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Smart Thinker: An urban design expert on how the pandemic will shape our cities

Smart Thinker: An urban design expert on how the pandemic will shape our cities

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our public spaces and urban environments. Dean of the Faculty of Creative Arts and Industries at the University of Auckland, Diane Brand looks at the shape our future cities will take.

Smart Thinker: An urban design expert on how the pandemic will shape our cities

When the world emerges from this time of lockdowns, Zoom meetings and social distancing, what will our public spaces and city centres look like? What do our politicians, urban designers and architects need to consider to ensure a vibrant urban environment while keeping citizens safe?

They’re complicated questions that don’t have easy answers, as urban design expert Professor Diane Brand well knows.

But she notes that the future of the public realm won’t necessarily come down to design and planning; rather it will be determined by the survival of the businesses and institutions that comprise these spaces.

“One of the essential elements of public space is that it is surrounded by activities that typically tend to be businesses such as cafés, shops and bars,” says Brand.

“When you have public spaces surrounded by retailers that are closing one by one because they’re going out of business, that threatens the vitality of the public space.”

A lack of vibrancy

The post-pandemic city will thus largely be shaped by the economic consequences of the coronavirus, but equally the pandemic’s impact on our social lives is changing our public spaces in obvious ways.

In much of the world at this moment, public spaces can only be occupied if there is sufficient room to accommodate social distancing, significantly reducing density in these areas and therefore their liveliness.

New Zealand already struggles to support vibrant public spaces, due to our small and spread-out population, so what can we do to inject life into our city centres amid the return to normality after lockdown?

The fact that working from home has become more commonplace adds to the challenge, as support for businesses in our CBDs is reduced.

Brand points to the possibility of removing cars from city centres, reclaiming space for pedestrians and cyclists.

“We’ve had an increase in wildlife in cities, we’ve had dropping levels of pollution, so there is a movement to claim all that roadway space back for high-speed or high- utilisation public transport,” she says.

“That would lead to a major shift in the way public space is used, and the health and quality of the air and our environments.”

Redesigning the city in such a way evidently presents challenges, should another pandemic come around.

Eliminating cars removes a mode of transport in which we can remain physically distant, and higher residential density means a decline in a suburban way of life that has proved advantageous during the coronavirus outbreak.

“There are trends and countertrends, and it needs to play out a bit longer for us to see how it’s going to work,” says Brand.

“There are all sorts of design issues on every level that need to be resolved somehow. We can operate on the highest-efficiency, highest-volume model, to make things economically efficient, but that model clearly doesn’t work right now because people won’t opt into it unless it’s safe.”

Although, Brand feels, density doesn’t necessarily result in a dangerous situation during a pandemic.

“We’ve seen high-density cities cope with the pandemic, such as Hong Kong and in Taiwan. I feel it’s the management within the spaces, the leadership and the response to dealing with the disease that is differentiating countries.”

Equitable housing

Another consideration in shaping future cities is the creation of residential environments that are optimised for working from home for all – not just the wealthy.

“Some people can work at home comfortably – they have a nice section with a nice backyard, extra rooms in the house that they can use as offices,” says Brand.

“But that’s for the affluent section of the population. There’s a whole other group who are living in cramped housing with multigenerational families; they may not have adequate internet connections, they might not have the right technology.”

Brand says these issues should be taken into account in providing adequate housing. “Do we build houses or apartments now with additional rooms for people to work at home? Does it change the fundamental design of our housing?

“And if it does, does that go right from the top of society to the bottom, so that social housing also has this provision, not just luxury housing?”

COVID-19 has exposed many inequalities, and on the matter of housing, Brand says there is plenty of commentary but not many solutions being presented.

The same can be said for conceiving our future public realm – there are myriad factors to consider, just as there have been for governments responding to the pandemic. It remains to be seen where the priorities lie.

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