SPATIAL CHRONICLES

ISSUE 3

MARCH 2021

Built environment and the Post COVID Scenario: Perceptions and possibilities

Dipti Shukla , M.Arch (Urban Design), B.arch & Interior Design Assistant Professor & Architecture Program Coordinator, School of Design & Architecture(SoDA), Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE) – Dubai Campus She is an architect and urbanist with eight years of experience both as an industry professional and an academician for Bachelors and Masters programs with Urban Design as her core subject area both in India and Dubai.She has worked with leading organizations in the urban domain ranging from grassroot and city level to state level government organization and national & international firms in the corporate sector. She has two book publications under her name and is the founder of a creative enterprise, ‘Karasthani – a Design Palette Studio’, collaborating on an assortment of projects related to Design, Graphics, Arts, Editorials, Illustrations and Allied Fields.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill and we have since come a long way from being locked inside our houses, to slowly getting used to the new normal while working towards changing how we engage with spaces and people outdoors.

For centuries, human pandemics and health concerns have steered urban planning and the design of cities. “Hygiene and moral health depend on the layout of cities. Without hygiene and moral health, the social cell becomes atrophied.” (Corbusier, 1987) By restricting the outspread of waterborne diseases through urban design, early in the 19th century, Victorian urban planners laid the foundation for the European cities of today. Later, examples of ideal settlements as direct responses to the spread of urban disease became the inspiration for the Garden City movement that would go on to revolutionize modern city planning. Improving the sanitary conditions of cities motivated planners, architects, and engineers to re-design cities in the late 19th century. (Sennett, 2018) Even in the 20th century, the pursuit of healthy, hygienic modern spaces was a key factor for the surge in social housing. (Wintle, 2020). However, it seems that at the onset of the early 20th century, we took a progressive departure from the health concerns that play a key role in shaping a city . Cramped houses and Slums, high densities with lack of breathing spaces are rather invitations to such pandemics in today’s day and time. This ignorance is responsible for the difficulties faced by city dwellers in the current COVID-19 pandemic, which has spread rapidly at a global scale and affected the world at large and brought it to a standstill.

Looking at the brighter side, many positive effects have been felt during the lockdown. A new way of life emerged as the ‘Quarantine Culture’- Many people have enjoyed a better work-life balance with less commuting and more family time; easily socializing through digital mediums, on a virtual platform; “neighbours have found creative ways to connect and combat isolation by communicating across balconies, terraces, or driveways.” (Siossian, 2020); even the environment has benefited from drastically reduced travel and energy demands with improved air quality and reductions in carbon emissions. Sadly, It has taken an unprecedented event like Covid-19 to make people realize the comfort offered by open spaces in the built environment, and this global experience may also set a precedent in how we develop and (re)design our cities.

Will 2020-mark a ‘before and after’ with respect to planning and design?

The COVID-19 crisis has brought attention to the need for sizeable, creatively designed, accessible, and multifunctional public spaces. Although long before the onset of COVID-19 designers have always looked at the need for accessible spaces for all with wider sidewalks and trails and more spacious parks and open spaces. Users impose various demands on public space and most cities fail to meet these demands. The loopholes lie in the conventional process of implementation– where decisions and ideas for improving the built environment are one-sided and mostly top-down, while not considering the minority voices. However, times of stability can be disrupted by unexpected breaks with rapid transformation or paradigm shifts to move ahead with radically new and bold projects or endeavours which were earlier thought unachievable but now are reasonable or necessary. A severe pandemic sets the template for future responses and since now the need is even more urgent; the size, scope, and speed of the crisis make it feel like we are living through a profound transformation. The question is, which lessons from the past can we still hold onto and what prior understanding must we disregard? (Honey-Roses, et al., 2020)

As the world endures its struggle with Covid-19 we are also dealing with uncertainties. So far, the focus has been to address the immediate crisis and short-term concerns, which should now be thought alongside more medium and long-term resolutions concerning the key areas of the built environment.

