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RETHINKING URBAN SPACES: LESSONS FROM THE PANDEMIC 

The COVID-19 pandemic has made us perceive our homes in a different way than we were used to, and we have discovered new needs that make us reflect on what the urban space must be like. Open, green, livable spaces that allow us to be in closer contact with nature even in the heart of cities are now more than ever a necessity.

Words By José M. Sainz-Maza del Olmo

24/05/2021

While an increasing number of people live in urban areas all around the world, the morphology and characteristics of these are constantly evolving to adapt to the lifestyle and changing needs of their inhabitants. This is nothing new; for centuries, urban planners have been studying how we interact with the built environment and designing solutions to improve the well-being of those who live in densely populated areas. 

From the Garden City movement to Arturo Soria’s Linear city or Le Corbusier’s Towers in the park, architects, sociologists, and urban designers have strived to create more comfortable and livable spaces that allow efficient and effective use of the land. In the 21st century, we need cleaner, greener and more accessible cities, with wide sidewalks and bike lanes, friendly to pedestrians, and safe for everyone. The pandemic has increased the need for some changes that were already taking place and has made some others appear.

2020 will be remembered as the year New York City emptied, with the main touristic, cultural, and business centers deserted and thousands of city dwellers fleeing to the outer areas of the metropolitan region. Something similar happened in many large European capitals, hard hit by the disease and affected for many months by various restrictions and severe lockdowns. Venice without visitors, dolphins swimming in the most popular ports of the Mediterranean sea, and thousands of empty airplanes on the ground are some of the stamps that the first year of the pandemic will leave in our memory.

Our homes, spaces often located at a great distance from the workplace and sometimes dedicated to little more than daily rest after a long working day, became for many people makeshift offices and compulsory leisure centers. This made its shortcomings apparent, and the possibility of having a large garden and a few extra square meters for a desk

suddenly became much more attractive. Moreover, in small towns and rural areas, it is easier to avoid using the subway and other closed, usually crowded spaces. Unsurprisingly, districts that concentrate a large amount of population in a relatively small portion of land, such as major cities, have been the origin of 90% of reported COVID-19 cases, according to the United Nations.

For those who could not seek refuge in a larger house outside the city limits, the immediate response and certainly the most logical was to rethink the distribution of the rooms, juggle the available space and fill their apartments with plants and comfortable furniture. Balconies and terraces became little oases in the densely built urban environment, and parks and green areas turned into the center of social life outside home. Shares of Netflix and Zoom rose as telecommuting became a global phenomenon and people converted their living rooms into gyms, offices and movie theaters. In short, life in cities changed dramatically in the blink of an eye.

It is perhaps a good time to ask ourselves what positive lessons we can draw from all this. Many cities, especially those more densely populated and with a more compact building scheme, such as those in southern Europe, have seen significant improvements in air and water quality during the prolonged lockdown periods. The creation of more resilient urban spaces promotes the personal and economic development of all citizens. It is no longer possible to ignore the urgency of reducing pollution and designing greener outdoor public areas, a revolution where the development of new, more sustainable mobility schemes plays a key role as well. It is difficult to know if we are facing the end of the 20th-century traditional mobility model, one based on privately owned cars, but it is clear by now that carsharing and light electric vehicles such as scooters are here to stay. 

We have also discovered the importance of having a home properly conditioned and perfectly adapted to our needs, our tastes and our way of understanding leisure. Plants make our homes more pleasant, regulate humidity and create more welcoming spaces. But beyond this, it is worth investing in rehabilitating homes with old room layouts to adapt them to current uses and security and isolation requirements. The post-pandemic recovery plans of many European countries, empowered by funds from the European Union, emphasized the need to move towards a more sustainable and ecological way of life, and building better is an essential pillar of this change.

Finally, a fundamental factor to take into account is the massive experiment on remote work that the current circumstances have forced us to carry out. Although many companies plan to make their employees return to the office or at least promote a mixed model once there is a larger number of vaccinated population, the implementation of remote work is expected to be greater after the end of the pandemic than it was before. Companies have found out that many processes work perfectly without the need for workers to physically travel to the workplace. This can have very profound effects on the population’s distribution in those countries where more people have office jobs. Not having to commute every day means that you have more freedom to choose where you want to live, and this could favor the repopulation of regions facing aging issues and the decrease in the demand for habitable land in cities. 

To sum up, the COVID-19 pandemic has deeply impacted the lives of every person around the world, generating a health and economic —and in some countries, also humanitarian— crisis, the effects of which will last for years. However, we can also draw positive lessons from this, and rethink how we understand the space in which we live, our relationship with the environment and the way we use urban land. More than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities, a number that grows every year, so now is the proper time to consider how we can improve the living conditions of millions of people in the coming decades.