This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD. Join the Forum Network for free using your email or social media accounts to share your own stories, ideas and expertise in the comments.
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to provide an excellent starting point to think about the future of cities. Intuitively, it should mark an obvious paradigm shift. In the case of COVID-19, all the evidence seems to be right in front of our eyes: worldwide, the most affected regions have been metropolises, so density leads to diseases, density is bad, cities should be abandoned…so let’s go back to villages or, even better, suburbs.
I would oppose this narrative. I think the COVID-19 pandemic is just one of the many signs of a larger set of worrisome, intertwined processes: overpopulation, epidemics, climate change, rising sea levels. The appearance of this new disease is related to deforestation and to the consequent depletion of wildlife habitats, while high levels of air pollution probably helped it spread. COVID-19 might not even be the worst of all diseases we can expect to come. In any case, we should prepare for all of them. So, more than any COVID-19-specific measure, we need new ideas in order for cities to be healthy, fair and pleasant in a world that cannot become too warm and must preserve its biodiversity. Below is a very rough series of observations on the current situation with a few suggestions for post-COVID-19 cities.
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Cities never changed for purely medical reasons. It is not possible to explain either Hausmann’s Paris with cholera or Modernism with tuberculosis. Cities correspond more broadly to a project of civilisation (an old history of American architecture by Lewis Mumford opens with a quote that illustrates this clearly: “Architecture, properly understood, is civilisation itself”). A discussion of cities is always a discussion involving many levels: health policies alone cannot explain everything.
If we take cities as the most complex and revealing product of a civilisation, then solutions for this new challenge cannot depend entirely on technology. Technology is simply one of the many aspects that will make up the new form of city life. Sustainability cannot be reached at the level of objects, only at the level of systems.
In order to look forward, we need to look back. Cities are children of the Neolithic Revolution, the offspring of agricultural surplus. In order to imagine future cities, we need to go back to basics. A re-organisation of agricultural supply chains (and new infrastructures and logistics for them) will be crucial. The most important transformation needed by our cities must happen not in their midst, but in the territories around them.
Density needs to be re-thought, but this does not mean going back to suburbs. Suburbs remain unsustainable: they require far too much infrastructure, they waste far too much energy and their tax base is rarely able to support them. Even in terms of preventing the diffusion of diseases, spreading housing while concentrating commercial activity (as in the average suburb) will do no good. Cities should certainly be more balanced and better rooted in their territories, but we will still live in cities. Although it does not seem popular anymore, I will stick to the famous prophecy that two thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050.
Contemporary cities should be recognised for what they are. And they aren’t compact urban settlements with a proud and well-defined citizenship. They are more like a continuous inhabited territory, an even covered field. This landscape infinitely repeats over immense portions of the planet: infrastructure, trash and office districts, favelas and gated communities, agriculture, etc. Everywhere looks like this: East Java, northern Italy, the valley of Mexico, the Taiheiyo belt, Flanders, greater São Paulo, Guangdong, New Jersey, the Nile valley or Bangladesh. What we call cities is just a special ingredient in this widespread urban broth.
This is the place where William Morris’s scary definition of architecture as “anything but desert” became true. The field lies outside of the binary opposition of city and nature: from the point of view of nature, it is dirty, polluted, compromised, settled and consumed; from the point of view of the city, it is outdated, uninteresting, sleepy, backward and provincial. It is this uninspiring urban landscape that we need to consider when we think about the future of cities. And we should consider that, in general, there will be more people, more capital, more cars, more buildings and more noise, but less soil, and less water.
Within this context, a few things brought about by COVID-19 will remain. The “home office” is here to stay. A lot of office spaces will disappear. Some office towers will become empty; maybe this could temporarily spark a reversal of gentrification. And yet offices will not entirely disappear. Digital conferences will not be substitutes for all meetings. Business executives would still like to travel and make sure that business partners understand that they are the boss (no one is happy to Zoom wearing shorts in the living room thinking that their counterpart is also wearing shorts in the living room). The end result will be that, at least for office workers, schedules will become even more fluid; but again, this process was already underway.
