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How do you build a city for a pandemic?
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Our busy, modern crowded cities are the perfect places for viruses to spread (Credit: Getty Images)
The new coronavirus has spread rapidly in cities around the globe. How might the virus make us think differently about urban design in the future?
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The pandemic has turned the world outside our doorsteps into a newly formed wilderness. Public spaces are now areas to be ventured into sparingly, except by essential workers, so for most of us our worlds have shrunk to the size of our homes.

Modern cities weren’t designed to cope with life during a pandemic, and this upside-down way of living has turned them into “a disorganised array of disconnected bedrooms and studios”, says Lydia Kallipoliti, assistant professor of architecture at The Cooper Union in New York. This layout might have made sense when cities were internationally connected hubs filled with millions of people working, commuting, sightseeing, drinking, dancing and hugging one another without a second thought. But that world seems a long way off now.

The 21st Century has so far seen Sars, Mers, Ebola, bird flu, swine flu and now Covid-19. If we have indeed entered an era of pandemics, how might we design the cities of tomorrow so that the outdoors doesn’t become a no-go zone, but remains a safe and habitable space?

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Cities have already come a very long way when it comes to disease prevention. “It used to be that that living in a city would reduce your life expectancy… they were death traps,” says science journalist and author of The Fever and Pandemic, Sonia Shah. The rapid growth of cities during the Industrial Revolution led to polluted streets that were a hotbed for infection, especially in places like London and New York. As these cities grew, outbreaks of typhoid and cholera became such major public health issues that they led to the construction of entire new sanitation systems: sewers.

The measures put in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19 have meant many people are isolated in their homes (Credit: EPA)

The measures put in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19 have meant many people are isolated in their homes (Credit: EPA)

“To store the filth of a city within the city is simply to invite disease and death,” wrote the authors of the 1840 book The Separate System of Sewerage, its Theory and Construction, which called for sewers to be built in New York. It went on to note that, “by sewering certain towns in England, the death rate from pulmonary diseases alone was reduced by 50%”.

Over time, cities also started implementing basic building standards including “apartments to have light and ventilation and, you know, only a certain number of people in each one,” says Shah, who explains that gradually things began to change.

In recent years, calls for cities to focus on health in their planning have been growing. “For the resilient, sustainable cities we all want and need, urban plans need to be designed, evaluated and approved using a health lens,” says Layla McCay, director for the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health.

There are many examples of this: since 2016, the National Parks Board of Singapore has been building therapeutic gardens in public parks to boost the mental and emotional well-being of citizens. In Tokyo, citizens are working with urban designers to greenify their neighbourhoods to improve their health.

As the world’s cities have grown, urban design has actually made many of them healthy alternatives to suburban or rural living

Over the past century more and more of us have flocked to cities for work opportunities, and to be close to the sources of all our daily needs, from food to healthcare. As the world’s cities have grown, urban design has actually made many of them healthy alternatives to suburban or rural living. A 2017 study found that city living was linked to lower levels of obesity in the UK than life in the suburbs, and the story is similar in the United States. (Read more about the world’s healthiest places to live.)

But that’s not to say that city life is best when it comes to infectious diseases. In a pandemic, busy urban centres are a big part of the problem. Without speedy and efficient public health measures to counter the infection’s spread, the bigger and more well-connected a city, the faster it will travel.

“Precisely because they are hubs for transnational commerce and mobility, densely populated and hyper-connected cities can amplify pandemic risk,” wrote Rebecca Katz, co-director of the Centre for Global Health Science and Security and Robert Muggah, director at the Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian-based think tank in a piece for the World Economic Forum. With estimates that 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, the need to design cities well for pandemics will only get more pressing.

Urban hotspots

Not all cities are equally vulnerable to disease. Wealthy cities like Copenhagen, with lots of green space and provisions for cycling, are world-famous for their health benefits. But it’s a very different story for those living in the informal settlements of less economically developed cities like Nairobi, Kenya or Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Without proper sanitation or access to clean water to wash “this is where epidemics have the most potential to start and spread”, says Elvis Garcia, an expert in public health and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “In 10 years, an estimated 20% of the world’s population will live in urban environments with a limited access to appropriate water, health, and sanitation infrastructures,” he says.