1) Building Typologies: New convergence between life, work, and play due to the advancement in technology have drawn attention to reimagining what role a building could play in difficult scenarios like we are facing currently. With the blurring of boundaries, a building typology needs to be imagined beyond singularly focused programs, where Diversity will be a key to creating spaces that are adaptable and flexible. (Alexis Kim, 2018). Imagine a few units within a building that get converted into smaller office spaces, providing residents opportunities to go from “living” to “working” and vice versa; this can even promote starting small home-based businesses. A Gartner, Inc.survey of 317 CFOs and Finance leaders on March 30, 2020, revealed that 74% will move at least 5% of their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions post-COVID 19.

Figure 1: 74% of companies Plan to Permanently Shift to More
Remote Work Post COVID-19

Institutional typologies with solar power generation, residential typology with kitchen-free apartments, where residents have access to a shared community kitchen; Apartment blocks with green balconies and neighbourhoods with rooftop community gardens linked to farmer’s markets and the community at large could be a near future.

Dropbox destinations inserted into building bases where users can pick up Uber Eats or Amazon deliveries will ease and promote online shopping posing a question to the future of commercial hubs and markets. Indian consumers’ appetite for online shopping will increase from 46% now to 64% over the next six to nine months, according to a study from Capgemini Research Institute, the digital think tank of French multinational technology firm Capgemini.

Figure 2: Shopping will increase by 18% in the next few months.

Some of these ideas may seem fanciful and exaggerated for what and how a building may function in the future, but they certainly are more practical and begin to create authentic and holistic experiences, rather than just physical.

2) Mobility: Covid-19 may set the scene for a different urban landscape, which is largely governed by transformations around mobility. People have already started avoiding public transportation in favour of private vehicles or taxis or ride-sharing services by regulated cleaning. A survey conducted in 11 different countries by Capgemini Research Institute collected responses of over 11,000 consumers, representing about 62 per cent of global annual vehicle sales, and found that health and safety concerns will continue to shape consumer behaviour even after this crisis subsides. According to the survey, about 57 per cent of Indian consumers were considering purchasing a car in 2020, which is far higher than the global average of 35 per cent.

Figure 3: Percentage of consumers considering buying a car in 2020.

Busses and trains are carrying fewer and more dispersed passengers but with lower ridership and the implementation of distancing measures, how viable will the system be if this situation continues for long? Since in the long run, ‘maintaining physical distance would reduce the rush hour capacity and cut daily revenues which may lead to these systems going bankrupt, be privatized, or even dismantled.’ (Rennard, 2020) Micro-mobility and mobility sharing which were struggling for space on the streets, competing with pedestrians, bikes, and motorized vehicles, might now be welcome as individualized affordable transport and promote better street re-designs that comprise of wider sidewalks or extended cycling lanes. But micromobility cannot be a standalone solution as it has limitations considering the distance, extreme climatic conditions, and user-friendliness for certain age groups and people with disabilities. (Abend, 2019)

3) Public Spaces: Access to public spaces is known to improve peoples’ physical and mental health and the lockdown scenario has brought renewed attention to this need. Often, the presence of people in a space is interpreted as indicating that public space is functioning and healthy. (Gehl & Syarre, 2013). However, the current pandemic endangers to strongly change our association with these spaces, particularly when occupied by people. ‘Perceptions of public space’ is an important field of research in today’s context which bring forth a variety of questions:
– Will people avoid public spaces or gather in them?
– Will our intuitive carrying capacity for public spaces reduce?
– What spatial and temporal patterns may be seen in terms of the use of public space?
– Is there a need for a new typology of public space with its changing role?
– In a post-COVID world, how might we change how we gather and interpret data on public life?
Other emerging directions may include developing agile, cross-sector working practices that provide work and social spaces to meet the evolving needs by realigning the built environment and its supporting infrastructure; since some organizations now find themselves with too much space or end-user facilities while others have too little. Extended and flexible operational hours will lead to a more adaptable workforce coupled with a reduction in the density of people in transit as the rush hour disappears. This will lead to a general reduction of people movement, traffic congestion, and overcrowding. A goodbye to 9-to-5 work scenario may drive people to move away from cities into more rural communities that will need additional infrastructure and facilities ranging from a mix of retail, residential, social, education, technology, and manufacturing. (Smallbone, 2020) The consequences of such a move could lead to a reinforcing and strengthening of village and town societies. Possibilities are endless of how the pandemic will shape the Post Covid world and what will unfold ahead of us.

