The post-COVID reality

24 September 2020 | Posted In: #136 Spring 2020,

Coronavirus has altered the look and feel of cities globally prompting talk of a society emerging into a new normal. But, as Richard Florida discusses, only some of the changes will remain when the crisis is over. 

Two images of the post-pandemic city have emerged. One is the urbanist’s utopia of widened sidewalks, ample bike lanes, parking lots converted to green spaces and extended networks of pedestrianised boulevards. The other is a dystopia of empty streets and boarded-up shops, and masked citizens, scurrying quickly between their jobs and their homes. This is a city where theatres and museums are shuttered, where restaurants and cafés are closed down or sparsely populated with socially distanced diners, where there are no people milling on the streets, no children playing in playgrounds.

The post-coronavirus reality is likely to lie somewhere in between. There will be more bike lanes, but there will also be more driving due to the lingering fear of trains and transit. There will be fewer families but more young people. There will also be fewer luxury towers, less foreign wealth, less hyper-gentrification, and less sterility. Many existing shops and creative venues will close, but new ones will open. Artists, musicians, and creatives are incredibly resilient; they will find their way back to urban areas drawn by lower rents, and they will apply their creativity and their sweat equity to revive them as they always have.

For the next year, maybe two, our streetscapes will have an altered look and feel, some of which we are already experiencing. Mask wearing may be the most visible change. Children will wear them as they walk to schools in which the classrooms have been reconfigured for physical distancing. Masks, visors, and facial protection will be integrated into the uniforms of postal workers and delivery people, grocery store clerks, police, firefighters, and security guards.

There will be less jostling on the streets, fewer random gatherings of people. Outdoor waiting lines will be ubiquitous, in front of grocery and retail stores, museums and cultural venues, and especially office buildings, whose occupants will have to wait to have their temperatures checked. There will be vacant storefronts and fewer restaurants and cafés. Those that survive will have fewer seats, their tables will have been designed for physical distancing. Drinks will be brought to the table, no more crowding around bars. The fitness studios that cropped up along so many urban streets will remain shuttered or be much less crowded than they were as they are rejiggered for social distancing. Large theatres and theatre districts will be silent for at least another year, maybe more. So will stadiums and arenas, as there will be no large concerts or sporting events. There may be a good deal less milling of college students and professors in the neighbourhoods surrounding urban universities should those colleges fail to reopen and have to rely on remote learning.

The way we work will change too, above and beyond the fact that more of us will do so from home. When we do return to work, offices and commercial as districts will look and feel different. And many professional workers will go back to work in offices. Indeed, more than 40 percent of those currently working remotely will return to work fully on-site in offices, and another 20 percent or so will work at an office at least half of the time, according to one recent survey. Some of the changes at work may be as simple as rearranging furniture or putting tape on floors to show people where to stand, or limiting entry to offices, shops, lobbies, and lifts to promote physical distancing. Some may be much more expensive and intrusive, like installing infrared sensors to monitor people’s temperatures. Cramped open plan offices will be stretched out, with workstations spaced further apart, and more people working behind plexiglass dividers or in actual offices. There will be substantial queues in office lobbies to avoid overcrowding in the lift.

Getting from place to place will be different, too. Fear of trains and public transit is likely to linger regardless of whether or not they can be made safer through a combination of mask-wearing and social distancing. Streets and highways that were virtually empty during the lockdown will be ever more flooded with traffic as more commuters take to their cars. Trains and buses will be less crowded, both because many people will be afraid to use them, as well as due to design for social distancing. Lines and circles will be painted on their floors, indicating where to stand; turnstiles may be locked when stations become too crowded. In cities and some suburbs, people will walk or bike more to get around. Rush hour will feel different too, as companies will alter their schedules, with workers clocking in on different days and in staggered shifts, both to relieve traffic congestion and to lessen crowding in lifts and office buildings.

WHAT MIGHT STICK

It is impossible to predict in advance which changes will stick, and how much and to what extent our cities and suburbs will ultimately change. Such ventures in futurism are always a fool’s game. But it is safe to say that the changes that will persist are those that make our cities safer, healthier, and more efficient. If history is any guide, the most enduring changes will likely be in the built form and infrastructure of cities, even as mask wearing and social distancing fade from our collective memory. In the wake of the Black Plague, Italian cities built their infamous pest houses to quarantine the sick. To offset the threat of pestilence in the mid-17th century, London replaced many of its older wooden structures with brick, which was believed to be more impervious to disease carrying vermin. Paris widened its boulevards and streets in the 19th century, in part to improve sanitation and health.

