When Covid-19 pandemic took over the world like wild-fire, it made us realize that the world is even more connected then we could have imagined and that we are less prepared for an uncertain future than perhaps we thought we were. Despite taking several quick measures like limiting movement in urban areas, closing public spaces and transforming exhibition halls and hotels into health centers, we were desperately unprepared to deal with the unpredictability and devastating effects of Covid-19.
As we look towards the future, we can take several paths. The obvious one would be to learn from the current situation and create restrictive measures for the future. In this path our steps would be motivated by the fear of knowing that without action we could risk severe results. This idea is based on preparing for a future scenario resembling the present scenario. It also fosters the belief that we are in control. However, despite our actions, I believe we will not be able to avoid or alleviate economic, emotional, physical, and social hardships like the ones that we are currently experiencing.
The other path that we could take would be to reflect on the current situation and propose ideas that in short, medium, and long terms can make a difference, even if we can’t predict with precision what the future may hold. This way of proposing ideas for the future is akin to the processes that architects, and designers have always used. In other words, it is the ability to understand complex problems and create design proposals that may accomplish several goals at the same time.
If we glance back at history and global health crises of the distant past, we will find that they gave rise to establishment of sewer systems in cities, protocols, and infrastructure to provide clean drinking water, and designs for hospitals to create airy wings that separate patients with different types of illnesses and offer better staff and patient protection.
Today, when we think about the future of cities, we know that physical distance, hygiene, avoiding crowds of unknown people, and not exposing our high-risk citizens to sources of contagion are all methods being used to slow the spread of Covid 19. So, a simple approach to a global pandemic would be to impose strict regulations, limit passengers in public transit, place hand sanitizers everywhere, and erect plexiglass barriers to make sure that people can’t come into close contact with each other. While these measures might be adequate for the short term, they certainly won’t work in the long term and they will not contribute to livable cities.
Our cities need to be vibrant economically, socially, and culturally. They need to bring together talent to create and share knowledge, new inventions, and better ways of doing things. How can we then, approach the city of the future? Many ideas are being put forth these days. I believe, two differentiating factors of the good ideas are their long-term impact and their relevance.
For example, if we seek to make our cities safer for residents by providing wider sidewalks, we will not only offer sufficient physical space to provide healthy distance between people, we will also make cities more pedestrian-friendly, reduce traffic, and eventually improve air quality. Likewise, if we can provide safe cycle lanes, perhaps protected with vegetation, we will, in one move, achieve several results.
A second example has to do with public transportation. As we realize that packed buses or subway cars are not the healthiest for riders, we could permit and support alternative, sustainable forms of transport including shared bicycles, scooters, and single-person electric vehicles. A non-vehicular measure has to do with changing the schedules we follow for getting to work, study, and shopping. By ensuring that there is more flexibility, variety in schedules, and with the collaboration of companies and institutions, we could begin to flatten the spike of the peak hours.
The conversations around investing in infrastructure for cities must go beyond roads and bridges. We now need to see open space, public parks, and schools as part of our most basic needs both short and long term. Parks that provide a safe space for old and young to gather, while respecting necessary distancing, to remain in contact with others and to provide respite from cramped housing or loneliness. Schools are places of education but can also serve as pop-up facilities for basic needs of information or primary care, in the afterhours. Using our buildings for compatible services for longer hours is not only efficient and sustainable but can also contribute to building communities.
Finally, what we can learn from the pandemic of Covid-19 is that architects and designers could and should be permanent members of teams that work at hospitals and other civic institutions, government agencies, and think tanks. We shouldn’t call in these professionals just at a time of crisis but must rely on their analysis and ideas for helping us understand our complex urban environments on a daily basis, in order to propose creative, meaningful, sustainable, and long-term ideas.