ReportsJuly 18, 2020

World Habitat Day, October 5, 2020: Post-Pandemic Cities

Maxinne Rhea Leighton, PhD, Assoc. AIA

The UN-Habitat’s commitment to a vision of a “better quality of life for all in an urbanizing world” is emboldened by the World Habitat 2020 theme, Housing for All: A Better Urban Future. With the projected increase of 2.5 billion people moving to cities over the next 30 years, the basic right of all for adequate shelter and a better life is both critical and necessary. This, combined with the impact of climate change and the threat of pandemics on a global scale, constitutes an unprecedented challenge to both our built and natural habitat. While words may fail to capture this urgency, history does not.

Throughout history, pandemics have altered the way we live. Early pandemics—bubonic plague, yellow fever, smallpox, and cholera—profoundly affected the design of cities. Just as the Spanish Flu was an inflection point between the 19th and 20th centuries, the 21st-century global pandemic COVID-19, has, within months, precipitated fundamental changes to cities, towns, rural areas, and the way in which we live our daily lives.

As these changes unfold, will we return to the status quo or develop opportunities that adapt the design of cities to deal with future challenges?  Vision, leadership, and an open and inclusive dialogue will be needed to develop a rigorous global course of action. The 2020 World Habitat Day Conference on Post-Pandemic Cities, co-organized by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization (CSU) in collaboration with the American Institute of Architects (AIA), New York and National Chapters, demonstrated those points through a variety of perspectives.

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Opening session

Moderator Chris Williams, Ph.D., Director, UN-Habitat New York Office, opened the conference, introducing Mr. Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, who, in a video address, estimated that 1 billion people living in overcrowded settlements with inadequate housing will rise to 1.6 billion by 2030. It was within this context that the Secretary-General referred to 2020 as the “crucial Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs). Critical to addressing these issues were partnerships, pro-poor policies, and regulations to improve housing in cities.

Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif, United Nations Under-Secretary-General & Executive Director of UN-Habitat, expanded upon these points by referring to the joint responsibility we all share to shift our cities and towns. With more than 90% of the cases of COVID-19 being in urban areas, UN-Habitat, in direct response to this, is preparing a report on “The Future State of Cities in a World with Pandemics” later this year. The report will examine the role of state and local governments, inequality, urban form, public health, urban economics, and finance. One of the questions raised since COVID-19 is if cities will survive this pandemic.  H.E. Mr. Michal Mlynar, Permanent Representative of the Slovak Republic to the United Nations, addressed this with a level of positivity that focused on building back better for the collective benefit of us all. Referencing how people have historically moved to cities post-pandemics due to better jobs and higher wages, he also offered that addressing inclusive local action that engages youth from the outset in a more meaningful and substantial way could reset and re-energize creative centers within cities.

In lessons learned from Kenya’s COVID-19 response, Ms. Susan Mwangi, Chargee d’Affaires Permanent Mission of the Republic of Kenya, reminded us that building back better will require visionary leadership, partnership, and a commitment to do things differently. Their multi-layered response ranging from slum upgrading in Nairobi; provision of potable water; identification of green spaces; sewage plan, upgrading of hospitals, etc., reminds us that we must continue to leverage opportunities for collaboration among stakeholders and that no country can do it alone.

One of the emerging themes within this conference, local leadership and global action, was powerfully illustrated by H.E. Ms. Amal Mudallali, Permanent Representative of Lebanon to the United Nations. Lebanon’s challenges preceded the pandemic and were further exacerbated by the August 4, 2020 explosion and devastation in Beirut. While the resiliency of the Lebanese people is indefatigable, the Ambassador’s perspective on addressing multiple concurrent disasters provided some critical insights at both the local and global levels. The mobilization of UN-Habitat and the immediacy with which there was the deployment of technical teams to Beirut amidst a global pandemic was not only critical in the initial recovery but to developing a plan with the people of Beirut to build back better.

The way in which professional organizations, such as the American Institute of Architects (AIA) is taking in creating a world that is more sustainable and equitable, complements the perspective of the UN system. As described by Ms. Jane Fredrick, FAIA, AIA President, Washington DC, that means the transformation of the built environment through wholistic solutions that not only address climate change but also the connection between climate and health. Ms. Frederick reiterates what so many of our international colleagues have stated: “to meet these multi-faceted global challenges will require joining forces to implement multi-pronged solutions.”  

Ms. Kim Yao, FAIA, President of AIA New York Chapter, in discussing the 2020 arrival of COVID-19 to the United States, highlighted how it not only further revealed the widening gaps within our communities but also begged the question of how the pandemic could be a catalyst for design and advocacy within the interdisciplinary and collaborative profession of architecture.

Closing the first session was Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, President of the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization (CSU). Referencing this as an important time for the UN as it celebrates its 75th Anniversary, Mr. Brown in thanking all the speakers highlighted CSU’s work to engage the design profession in the SDGs especially SDG 11. He further noted that in response to the serious choices that face us, that the decisions we make be informed by shared, transparent and scientific knowledge and the equitable use of resources ensuring a world for generations to come.

