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The Post Covid-19 city: finding recovery in (landscape) architecture

More than half of the world’s population live in urban areas. Since March 2020, over 4.5 billion people were instructed to stay at home to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus. As a result: traffic stopped, streets emptied and we could hear again the birds whistles. The majority of people live in apartment blocks and each trip outside has become a physical as well as a mental expedition: mask = check; hand sanitizer or gloves = check. Moreover, some of us are now spending 24h in their homes and finding a balance between running kids – because schools are closed – and successful completing working hours. For some, insolation has been a very lonely and depressing time with social distancing restricting us from all face-to-face human contact, but others actually enjoy their extra free time and take the opportunity to spend time with their family, take up again ‘forgotten’ hobbies, etc.

As European countries are easing their lockdown restrictions, how do we ensure the safety of our streets and public spaces? In case of a new virus outbreak or climate crisis, how do we guarantee that our buildings preserve people’s physical and mental health? During this pandemic, we are living in a “real time laboratory”, so isn’t this situation of exception the opportunity to rethink our ways of living, caring, learning and working towards a more sustainable and resilient future?

Kop van Kessel-lo

What has Covid-19 revealed about our society?

The lockdown was the international answer for lowering the infection curve of the Covid-19 virus. Confined indoors, we are now combining our working and living activities, often with no private outdoor space to escape. During the lockdown, balconies – even not functional ones – gave people the freedom to enjoy fresh air, a view on nature and the possibility to interact with neighbours without worrying about getting contaminated outside. The most fortunate ones have a garden or a (properly sized) balcony, but several people do not always have access to private outdoor space nor a park at a walking distance. The limitation of access to nature and “parks open for residents only” to avoid unnecessary long-distance trip, exposed social disparities.

But we have to admit that although living under the lockdown has put a finger on the lack of access to outdoor space, it has also improved the global air quality, streets are less noisy, and people are more supportive with each other. So, should we see it as the chance to review our society?

Kop van Kessel-lo
Kop van Kessel-Lo, Development of a multifunctional urban complex, picture by Steven Massart, 2020

The healing power of nature

Being isolated is a stressful situation that brings anxiety, depression, tensions, etc. Having the opportunity to escape and go out for a run in a park, garden or just take a breath of fresh air, is a way to forget the tense feeling for a moment. In general is access to nature – visually and physically – an important contributor to our physical, emotional, and mental health, but maybe even more in a pandemic-era.

The influence of nature on health is not a new discovery. The scientific world – including research by Ulrich in 1984 – has proofed that nature benefits our mental and physical health: vitamin D, physical exercising, counteracting diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, reducing mental fatigue and stress, etc. Besides that, there are also long term economic effects: as we reduce people’s vulnerability in providing a healthier environment, less money needs to be spent on social healthcare and medical bills.

Since the last few months, we have seen that the popularity of parks has been exploded. For those of us who can have access to them, parks are an exhaust valve: they offer a physical and mental relief from being 24 hours indoor. Even though paths are congested and the stress of contamination remains – playgrounds are closed, people need to keep moving, sitting on benches is forbidden – nevertheless, we come up again with some creative and innovative ways to stay connected with flora and fauna: from sunbathing at the window to balcony farming. Or even by walking in streets with some trees gives you already a modest dose of nature. So in other words, we find, each in our own way, wildlife in our communities.

Hôpital Joseph Bracops
Joseph Bracops Hospital

Taking the shift in our societies as the opportunity to act now

Did we confuse physical distancing with social distancing? Physical distancing is indeed necessary to safeguard our safety, but in the benefit of our own well-being we need to maintain and encourage our social connection, and this within our living, work, learning and care environments.

Co-living projects are an example of living typology composed by a diverse community where social interactions can be maintained, isolation reduces and a healthier mental state is experienced. Shared amenities are flexible spaces with adaptative programming, whether they are indoor or outdoor. The slogan “alone together” takes a stronger meaning here, it is the altruism beyond the individual to the collective.

The same applies to the workplace. After more than three months of homeworking, we start asking ourselves: “What are the benefits to go to work at the office?”. What we seek at the workplace is not only a desk to sit at and executing our tasks, it is also an environment that provides a social connectivity,  an exchange of ideas, collective solutions for problems. Nowadays, architects elaborate workspaces that belongs to all of us (outdoor spaces like rooftops, patios, terraces, lounges), and as said by the architect Jeanne Gang: “[it has] evolved to be more enriching and participatory”. So, can amenities be the new social fabric in our buildings?

In the learning sector, school playgrounds could play the role as place-makers too: from outdoor learning classes to local community events during weekends. In that way we build a stronger community cohesion.

Last but not least, in the future, our care facilities will be more than just a facility. The hospital’s public realm will serve as a healing space where the landscape encourages recovery and perhaps an environment that promotes physical activities, urban farming and healthy eating.

But the question remains, where do we find more space in densely built cities? As we are physically constrained to keep our distances and are still not allowed to travel far, we rediscover our neighbourhoods. We use our cars less and take our bikes more. Roads where traffic is forbidden have turned into local playgrounds. The re-evaluation of our transportation modes is today’s hot topic: what is a safe alternative to cars for people who are afraid to take public transportation? Cities like Paris, Brussels or London will keep streets closed for cars in their centres even after lockdown to promote active commute. Concepts such as the “15min city” or walkable neighbourhoods were utopic before Covid-19, but now cities have an urge to provide a safer and healthier public realm. Moreover, investing in a more sustainable public space is also supporting the urban. A network of active transportation mode streets would make our cities more liveable and resilient, and (green) streets could become an alternative to overcrowded parks.

VDT-urban-farming
Project Vanden Tymplestraat, Leuven - urban farming

A resilient public realm: the vaccine against the crisis of tomorrow?

Everything has already started to change: going forwards is not going to be like whatever “normal” was before. Both individually and professionally, this experience has already shifted the way we live, invest, work, learn, consume, and interact. And (landscape) architecture has the power to help shaping and supporting these new behaviours on different scales.

On the building scale, it can reinforce the indoor-outdoor relationship, promote biophilic designs, and provide more (private and/or shared ) outdoor spaces, such as courtyard, entry porch, terraces, etc. Balconies can be used for their architectural presence and their green performances (casting shadow, access to fresh air, etc.). Furthermore, future building should be designed for a diverse and equitable communities.

On a neighbourhood scale, a well-thought streetscape can reconnect the plinth to the public realm and, engage the neighbourhood via an active program.

On the city / regional scale, we should advocate for an socio-economic resilience: food cycle that is locally sourced to create new vision of global economy. We could identify localized practices in order to re-organize the public space back in a way that it supports the neighbourhood that it is serving. In addition, the cost of development towards a greener infrastructure like on-site production of resources (renewable energies and food), equips the city with a network of light mobility lanes, parks, more permeable surfaces for a more efficient water management, etc. This is a long-term investment in public health benefits. The user’s health, safety and well-being should be an imperative.

The public realm has room for supporting resilient improvements to make our cities more flexible, adaptable and more importantly liveable. It only calls for a co-creation effort between professionals, governments and users. A sustainable resilience of the public realm can get us ready for the next crisis, but most importantly, it can be the answer to the many questions we had before.

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