Making more space for people to get around and exercise could help to reduce the risk of infections spreading in cities (Credit: Getty Images)

Making more space for people to get around and exercise could help to reduce the risk of infections spreading in cities (Credit: Getty Images)

Were a virus like Covid-19, which can go undetected for many days before symptoms show, to emerge among these vulnerable communities it would be disastrous, as was the case with the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The countries affected have some of the worst water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) coverage in the world, which exacerbated the spread and reach of the Ebola outbreak, with fatal consequences, according to Oxfam International. Tackling basic sanitation is the first step in building a healthier city. “That means appropriate water and sanitation systems and good quality houses,” says Garcia. (Read more about how hand hygiene effects the spread of a virus.)

Population density is another factor that can have a big influence on the spread of infectious disease. This is because it can lead to overcrowding, which can increase the frequency of transmission. In 2002 and 2003, a housing estate in Hong Kong was at the centre of the Sars outbreak. The city and special administrative region is one of the most densely packed and unequal places in the world, and the virus eventually killed nearly 800 people.

Even with big green spaces like Central Park in Manhattan residents have struggled to stay far enough away from one another to curb the spread of the disease

Wuhan, the Chinese city where the Covid-19 outbreak began, is the most densely populated in central China, home to 11 million people. Likewise, New York, which has had the worst of the outbreak in the US, is the most densely populated city in the country. Even with big green spaces like Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, residents have struggled to stay far enough away from one another to curb the spread of the disease.

We can see hints of what the pandemic-resilient cities of tomorrow might look like in the way that urban spaces are being repurposed right now.

One solution to address the overcrowding issue was proposed by New York City councillor Corey Johnson in an interview with Politico: close off parts of the city to traffic and open them up for exercise. “You may be able to deliver more social distancing if you pick certain streets that could be shut down,” he said.

At a daily press conference, the Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo supported the idea of opening streets to reduce density. Their street closures lasted just 11 days, but across the globe, from Calgary to Cologne, cities have been closing off streets to give people more space. Oakland has gone as far as shutting down 74 miles of city streets for walkers and cyclists.  In future cities, planning for pedestrians may even go a step further by building much wider pavements, according to the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health’s McCay.

Access to lots of green space is also important for the mental and physical health of city residents during a pandemic. Marianthi Tatari, an architect at UNStudio Amsterdam, says, “20 minutes of ‘green time’ a day helps to give us a healthy and humane approach to our present situation”. In the UK, private green spaces were opened and subsequently closed amid fears they were helping spread the disease, but in Portland instead of closing their parks, they shut them to traffic to make more space for people to get outside.  These moves are temporary for now, but as the need to social distance continues we may see more spaces pedestrianised. 

Providing handwashing facilities in public places could help to reduce the risk of passing on infections (Credit: Getty Images)

Providing handwashing facilities in public places could help to reduce the risk of passing on infections (Credit: Getty Images)

But with sanitation being such a crucial part of stemming disease, being in a park with no way to keep your hands clean could be a concern. McCay suggests the ramping up the building of hand washing stations in all cities. “If everyone was washing their hands diligently we would see a reduction in all types of infection,” she says. “Perhaps one of the reasons we’re not is because there aren’t these facilities in place.”

Jo da Silva, global sustainable development director at engineering firm ARUP suggests we might need to change the way we build our indoor environments too. In shared buildings “we might think about having more than one lift, and multiple communal staircases,” she says. Doing this avoids “pinch points”, a term for when lots of people are trying to use the same space and getting too close to each other in the process.

If pandemics are to be a regular part of our lives, our cities will need to be more adaptable, according to Johan Woltjer from University of Westminster’s School of Architecture and Cities. “During a crisis like we’re in at the moment, it would mean creating temporary housing and [having] health centres be built more flexibly and have space available in cities for those,” he says. One example of this is the temporary Nightingale Hospital in London, converted in just nine days and able to accommodate 4,000 patients and a 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan, China, that was built from the ground up in just 10 days. Having both the space and capability to create these rapid, temporary structures will be a fundamental part of a city built for a pandemic.

In shared buildings we might think about having more than one lift, and multiple communal staircases

But cities might go beyond this “to be able to change rapidly, [from the delivery of] essential supplies, shopping and goods, to evacuation routes,” says Woltjer. Materials would need to be sourced which enabled rapid building, like timber and wood, the usage of which is already appealing to many as they are more sustainable. We may see more buildings made from shipping containers too. “There are ready-made houses and smaller buildings that can be put together like a package,” adds Woltjer.