CSU President, Lance Jay Brown, speaking at the virtual celebration of the 2020 World Habitat Day in New York City

At the conclusion, Chris Williams noted that CSU had recently join the Habitat Professionals Forum comprised of professional architects, planners, and realtors from around the world as a key constituent of the new urban agenda.

Session Two: Keynote address

Mr. Williams turned the moderation for Session 2 over to Ms. Mary Stack, Executive Director of Cambridge Forum, Cambridge, MA. Ms. Stack shared a two-minute trailer of the UN-Habitat’s “The Human Shelter,” a documentary by Boris Bertram, to launch UN-Habitat’s Housing for All theme. This is a five-week campaign calling for action to improve housing conditions. Housing is not just a roof but a human right. Filmed on four continents, it is a series of testimonies of human living and what makes a home around the globe.

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This session’s keynote address was given in two parts: Mr. Peter Calthorpe and Mr. Jeffrey Sachs, Ph.D.

Mr. Peter Calthorpe is an architect, urbanist, and author. He is one of the founders of the New Urbanism. He demonstrated that the diversity of views and users, human interaction, and environmental sustainability can co-exist in the design of towns and neighborhoods and that low-carbon cities can be vibrant places to live, work and play. The subject of his talk was “Planning for Resilient Cities.”

Cities being the center of global expansion, Mr. Calthorpe explained that how we build cities going forward remains at the heart of human well-being and environmental sustainability. This shapes our behavior and our impacts. Ending global sprawl is fundamental. 

Calthorpe refers to the urban virus as sprawl, high-income sprawl, high-density sprawl, and low-income sprawl. There are also universal solutions that include: 1) preserving natural ecologies, agrarian landscape, established neighborhoods and cultural heritage; 2) creating mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhoods;  3) connectivity, increasing density of road network, limit block size and add auto-free streets; 4) adequate gathering spaces that shape public space open space for community and ecology; 5) walking and biking; 6) enhancing transit, making transit desirable, affordable, accessible and ubiquitous and 7) focus and organize cities around those transit systems not around freeways. The long-term issues, from his perspective, have to do with a virus that is not COVID but rather the way in which we build cities. It is how we tackle this in the long-term that will be transformative to cities. He underscored that density is not related to COVID but rather has to do with public policy and access to healthcare and medical facilities.

Mr. Jeffrey Sachs, Ph.D., is a professor at Columbia University and former Director of the Earth Institute and author of several New York Times bestsellers. He has just been appointed to Chair the Lancet COVID Commission to assist government, civil society, and human entities in responding effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic. The topic of his discussion was “Reflections on Sustainable Urbanization in a Post-Pandemic World.

Mr. Sachs noted that one of the major things we have learned from COVID that is core for urban design and economic design, is that we are in the digital age in every kind of service and every aspect of the economy. We will be working from home for a much larger extent, work online and not use office buildings in the same way. He noted that while he has not been back to his office since the middle of March and will not be returning till after the end of this year, work is as busy as ever or busier. Therefore, the digital backbone is paramount and raises a lot of questions as we address the future of our cities.

Thinking about future cities is thinking about what is going to be online and what will be in the physical environment. With lower density in cities and adding wired space in homes for work, what would the city look like? Commerce will be substantially online which is more efficient for getting goods to people by and large. That will fundamentally change what cities mean. What kind of structures will we want? 15 years from now, autonomous vehicles will pick us up and drop us off via mobile app. Could we have cities without private cars and still provide the aggregate transport services we need?

How does affordable housing fit in? We don’t seem to do this well in the US. Most future cities housing will be in flats if done well in quality living conditions at much lower cost. Are there ways to dramatically lower housing costs via technology? What could we think of future size structure of cities? What does this mean for the network of cities – large size versus medium and small sized cities is a question for developing countries. Most of the news of cities is positive allowing for higher quality of life for less cost.

During the Q&AMr. Calthorpe was asked if the post-pandemic has been a distraction and if he is more concerned about wildfires and planning for climate change. His response was that the systemic challenge is climate change; income inequality; growing differences between rich and working poor. Working from home is for a certain economic class. He believes that even in the digital economy people need social interaction and collaboration.

Mr. Sachs was asked about his recommendation of what to do with empty space in mid-town Manhattan? He noted that cities will transform and that empty buildings will have more housing. When asked if cities will survive in North America with so many people moving to the suburbs, both Sachs and Calthorpe did not see this as the death of the city.

Calthorpe noted that people go where they can afford to go; people care about quality of the neighborhood (schools, parks, shopping more than the housing form), and Sachs that people go by and large where their jobs are and with quality of life issues. What won’t change is the process of urbanization itself with the traditional reasons for rural life, agriculture will begin to disappear, and more jobs will be in the cities.

Session 3: Post-Pandemic Perspective

Ms. Mary Stack started the session by introducing Dr. Kamran Khan, Associate Professor of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Toronto, a practicing physician, infectious disease expert, and Founder & CEO, BlueDot Inc., a digital health company that uses artificial intelligence to predict the behavior of pandemics by developing predictive algorithms. BlueDot accurately predicted the spread of the Coronavirus before it was categorized as a pandemic.

