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Urban Planning in a Post-pandemic World

Government News

Urban living in a post-pandemic world will be more local, compact, pedestrian-friendly and connected, according to a leading urban planner.

Mike Day

Footpaths will be wide and green spaces will be designed to accommodate social distancing. We’ll live and work in Silicon-valley style housing with studio offices. Pedestrians and e-bikes will have priority, and cars will become the exception rather than the rule on our roads.

The coronavirus pandemic can teach us valuable lessons about urban planning and how to create better neighbourhoods, according to Mike Day, co-founder and director of planning and design firm RobertsDay. Mr. Day says coronavirus has acted as telescope for present planning shortcomings as well as a pointer to the future. Buzzwords like lockdown, social isolation and WFH have all become emblematic of the COVID-19 era, and all hold implications for future planning, he says.

Lockdown

One thing that the coronavirus lockdown has highlighted is the importance of the neighbourhood unit, Mr. Day says, and it’s shown that the most resilient communities are walkable neighbourhoods.

“In the last 30-50 years that we’ve been laying out the suburban fabric we’ve had a preoccupation with designing for the car, so business centres, shopping centres and residential areas are remote,” he says.

“COVID has sort of brought it to a head, because while we need to be physically separated, we’ve been asked to stay in our neighborhoods.

“But the neighbourhood unit needs to be compact, with most of the daily needs within walking distance so you can walk down and get the bread and the milk, for example.”

One of the effects of more people walking and cycling locally and fewer people driving during COVID has been a radical reduction in carbon emissions as well as a reduction in car fatalities. The effect will be enduring, Mr. Day believes.

“The Mayors of Paris and Barcelona are already closing streets because there’s not enough room on the footpaths,” he says. “We’re going to come out of the pandemic and there’s going to be less room for cars, more room for pedestrians and cyclists.”

Cities like Barcelona are realising the benefits of having fewer cars on the road.

WFH

Working from home has been the default option thanks to COVID-19, but Mr. Day reckons it’s a beneficial trend that will stick.

“The lesson we’ve learned is that it is practical to work form home,” he says. “A lot of employers were reluctant to let their workers work from home until COVID but now they are seeing the benefits to the business and the individual.”

Mr. Day predicts we’ll see this flow into changes in preferred housing models, from small, cabin-fever-inducing apartments to townhouse living, incorporating a Silicon Valley home office over the garage and local parks nearby.

“One of the advantages of the model is we can reclaim the frontage for pedestrians,” he says. “You haven’t got the continuous garage frontages or the curb cut you get with the driveway in every house. So you can plant more trees and have shady tree-lined streets that are eminently walkable for pedestrians and cyclists, you put the veranda back on the house so you creating a better opportunity for community interaction.”

Social distancing

The pandemic has also seen an influx of people making use of public parks, with some areas, like Melbourne’s Tan Track, becoming something of a mecca. Mr. Day says it’s almost at the point where people need to pick the right time of day to be able to physically distance themselves. He also says we should be thinking in terms of physical isolation rather than social isolation.

“We should be able to talk to each other even if have to be 1.5 meters away,” he says.

“You can do that in well executed parks and well executed pathways. At the moment they’re not wide enough to be physically separate. We’ve just got to be more diligent in the way physical design just needs to be more fine-tuned.”

The construction of well-planned open spaces that allow for physical distancing could be one of the legacies of COVID-19.

Density

Meanwhile Mr. Day says the belief that places with the greatest density are most prone to pandemics is misguided. He says density isn’t a risk as long as good governance is in place, as places like South Korea and Singapore, which have had success in containing the virus.

“We can’t through the baby out with the bathwater. Density is just so important in terms of the healthy communities we we’ll need as we move out of the pandemic,” he says.