What should cities look like after COVID-19?

What should cities look like after COVID-19?
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Like so many New Yorkers — more than one-third, in fact — I found my way to the greatest city in the world from another country. Born and raised in rural Canada, I studied landscape architecture in Ontario before making my way to New York 6 years ago via Los Angeles and Baltimore. Over the course of an 18-years, I built a career with EDSA as a landscape architect. I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs in New York over the years, but like everyone else, I never imagined what a pandemic like COVID-19 would look like and how it would reshape the landscape of this city.

With recent news of epidemiological prognostications that even with a vaccine the coronavirus might be with us to stay, one has to wonder why anyone would risk living in a densely populated city when places like the wide-open spaces of my childhood have so much more room to socially distance and keep the pandemic at bay. 

Here in my apartment in Brooklyn, which doubles as my home and office these days, I’ve pondered the same. Yet even as headlines note the number of New Yorkers who have fled the city from coronavirus, and a Harris Poll released in late April that found nearly one-third of Americans are considering relocating to less densely populated areas, the country and the world are becoming more urban. 

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According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs World Urbanization Prospects 2018 Highlights, by 2050 more than 68 percent of Americans will live in urban areas because densely populated settings offer greater access to vital services — such as medical care.

Rather than fleeing the city, it is time to think about redesigning existing urban environments through planning and landscape architecture toward the post- and possibly perpetual-pandemic age. The key is incorporating more space, and doing it well.   

This will not be the first time the landscape of cities as we know them change and evolve. As documented by Sara Jensen Carr of Northeastern University in The Topography of Wellness, American urban landscapes have previously been transformed by epidemics, including cholera, tuberculosis and obesity. 

Among its myriad effects, the current pandemic has brought the value that urbanites place on the natural world to the forefront. People need to be able to access nature for their physical and mental health and wellbeing. When mastering the planning for urban settings of the future, the focus will ultimately be on making outdoor spaces for the public as open and flexible as possible. 

A good start will be prioritizing space for people and designating less land for cars and trucks. Establishing shared vehicular and pedestrian streets will provide more open public space and nature, making cities more inviting and friendly for people to thrive in. 

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Steps are already being taken in that direction: On May 2, for instance, New York City transformed about seven miles of road into “open streets” for socially responsible recreation — the start of 100 miles planned to be taken back from drivers. Paris has planned more than 400 miles of “cycleways to be ready when its lockdown ends. Similar studies will be important as master plans are developed for new urban communities as well, with urban areas laid out to make services accessible within 5-, 10- or 15-minute walk zones.

Another thing the pandemic lockdown has revealed is the ease with which contemporary communications and technology make it possible for many people to work from home. With this trend likely to continue, traditional rush hours could be reduced and cities may be able to program public transit more creatively, such as staggering peak hours throughout the day. 

Meanwhile, the trend toward co-working that predates the pandemic continues to decentralize cities by giving would-be office goers more choice in work settings and control over their hours. The past few months have shown that people thrive when they can access outdoor space throughout the day. As people shift to spend more time outside, their urban life and daily routines will shift as well. 

For landscape architects like me, there is no more intriguing prospect than weaving green spaces into our urban systems. There are many ways to go about it: For instance, it will be vital for public parks of post-pandemic cities to not be overly programmed for recreation and sports. Rather than fill them with baseball diamonds that offer all the comfort of a big-box store parking lot under the sun, city parks should be human-scaled, exhibit a local identity, promote sociability and highlight diverse uses. 

However, as post-pandemic cities are destined to unfold, it will be important for urban planners and landscape architects to approach projects by recognizing what communities want and need and above all, that they are inclusive to all potential users. The term in the industry is “social resiliency”: The more resilient urban spaces can become, the more value people will find in them — and the less likely they’ll plan to flee the city after all.

Derek Gagne is an associate principal at EDSA, a planning, landscape architecture and urban design firm based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with offices in Orlando, Baltimore, New York and Shanghai.