Urban Living and Covid-19: Impacts on Architecture and the future of cities

Article written by Anna Karla Almeida, urban architect and Doctoral Assistant at EPFL, at the Laboratory of Urbanism, Lab-U. Anna Karla was a panelist on the “Urban Living and Covid-19: Impacts on Architecture and the Future of Cities” webinar and shares below further insights about the topic with the swissnex community. Enjoy the reading!

Space, a keyword in times of epidemic. We live in a moment of transition, because the relationship with the spaces we live changed. Humans, as collective beings, are forced to auto-isolate because the way we conceived our relationships put us in contact with the rest of the community in urban centres in which we live. Space is survival, especially within the natural flows of human daily routine, sometimes so narrow and today seem to be such a big threat to our collective health. That said, the way we will plan, live and drive our cities from now on, has a direct impact on the quality of life in terms of ecological transition and search for a healthy urbanism. The following piece reflects about urban space and the post-epidemic transition in terms of time – short, medium and long-term; and in terms of space – how we live in our houses, public spaces and territories.

Thinking about the future of cities in a post-epidemic context, urban planning will be an essential tool for the containment of the virus in the short, medium and long term. In the short term, because the epidemic showed the urgency of transforming the superficial discussions of these possible futures into quick implementation and concrete action. Now we have to pay the price of never implementing many public mobility and housing policies, which were object of discussion and articulation. For example, tactical urbanism, despite not being a radical project, has been incentivized during the last months in cities such as Milan, Brussels and Paris by prioritizing soft mobility, the enlargement of sidewalks and the creation of new spaces that prioritize the individual in the city. In the medium-run, in a near future, after the first wave of the epidemic, I believe that the promotion of healthier cities will be an essential part of future urban projects and will question urban density. The “city-territories” are a reality that will have to be addressed and articulated in order to find possible sustainable urban solutions between the fields, industries and city. In the long-run, in an optimistic perspective, maybe our generation will consider the generosity of our urban spaces a key element for survival. More than the epidemic, a factor that decisively contributes and with which we should be preoccupied is climate change. The evident disequilibria of our ecosystem reinforce the idea that beyond the epidemic, it is necessary to think about the ecological transition in a more profound manner and re-consider the way we currently produce and lead the global economy. The way we produce and conceptualize our productive spaces definitely affects air quality, the permeability of our soils, the water contamination and the ecosystem as a whole. It is up to the planners to consider the circular economy as an essential element for sustainability. 

In a Brazil-Switzerland context, the two countries are currently living two different moments of the epidemic. The scale of houses, public spaces and mobility are distinct, be it for the territorial expansion, be it for how the governments are dealing with the post-epidemic transition, especially in urban centres. I am worried about the negationism of this urgency in Brazil, as it would be an excellent catalyser for the implementation of public policies that would make a new urban paradigm viable.

In a spatial context, we felt the first impact within our homes: “stay safe, stay home” isn’t the same slogan for everyone. Forced to be confined within our homes, the quality of the constructed space has never been so necessary, although not always possible because of social inequality, so decisive for habitability. Especially in Brazilian popular houses, the housing units very often do not satisfy the requirements of its inhabitants. In Switzerland, and in Europe in general, there has been a steady increase of one-room apartments (studios), in principle sold as a synonym of practicality, but in confinement situations became untenable. I believe that other spaces we live in will also change: schools, hospitals, shopping centres and other communal spaces will have to review their policies in order to satisfy distancing measures.

In public spaces, considering the new spaces required by the epidemic is a challenge, especially in cities in which they are not spaces of permanence, however, of negligence. When we don’t have public spaces that foster the emptiness full of life necessary to the dense urban network of the Brazilian peripheries, the sense of urbanity is lost.

Finally, urban mobility came as an urgency to be made up for: more space on the sidewalks, for the use of bikes and for maintaining good distance between citizens. Living, the public space and how we move within these essential elements for the reading of an urban territory are compatible with the key elements to be articulated at different scales, where it is the duty of the State to assist in this transition, and also has a direct influence on the extent to which we are able to change our behaviour and our solidarity when the alert phase will pass.