So making different use of our current spaces, implementing further sanitation and transitioning toward more room for pedestrians are all going to be key features in a pandemic-resilient city of the future.

But one of the biggest changes to our cities won’t be so visible as a fancy new building or a big new park, according to Davina Jackson, author of Data cities: How satellites are transforming architecture and design. “Cities of the future are going to have to be designed to deal with completely invisible flows [like a global virus], and that’s where the data mapping comes in.”

She gives an example which brings us back to the urban gut of a city: researchers at the Senseable City Lab at MIT placed sensors into sewers to detect concentrations of illegal drugs and harmful bacteria in specific areas. A city built for a pandemic would likely be filled with hidden sensors to help map the spread of disease.

Self-sufficiency

Another important aspect in building a city resilient to pandemics is thinking about how to source food.

In our globalised world, resources from all corners of the world can end up in the heart of our urban centres within a matter of hours or days, and viruses hitch a ride with them. “Our cities are not citadels,” says Shah. Scientists say coronavirus likely came from bats, which passed through an intermediary species before reaching humans in Wuhan, with its large train station connecting the city to the rest of China and its busy international airport. “Five million people left Wuhan before they locked down that city, because we’re all connected,” says Shah.

The Chinese authorities were able to build a 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan from the ground up in just 10 days (Credit: Getty Images)

The Chinese authorities were able to build a 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan from the ground up in just 10 days (Credit: Getty Images)

She suggests that to reduce risk, our cities may need to become more localised and self-sufficient in the future. “If you had a city, for example, that could feed itself,” Shah suggests. “It’s not like each place has to be an island, but that there’s some kind of sense of balance and sustainability that you can see within your own settlement.”

There are already examples of urban farming feeding millions when there is little other choice. During World War Two Americans planted 20 million household vegetable plots, producing nine million lbs of produce each year and amounting to 44% of the US harvest, but the challenge of building a self-sufficient city is still a huge one.

Garcia agrees that the city of the future needs to be more localised, not just in food but in access to day-to-day amenities. “Maybe in the mega-cities, you have to create small nuclear entities,” he says. “And each nuclear entity has all the resources inside.” One example of this is the 20-minute city, something that was being trialled in Melbourne, Australia before the coronavirus outbreak. In a 20-minute city, almost everything a citizen needs, from shopping to healthcare to exercise, is within a 20-minute walk or bike ride.

Localisation can also help with another sticking point in the fight against contagion – mass public transport. While hailed as an environmental solution to the pollution caused by individual car usage, public transport is not ideal in a pandemic situation. So cities would need to make more provisions for cycling, and cities may need to “offer more paths and small roads so there are alternative ways to get around: so we’re not all collectively on the same road or in the same public transport”, says Woltjer.

Therapeutic parks in Singapore are designed to boost the mental and emotional well-being of citizens (Credit: Getty Images)

Therapeutic parks in Singapore are designed to boost the mental and emotional well-being of citizens (Credit: Getty Images)

Our homes will need to change too. In an effort to make them more energy and heat efficient, many workspaces, flats and apartment blocks don’t have operable windows. But if we are to going to be spending more time indoors, our houses will need to be better ventilated and offer more light, according to the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture’s Kallipoliti. She describes the need to avoid something called “sick building syndrome”, which is what happens “when buildings [are] entirely sealed and start recirculating pathogens through their systems”. Perhaps our homes will even be built to feature “decontamination airlocks like in a Martian environment”, she suggests.

But as the world grapples with the harsh reality of our current situation, we cannot simply build our way out of the problem. A shift in thinking is needed for any city of tomorrow, according to architect Roberto Palomba, who is currently quarantining in his home in Milan.

As a judge on a newly launched Pandemic Architecture competition, which calls for creatives to submit ideas on city design in the face of globalised health threats, he wants to focus not just on design, but on our broader relationship with nature.

“We have abused nature, and [generated] epidemics,” Palomba says. Before thinking about new cities, the focus should be on preventing new diseases from emerging in the first place. “I believe that cities against pandemics will be just that, places where each species will find respect in coexistence.”

So perhaps we shouldn’t be picturing shiny new city-centre plans when envisioning a pandemic-resilient city. The changes will be quite practical, like pop up hand washing stations, and often invisible, like tracking devices built into our sewers. If we do pandemic preparedness right, our cities might look much as they do today – just a little less crowded, with a little more local open space, and with more of the resources they need to support themselves on the doorstep.

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