us. We all have our own intuitions about how many people are “too many” and when we should avoid a particular place. In the 1980s, the urbanist William Whyte argued that all public spaces have a “carrying capacity”—the maximum number of people that can be present in a given space without making us uncomfortable. Whyte reached this conclusion after observing public spaces in New York for many years. The pandemic is likely changing our intuition about the carrying capacity of public spaces. As urban planners and city managers, we need to focus on creating calming spaces, not only in response to respond to this new demand, but because these urban oases improve people’s health.