Conclusion:
The response to Covid-19 proves that we can swiftly adapt our cities, resources, and lifestyle to draw some extremely positive benefits and better resilience to change. It has been our attempt to bring forth such resilient responses from the community in the context of the built environment such as cultural and lifestyle responses to the new scales of spatial perception. Yes, it is required to focus on some short-term support to get the economy in motion, but the greater challenges are those we face in the long run. Preparedness planning must continue to evolve to keep pace with this heightened risk and to find solutions that enable us to respond quickly to change by creating a built environment that is adaptable, equitable, reliable and, above all, inclusive. However, severity and uncertainty in the timing of future pandemics, stresses the need for flexible and adaptive policies that respond to such emergencies efficiently. The article/paper raises several questions with respect to the slowly evolving new normal and concerning the questions raised it appeals for conscious decisions that we as planners and designers collectively make today in relation to the upcoming concepts of urbanism to be more resilient and inclusive.

Reference
Abend, L. (2019). Cyclists and E-Scooters are clashingin the battle for Europe’s streets. Retrieved from Time Magazine:https://time.com/5659653/e-scooters-cycles-europe/
Alexis Kim, B. V. (2018, December 4). Mixed-use convergence & the future of buildings. Retrieved from Smith Group: https://www.smithgroup.com/perspectives/2018/mixeduse-convergence-the-future-of-buildings
Corbusier, L. (1987). The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. Gehl, J., & Syarre, B. (2013). How to study Public Life. Washington DC: Island Press.
Honey-Roses, J., Anguelovski, I., Bohigas, J., Chireh, V., Daher, C., Konijnendijk, C., & Nieuwenhuijsen, M. (2020, July 31). The Impact of COVID-19 on Public Space: A Review of the
Emerging Questions. Cities & Health. Retrieved from https:// www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23748834.2020.1780074
Institute of Medicine (US) Committee for the Study of the Future of Public Health. (1988). A History of the Public Health System. In The Future of Public Health. Washington: National Academies Press (US).
Mehmet, S. (2020). TfL and Mayor unveil postlockdown London infrastructure programme. Retrieved from Intelligent Transport: https://www.intelligenttransport.com/ transport-news/98627/tfl-and-mayor-unveil-post-lock-downlondon-infrastructure-programme/
Rennard, G. (2020). Coronavirus: challenge of reshaping UK cities after lockdown. Retrieved from BBC News: https:// www.bbc.com/news/uk-52524807
Sennett, R. (2018). Building and Dwelling: ethics for the city. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Siossian, E. (2020, April 12). ‘Dinner on the driveway’ events help people feel connected despite COVID-19 isolation. Retrieved from ABC News: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020- 04-12/dinner-on-the-driveway-cov
Smallbone, P. (2020, July 6). Reliability through resilience – Covid-19 and all that. Retrieved from Buro Happold: https://www.burohappold.com/articles/reliability-throughresilience-covid-19-and-all-that/
Wintle, T. (2020, July 8). COVID-19 and the city: How past pandemics have shaped urban landscapes. Retrieved from CGTN: https://newseu.cgtn.com/news/2020-07-08/COVID19-and-the-city-How-past-pandemics-have-shaped-urban-landscapes-QCFjZLBIxG/index.html

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