The New Normal: Post-Covid Sustainable Cities
Throughout history, the horrors of pandemics have been followed by major changes in infrastructure, urban planning, and societies as a whole to prevent that disaster from happening again. The bubonic plague ushered in radical societal shifts that ended serfdom in much of Europe, the cholera and yellow fever epidemics led to the creation of modern sewage systems, and 20th century outbreaks of polio and the Spanish flu led to modernist style focus on sterile surfaces and spacious designs. So what about Covid19? Today we are going to look at some of the changes in store for cities post-Covid that’ll hopefully lead to healthier and more sustainable living.
Air Quality Focus
Probably the most talked about change is reshaping our understanding of air quality. The news and social media channels have been flooded with stories about how poor air-quality is linked to Covid19 health complications, as well as inspirational stories about how slowing down during quarantine has cleared up air quality much faster than anticipated. Together this is already creating a newfound focus and push for air-quality improvements, as what we’re seeing is that even the “normally good” cities for air quality could do with being a lot better. The focus on air quality often leads to changing our methods of transportation. Cities such as Milan, Vancouver, and Berlin are already racing to add more bike lanes, pedestrian walkways and to limiting cars, as well as increasing cleaning efforts in public transportation to ensure safe commutes.
A less-talked about but still important aspect of this is indoor air quality. With so many people stuck indoors, we as a population are starting to see major changes in how we should be designing our ventilation systems, rethinking common air fresheners and cleaners filled with toxins, and introducing more air cleansing plants into our lives. Balcony access, office gyms, and meditation rooms were already on the rise as perks for office workers, and as workers slowly and cautiously begin to return to work these enticements may become permanent.
The other big work change of course is with the rise of digital infrastructure. Sites like Zoom exploded in popularity as people worked from home quarantines, and likely this will mean that working from home will be considered much more of a mainstay in work culture moving forward. The interesting part is the implications of what this could mean. A shift towards remote work could make the digital nomad phenomenon less of a hipster alternative lifestyle and more of a mainstream reality. This in turn leads to less need for daily commutes into cities from a suburb, which cuts down on one of the major sources of traffic congestion, and therefore on pollution. Living in suburbs near the big cities is becoming less and less of an attractive option for many in developed countries, as quieter, cheaper options are becoming available while still making big city office-work money, and entertainment options are more available online than ever. Now, while cities in general are better for the environment due to the centralization of logistics and transportation, without the need for a commuting we could see “digital nomads” transform into “digital villages,” who use the convenience of online work to build smaller more close knit communities. Instead of the sustainable cities vs unsustainable suburb divide we could see an entirely different type of community emerge.
Another aspect of the new city will be rapid adaptability that’ll make more efficient use of the space we do have. This style of construction made headlines worldwide The Huoshenshan Hospital, a temporary hospital in Wuhan built for Covid19 whose stunningly fast construction took only about 10 days. The secret was a combination of super lightweight materials and modal construction that allowed for an extremely adaptive form of construction. While obviously useful for emergency response, this type of technology has sustainability implications as well. Namely it will help certain types of buildings like sports stadiums and convention centers to become heavily customizable depending on the need. So for example, super fast housing units can theoretically be built for people in need, and as they get more secure housing the temporary construction can be changed into something completely different, like a festival setting. Sports arenas in particular are known for being particularly massive and not particularly sustainable construction projects, so imagine a sports center that can change sports entirely depending on the season, be used as a community center off-season, and can be made into a fully functioning hospital within days. Modal housing is already becoming popular as a way to get affordable, modern, and resource efficient housing to the people, and those same principles are being applied to all types of buildings.
Finally, Covid19 has shown that we may need to think more carefully about how our food system works. With everyone crowding our grocery stores during a pandemic, our workers getting overwhelmed, and supplies running low, more and more people are turning towards growing their own food. For cities, this can mean turning unused lots into community gardens, rooftop gardens, indoor gardening, and even hydroponics that let you grow plants without soil, meaning those plants can grow in vertical planters saving massive amounts of space. One of (but not the only) big problems with our agriculture is how far the food has to travel to reach the grocery stores, which uses greenhouse gasses, creates a need for preservatives, and ultimately leads to lower quality food. Ramping up farming within a city will allow us to cut down on transportation while we fill our shelves with more fresh produce. While we are of course a long way off from self-sustaining cities, Covid19’s impact on our food infrastructure might kickstart urban farming initiatives that have long been dreamed about but not yet built at scale.
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