In New York, battles with tuberculosis, cholera, and other infectious diseases prompted massive investments in sewer and sanitation systems, the development of modern building codes mandating air shafts and courtyards, and the expansion of parks and green spaces, which were seen not just as places to relax but veritable cleaning machines that would help purify urban air and water. The minimalist, open-plan aesthetic of Modernism, with its use of more sterile materials like glass and steel, was shaped in part by the architectural requirements of hospitals and tuberculosis sanatoriums. Residential bathrooms were upgraded with hospital-inspired tiles and laboratory-like faucets and fixtures to promote hygiene and cleanliness, and the first-floor powder room was introduced in homes and apartments built during the Spanish Flu, so that visitors and workmen would have a place to wash their hands immediately upon entering and thus avoid carrying germs into the upstairs living quarters.

We are likely to see some analogous sorts of changes in our cities today. The crisis revealed how poorly so much of today’s urban infrastructure and open space is equipped to handle crowds and social distancing. Sidewalks are too narrow and too much space is handed over to parking and cars. As cities reopen and recover, their streets and avenues will be reconfigured with clearly-marked lanes for walking, biking, cars, buses, delivery, and rideshare vehicles — something urbanists have long called for. Some roads may be turned into busways, allowing buses  to run faster and more frequently. In cities located on water, ferry and water taxi services may be expanded.

Urban infrastructure today is more than just streets, tunnels, pipes, and tubes; it is ensconced with and enabled by advanced technology. The current pandemic will not only accelerate changes in the built environment, but in the use of surveillance technology to track and trace the virus. In Asian cities, temperature checks and sensors are routine in office buildings and airports. Smartphone apps alert those who have come in contact with infected people and allow public health agencies to track their movements. In April, Apple and Google announced a partnership to enable iPhone and Android phones to do the same things. It’s critical that governments put in place the required regulations and governance mechanisms that can effectively protect people’s privacy while ensuring better health and safety.

PULLING TOGETHER OR APART

While there is reason to hope that recent events will usher in a new era of civic-mindedness and pulling together, our society remains deeply polarised. There remains a deep class divide in how we work, with more affluent professional and knowledge workers able to work remotely and isolate safely at home, while less well-paid frontline service workers put themselves in harm’s way to serve them and suffered mortality rates that were many times higher. This class divide at work overlaps with race. And, the poor and minorities have been hit hardest by the economic fallout from the pandemic.

Even before the pandemic, our daily life experiences were dividing us into two societies, with private schools, luxury sky boxes, first-class treatment, and express “Lexus lanes” for the rich, and under-funded public schools, long lines and hard bleacher seats for everyone else. The crises will serve to magnify these divides in how we go about our daily life. A world in which social distancing is required for a prolonged period means that thecosts of going out to a nice restaurant or to a movie theatre, concert, or play will likely go up simply as a result of reduced seating. While the rich can secure personalised services, hiring chefs to cater their parties and commissioning private concerts in their homes, the less advantaged will be effectively shut out of any such pleasures. In some affluent urban districts, buildings will be patrolled by private security forces and increased guard labour, another trend that was on the upswing before the current crises.

Ultimately, the virus itself will determine both the timeline of our recovery and the shape that our cities and
society take on in its wake. Many if not most of these changes in the look and feel of our cities and in the rhythms of our daily life will fade over time, just as they did after the Spanish Flu. If robust anti-viral treatments are developed and rolled out relatively quickly; if a vaccine becomes available faster than the year or more that most experts predict, the changes will be relatively small. But if the pandemic comes back in larger waves over the next 12, 18 and 24 months, or if the fiscal, economic, and social crises that have arisen alongside it deepen substantially, the changes will be longer-lasting, and some may be permanent.

HOW TO BUILD A MORE RESILIENT CITY

Cities will need to pandemic-proof key infrastructure, like airports, train, and transit stations, convention centres, stadiums, arenas, shopping malls, office buildings, universities, and more. If street life and commerce are to return in some reasonable level and form, small businesses, restaurants, and arts and cultural institutions and their workers will not only need extensive financial support, they will need significant technical support and advice on how to redesign and reconfigure for health and safety, as well as financial support to stay afloat.

Even more so, cities will need to develop long-term recovery plans to ensure that they can rebuild in ways that are more inclusive, equitable, and just. This will require significant strategies and investments to reduce inequality, combat racial and economic segregation, shift funding from police to community-based organisations, develop more affordable housing, provide greater economic and social opportunity, and strengthen less advantaged neighbourhoods and communities. We would like to believe that the fallout from the pandemic will serve the better angels of our nature, catalysing us into a more just and more inclusive society. But no such change is guaranteed.

My biggest worry though is that, as the immediate threat of today’s crises fade, the current momentum for change that feels so compelling and imminent will also dissipate, and we will gradually slide back to the way we were before. The 1918 Spanish Flu is often referred to as the “forgotten” pandemic. Let’s hope that this time we can learn from the trauma that is all around us, and that it pushes us to rebuild along more inclusive, just, and resilient lines.

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