Since the lockdown, we have been experiencing a significant change in how we use our cities and the public realm. Here in the UK, our spaces have become more human with fewer cars, more cycling in the cityscape, and cleaner air. In the past few weeks, we have practically proven that we can be responsive, changing our behaviour, and contributing indirectly to the global reduction of CO2 - something which we had considered as a distant aim. During our walks, we discover new opportunities in our neighbourhoods - these have increasingly become the most crucial framework around our living, movement, and online work from home.
As city designers, we hope that cycling and walking will remain as a means of sustainable mobility when the lockdown is over, and we raise questions about how the current pandemic situation would inform our future city design and planning and help us in making better places. Would we still reinforce the sparkling global city, or shall we favour cities of a smaller scale where everything is at reach? As the quality of the public realm appears very important, it invites us to revisit the principles of the compact city - how dense can we go without compromising our access to fresh air and the need for social distancing when such health situations arise? Access to private outdoor space and to play streets appears as very important as well as the need to design our spaces with greater flexibility to accommodate different situations / uses and meet the unexpected. At the same time, we have to deal carefully with some important questions that are arising under the current lockdown like the health of the local economy and the future of the high street. Small businesses are going through an inevitable hardship with job loss and unfortunate closure. This set-back is impacting the economy at large and a broad group of younger working population who seem to pay a high price at every economic chock.
At the same time, and as a new spatial understanding of our cities is developing and some cities have introduced new zoning to restrict people's movement through the city to contain the spread of the virus, more groups are becoming at risk of increased isolation and loneliness, for example, the elderly and people with disabilities, and many other young people who need and depend on social interaction. No doubt the situation is impacting on people's mental health and puts some families at risk of deterioration or violence. For many people on the job, the interface between work and family life is getting more blurred as they force themselves to deliver and cope with a very demanding work situation, but how long can people hold out and maintain job effectiveness? This condition requires a closer eye at the social and psychological impacts of the lockdown and how to address this issue currently and in the future.
Behind spatial observations, we need to raise critical questions about whether dealing with the pandemic situation has been responsive, open and inclusive to everyone. The current situation also prompts us to acknowledge that reductions and cuts around our existential social welfare and health, including the NHS services - the spine of our society - have been mal-placed and that key workers should be more than clapped, but honoured in practice and given more access to decent life quality. That is how we reinforce more resilient cities. While the state responsiveness to the pandemic situation is significant, it prompts new questions about other on-going threatening physical and mental health conditions that are not being given sufficient attention and need to be well addressed.
The situation provides a new evidence on that social, economic and environmental/wellbeing aspects are quiet integrated and can not be dissociated if we aim at sustainable and resilient futures. If anything useful, the pandemic situation demonstrated that we could develop more social solidarity that we need to maintain and build on. We must reassess the extent our cities are socially and economically sustainable and resilient and to reflect on how we can invest in strengthening them and make sure that people are not falling behind.
@ Roudaina Al Khani
With great respect to all those who are working hard in their respective organisations and at home to keep our society running.
* The photo is a sketch by Dr. R. Alkhani during an online session with her students at the University of Westminster