Detail from Baltimore’s “Design for Distancing Ideas Guidebook.”

“Doomscrolling and doomsurfing are new terms referring to the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing. Many people are finding themselves reading continuously bad news about COVID-19 without the ability to stop or step back” (Merriam-Webster).

Yes, 2020 has had plenty of bad news. Let’s face it.  Globally, it was the most difficult year in recent memory and in most readers’ lifetimes. There were few, if any, signs that climate change dynamics are in any way under control. We experienced a global pandemic totally out of control, racial and religious intolerance became illuminated around the world, and most economies are reeling from a combination of all these exigencies. Reason enough to be disconcerted as we enter 2021. And then, as we do enter 2021, we have a mob in Washington D.C. storming the United States Capital! There is little doubt that the confluence of the challenges above will change our urban landscape in many and untold ways.

The terms Pandemic Urbanism and Post-Pandemic Urbanism have turned up as titles of writings, discussions, and webinars around the world with a fair share of negativity attached.  But, we should not lose sight of the fact that the problems have eclipsed much of the good that has happened in 2020, and it is important as we enter 2021 to see the positive, the silver liningsas well. Many of the ideas and actions below will have effects lasting well beyond the pandemic and have been greatly accelerated, in a positive way, by the challenges we are experiencing.

Everything al fresco: A Renewed Appreciation for the Outdoors

Albeit, people walk farther apart than before, and they do walk more. It is a compelling, healthy, and economic activity with enormous benefits. And people bike to places where they can walk, like parks. And parks are being designed in such new and interesting ways! We all now know the iconic, white-painted social distancing circles on the grass at Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City, but how many have seen the lawn in Elblag, Poland, where the grass outside the Centrum Sztuki Art Gallery was mowed in a checkboard pattern?  This, too, provides an outdoor space where people can hang out while still maintaining social distance. There are many such creative designs now in play. The outdoors, the exterior environment, has always supported some urban markets, but markets are now proliferating because of COVID-19. Other outdoor accommodations and hacks include a sanitizer dispenser duct-taped to a pole, social distancing while protesting using spray-painted 6-foot separations, and Baltimore’s “Design for Distancing Ideas Guidebook.”

Exercising on a social distancing lawn in Elblag, Poland | photo by Lukasz Kotynski

In cities around the world, in all seasons, people experience old traditions and new initiatives celebrating the value of the outdoor environment. Biking has been given a great boost because it is a healthy way to move in a pandemic, because it is a source of safe exercise, and because it gives easy access to our parks and waterfronts without the burden of parking or the need for public transit.  

Many urban open spaces are now being repurposed and/or newly appreciated. Parking lots are turning into pop-up parks, open spaces previously underutilized have become newly valued, activated, and appreciated, and “cemeteries, which inspired the 19th century parks movement, [are returning] as places to comfort the living as well as honor the dead,” said Liz Vizza, the Executive Director of Boston’s Friends of the Public Garden. “We often say that parks are not amenities, they are a necessity,” she said. “This has put it into stark relief.”

Perhaps the most international, ubiquitous, and visible new outside structures are pop-up restaurant dining and service pavilions. As the prohibition on indoor dining has proliferated, so have these outdoor facilities. They have proven so successful as urban animation and accommodation that the City of New York has allowed them to be legal year-round instead of temporary. Café life has surfaced in ways never imagined. Yes, winter will take its toll, but ingenuity, creativity, and adaptation will be the response. Necessity does prove the mother of invention.

Repurposing and Redesigning Districts

By now, many have heard the term”15-minute city” or the “20-minute city.”  To this, we can now add Sweden’s “1-minute city, a scheme to redesign every street in the nation”. The “15-minute city” is Paris Mayor Hidalgo’s plan allowing residents to find all their daily needs within a 15-minute walk or bike from home. The Swedish version, including its participatory planning principles, says to do so within an even smaller area. This idea conforms to current and broader concepts of higher density and walkable neighborhoods, reduced traffic, reduced pollution, more open space, and a host of other benefits that would improve the quality of life in cities. These proposals are interconnected with many of the other initiatives discussed above and below, especially the repurposing and redesigning of streets. On January 11, 2021, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced the “launch of the 2021 Global Mayors Challenge, an innovation competition that will identify and accelerate the most ambitious ideas developed by cities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” This is but one of the many dynamic and optimistic activities born of current challenges.

Repurposing and Redesigning Streets

This decade, the new “roaring 20s’”, is witnessing the acceleration of street repurposing and street re-design. Climate change was already fostering a review of the disbenefits of the combustion engine automobile’s usurpation of urban rights-of-way, concomitant pollution, and the already-underscored loss of productivity caused by traffic congestion. Combining COVID-19-related needs for more outdoor social distancing dramatized the inequity of assigning publicly owned space to the storage of private vehicles (at no cost).

The response to the above has resulted in an outpouring of ideas and actions. Slow streets, streets that increase recreational use by altering speeds, surface patterns, curb use, and other changes, are making streets more community and pedestrian friendly.

In Barcelona, a whole new organization of the Cerda-era Eixample is melding 9 square blocks into super districts and increasing the public use of both the circumscribed streets and intersections. In Paris, the Rue de Rivoli is car-free, and equally important is the recent Mayoral announcement to turn the Champs Elysée into a grand park-like boulevard. In cities around the world, street closures have added hundreds of miles or kilometers of people and pedestrian-friendly and bike-friendly streets.