Dr. Khan spoke on the role of big data analytics in a post-pandemic world with the title of his talk, “Building Resilience to Global Pandemic Threats Using Big Data,” and how we can use data to build resiliency. By showing a world map, he exposed how interconnected the world’s cities are through air travel, revealing the notion of interdependence.

While we all agree the pandemic will end and it is the worse pandemic in 100 years, there has been a host of other viruses in the past few decades including MERS (another novel Coronavirus), the H1/N1 pandemic that spread around the world, to name a few.  Dr. Khan began in 2003 as an infectious disease physician when a novel coronavirus emerged, SARS-COV, and here we are today with SARS-COV 2.  Dr. Khan founded BlueDot to translate scientific research into digital solutions to get in front of threats. It is a diverse team to build an early warning system for epidemics using three pillars: 1) detect the threat using A.I. to augment detection; 2) access the threats, impacts and consequences; 3) respond to what is actionable.

Data analytics and technology can allow us to, as Dr. Khan noted, “become better firefighters.” Particularly in the context of cities and urbanization, Dr. Khan underscored the need to think about what the underlying drivers are and where pathogens are coming from. In response to this, we also need to find ways to design cities and how we interact with the rest of the planet to reduce risks and minimize the drivers that could ignite the next pandemic.

Dr. Khan highlighted another theme that emerged from this conference, that our health, security, and prosperity are inexorably connected to the health of other living systems across the globe.

Another perspective in analytics was discussed by Ms. Karen Harris, Managing Director, Macro Trends Group, Bain & Company, New York, which analyzes global macroeconomics, social trends, and geopolitics to identify global trends and shifting growth patterns. She is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations, the National Committee of USA-China Relations, and the Economic Club of New York.

Ms. Harris addressed the “Post-Pandemic Impact for Global Economies,” and focused on technology on a broader level. She began her discussion by observing that while we talk about the impact of technologies on cities, we don’t talk about the city itself as a technology.  The city we see today is a technological solution to the Industrial Revolution, and yet the world has changed since then with a shift to service industries. In focusing on the cost of moving not only people but products or information, particularly in advanced economies, cities and growth rates have been slowing.

Ms. Harris further stated that technologies can alleviate some of the pressure within the urban environments in advanced economies. For example, the middle class can live, work and play in less dense communities; working remotely will reduce costs of commuting and can access education and healthcare, making location both less important and more important. That prognosticating the death of cities in response to the pandemic is premature. Social and cultural features are still compelling in cities and have become places where wealthier and single young people live. The challenge Ms. Harris put to the UN and other members of the conference is that automation will recreate job displacement. That we need to think about job retraining and safety nets as the technology of urbanization advances and automation shifts the way jobs exist around the world.

The final speaker was Mr. Sam Lubell, a respected journalist and author in architecture and planning. Mr. Lubell is the author of eight books and former editor of the Architects Newspaper. He has written for The New York Times, LA Times, and Architectural Review. He has curated exhibits throughout the country and is known for his ability to make design concerns relevant to the general public. The focus of Mr. Lubell’s talk was “COVID: Spurring Us To (Finally) Rethink our Cities”. He began with the premise that cities and buildings, not unlike people, are prone to inertia. They don’t like to change. What can shake us out of that inertia are disasters.

Mr. Lubell highlighted that during the first few months of COVID, we changed elements of architecture e.g., prefabricated construction (hospitals built in weeks), and it is taking off now and becoming more mainstream; reusing existing buildings e.g., Javits Center in New York as a hospital; extending restaurants in streets; organizing physical spacing in green spaces; using streets as public spaces; telecommuting; finding new ways to open up our homes; being more interested in natural light and ventilation and use of balconies or other semi-private spaces. Schools have different configurations of seating; open office is being rethought; theaters were closed, so people went to drive-in theaters. Models of outdoor spaces include greenery on balconies; how we are dining in the winter; how to reconfigure empty offices to residences, some of which have already happened. He argued that while we need to rethink our spaces today, we also need to be proactive and less reactive to a crisis e.g., flooding, gentrification, spawl, terrorism, homelessness, inequity, traffic, etc.

At the end of his presentation, Mr. Lubell affirmed an underlying theme expressed during this conference, one that cannot be emphasized enough, that we cannot let inertia keep us in old ways of thinking.  As Mr. Lubell so aptly stated, “The Future is Now.”

In conclusion, the challenges and opportunities associated with urbanization are complex. Solutions are not universal—often, they are location specific. We are facing a world of finite resources. This calls for re-thinking many of the premises that have guided the development of our communities and human existence. Our survival is dependent on controlling global warming, infectious disease, making urbanization sustainable, and caring equally for the planet as we do for each other. The COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to chart a more inclusive global future.

Dr. Maxinne Rhea Leighton’s leadership in engineering and architecture ranges from professional services, marketing and communication to post-disaster recovery and the nexus between race, socio-economics, design and planning. Dr Leighton is Director of Marketing, Communications and Business Development with the global engineering firm Jaros, Baum & Bolles, Vice President of WIIS-NY, Advisory Council Member for the Save Ellis Island Foundation and a member of CSU Advisory Board.

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