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New work schedules require new urban models, based on networks of sub-centres and on a mix of housing and production, with more (and more explicit) social responsibilities attributed to retail. The plurality of this new city needs a new infrastructure. Mobility has to be reorganised according to polycentric models with intermodal exchange points next to Zero Emission Zones. But even in this respect, the main challenge is social, not technological. Electric cars will not solve this problem; abandoning private ownership of cars in favor of innovative car-sharing models will be far more efficient.
In a society in desperate need to re-consider long-term scenarios, architecture could provide a concrete image of what “durable” and “public” could mean.
If offices shrink, homes will not expand, at least not in dense urban areas. How would we add a workspace to every apartment without ending up in a sort of bellum omnium contra omnes? We will telework in the exact same living room full of screaming kids where we teleworked during lockdown. For the ones who do not like it, there will be offices (and at least for a while they will be cheaper).
The need to avoid excessive concentrations (of people, information, capital) will bring up new challenges, as activities will be (partially) re-distributed. A new space can emerge, with a new role at the intermediate scale: that of the neighbourhood. We should introduce a new form of proximity and imagine a new sense of community. This transformation of the social fabric needs a complex set of material transformations. At the small scale, new urban systems have to provide basic services (shops, schools and a minimum of public life) and establish simple and efficient connections to the larger urban regions. To achieve this goal, it will be crucial to develop a new mobility infrastructure that could limit traffic, as well as to support the transition to remote working. This also shows the great weakness of this scenario in that it will require investing resources into long forgotten regions, and consequently divesting from the rich, central ones.
At the beginning of the pandemic, it looked like a new “fear of public space” could emerge. As of today, people are not avoiding collective events or renouncing the use of public space. On the contrary, it looks like the temporary suspension of religious ceremonies, cultural events and sports has underlined the need for collective spaces and activities. Starting from this renewed commitment to public life, architects will have to imagine a new model of public space that fulfills the desire for a collective life while meeting the new environmental standards. A new form of simple, hybrid public space needs to emerge at the neighbourhood scale. There is no reason to imagine this new public space in romantic or nostalgic terms.
All of the transformations involving our cities will happen slowly. Even if global warming will not wait and even if we need to act quickly, we must accept that cities and territories cannot change all of a sudden, like magic. Cities never changed all at once (not even Le Corbusier succeeded in this). Because of this inherent slowness, we should start thinking of the long term (and long term here means really long term: decades or centuries). In other words, we must resume planning with a very extended timeframe in mind - exactly what we all thought was useless (if not outright stupid) in the last 30 years. Moreover, we must go back to making buildings that last more than the financial schemes that are necessary to sell them. For instance, a banal but good idea would be to build again with materials such as stone, that have very low carbon footprints and are extremely durable.
For the past 30 years, architecture has been operating inside of an “anti-architectural” aesthetic paradigm. Everything had to be fast, light, moving, personal, while architecture is by definition slow, heavy, stable, collective. In a society in desperate need to re-consider long-term scenarios, architecture could provide a concrete image of what “durable” and “public” could mean.
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The pandemic suspended time, at least for a while, and implicitly opened up a space for reflection. Our society looked altogether unprepared. This impression will remain, and will leave space for possible changes. We are now less change-averse than before COVID-19. Another interesting thing that happened during the pandemic is the spectacular decrease in pollution levels (highly evident in places like Milan). This situation involuntarily provided us with a rather concrete picture of what it would mean to lower emissions in a way that could really make a difference. We had an idea of what it would mean to comply with the Paris Agreement. All of a sudden, we can now match this otherwise quite abstract goal with a real experience. This is crucial from a political point of view. If we want to reduce emissions, we now (sort of) know what doing it would look like
If changes must be implemented, then who will implement them? Epidemics aren’t wars. In wars, the opposing armies prepare the future and promote a new ruling class. So, in the case of wars, a new leadership is produced by the war itself (Prussia after Napoleonic wars, Italy after the Resistenza). In the case of COVID-19, there will be no ready-made new leadership at the end of the crisis. And yet, a new leadership is badly needed.
Finally, there will certainly be opposition to the new cities and social models that we need to achieve sustainable development. We have a choice between a model based on an explicit form of planning (thinking of the future, collectively taking decisions, building new infrastructure, modifying production and socioeconomic relationships) and an implicit form of surveillance (postponing thinking of the long-term scenario, hiding decisions, defending production as it is, increasing surveillance).