Photograph of the Champs Elysée on 11 September 2020
by Thomas Vonier

Now, as cities consider a potential resurgence in vehicle congestion, pollution, and automobile fatalities, many are moving to make temporary street changes permanent. Bogota, Colombia, will keep its 80 kilometers of Covid-19 bike lanes permanently. London is making areas of downtown car-free and Berlin will keep most of its 14 miles of “pop-up” cycle lanes.

New Hubs: Commercial and Retail Real Estate

In cities around the world, discussions are underway on re-purposing commercial real estate, from street-level retail facilities to entire large office buildings.  Responding to the online shopping phenomena and retail blight, empty units at the street-level may now find other uses as community hubs and social centers.  As noted in Bloomberg’s CityLab, “in the U.K., vacant units on or near rundown high streets are already being retooled.” The silver lining here may be that the unregulated high cost of retail space may now reduce and allow for a much wider range of sustainable street-level uses.

Illuminating Disparity

While seemingly backhanded, the focus on the role of celebrating their general lack of visibility has been somewhat rectified by the outpouring of appreciation and celebration. In Italian and US cities, people came out on balconies and to windows to serenade and thank the front-line hospital workers. But less celebrated are the sanitation workers, the greengrocers, and all the others who keep our lives intact. I am not alone in recognizing these unsung heroes and it does seem as though their contributions will heretofore be more recognized and compensated. In a similar vein, the role played by gig workers, artists, musicians, DJs, and other arts and crafts workers have been thwarted by Covid-19 but are now getting some of the recognition they deserve for their contributions. “At first, it felt like the only thing unifying these workers was the danger they were put under. […] By deeming them essential […] it lays the ground for their sacrifice and that being said, there is a silver lining, and a possibility, and a ray of hope: that people will identify with the idea that these workers deserve something more than applause.” said Katie Wells, a postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.

Issues of disparity intersect with issues of inequity, diversity, and inclusivity. Such issues cross sectors and uses as well. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) did much to advance physical access generally. The New York City subway system, the MTA, did not do much until 2020. It now has added full access to 10 NYC subway stations and has 40 more in the works which will bring access for the system to nearly fifty percent. This serves the disabled as well as the aging population and is a vast change from previous eras. In addition to elevators, new “wide” access gates for wheelchairs and digital wayfinding for the blind are currently being piloted.

The drone photography of Johnny Miller is serving to illuminate disparity globally. While underscoring inequity, this dramatic visual illumination serves to encourage the pursuit of balance in all ways.

Mumbai Silver Linings by Johnny Miller

New Visions, Variety, and Patterns for Workplaces

Restrictions on commuting via mass transit and the current dangers of crowding in the workplace, combined with our miraculous current and emerging technologies, have given rise to a significant re-evaluation of where and when we work, play, learn, and recreate. Home offices, hybrid working, the open office rethink, homeschooling, home online grocery shopping, all of these moves, along with other changes like shifts in our food distribution system, could add up to a new overall direction for urban planning and design; a hyper-local model, where people access everything they need as near as possible to where they live. “A lot of us speculate that we may be seeing the emergence of the 15-minute-city where because of the importance of non-motorized transport as a safe means to get around, you will have to ensure that the facilities for your daily life – and also maybe your job – are closer to home.” says Philipp Rode, Executive Director of LSE Cities, the urban research center of the London School of Economics. While many of the changes we are experiencing may be temporary, many more may become permanent and advantageous changes in our quotidian existence.

Climate Change, Energy, and Infrastructure

In the United States and elsewhere, the advent of climate change and public health challenges have combined to accelerate the implementation of many needed changes resulting in the repair, replacement, or redesign of energy and infrastructure systems. A new super wind generator has been prototyped in Rotterdam; China has decreed it will be carbon neutral in 2060 and Japan in 2050. The United States will rejoin the Paris Accord. Plastic pollution, long a growing problem, has new infrastructure responses, and there is some optimism it can be reduced. Training, re-training, and re-education programs are surfacing to help bring labor in line with emerging and new technologies, and the rural-urban continuum is getting the attention it deserves.

Challenges, Opportunities, Creativity and Innovation

There is much more that could be added to the above discussion, and most of these concerns have further amplification available. The Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization (CSU) looks forward to the expansion and implementation of the many positive silver linings cited above as responses to the challenges of the new decade are developed.

Complementing our recent January 21 program on planning for catastrophes we will have a special session on sustainable retrofits on February 18, and, starting on March 4, we will launch a year-long program on green cities. In the late spring, we will once again partner with UN-Habitat for our major annual day-long program, the working title “The Future of Post-Pandemic Cities.” Information on past, present, and future programs is available via social media and our CSU website. As always we encourage our readers, our colleagues, and our partners to share their knowledge and urge everyone to continue to focus on the UN SDGs and the New Urban Agenda as we move toward 2030.

In closing, we are living at a time of great need that is generating great opportunity, which in turn is generating planning and design innovations and creative solutions. While not forgetting our serious challenges, let us also celebrate and disseminate our many successes, the silver linings.

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Reflections from the 2024 Gala