Author: Alessandro Balducci: Professor of Planning and Urban Policies at the Politecnico di Milano
To tackle the problems brought about by the pandemic, cities are experimenting with various policies. Although we are in a state of radical uncertainty created by an unprecedented situation, I believe that we can identify at least two paths that cities are thinking about taking in terms of adapting their urban spaces which could have an impact which lasts beyond the current crisis.
The ’15-minute neighbourhood’
What is happening with COVID-19 may indeed recur with a resurgence of the contagion, other epidemic phenomena, or other unpredictable events which would entail a fresh requirement for closures.
During the lockdown, the structure of cities based on the separation between workplaces, residential areas, places of consumption and public spaces showed clear limitations.
Small neighbourhood shops were decimated by large-scale retail outlets; local services were eliminated by the streamlining approaches that led to their being concentrated in just a handful of places; and production areas and business parks constructed in dedicated towns and university campuses all became unreachable. The online world – from e-commerce to working from home and the provision of remote healthcare and social services – proved to be only partly capable of mitigating the negative effects of physical separation.
On the other hand, the factors which proved to be limitations in emergencies are also limitations to urban vitality in normal conditions.
All the urban planning literature has long indicated the need to move beyond functional separations, instead suggesting the path of mixite – the co-existence of different functions as a way of fostering liveability.
Now that our homes have also become places of work and leisure, restaurants have become places which produce food for home distribution, and workplaces have become increasingly temporary, this mixité can exist not only between functions, but also within them: in homes, offices and places of consumption.
One avenue that many cities are exploring is that of making urban neighbourhoods largely independent by bolstering the offer of services that are within 15-20 minutes walking distance: schools, commerce, restaurants, public parks, pharmacies, GP surgeries and essential public offices.
These are interventions that can have the dual effect of making the city more resilient in the event of an epidemic or other events that restrict mobility, but which can also, under normal conditions, encourage the development of a decentralised urbanity that is more inclusive (for example, for populations for which mobility is more difficult) as it is more accessible.
This does not happen spontaneously, however: specific policies must be put in place, starting with the drafting of ‘15-20-minute radius neighbourhood plans’, drawn up with the participation of both citizens and operators, providing support for commercial rentals in the neighbourhood, the decentralisation of essential services, the transformation of disused buildings and the upkeep of green spaces where they have been neglected, etc.
Temporary, reversible adaptations of urban space
We must be prepared for temporary and reversible adaptations in order to deal with emergencies like the one we are currently experiencing – emergencies that are bound to profoundly change the ways in which the city is used for finite periods of varying lengths.
In cities, there are movable objects which occupy urban space, such as cars, local markets and street vendors, as well as immovable objects such as buildings which, despite not being physically movable, can have their functions temporarily changed.
Streets, and sometimes even pavements, are occupied by parked cars, which are often stationary for more than 90 percent of the time.
Removing parking spaces from the pavements and roadsides of some of the main roads as a way of increasing the space available for pedestrians and cycle lanes could be an interesting strategy for temporary adaptation. These are interventions that can be performed quickly and with minimal costs, much in the same vein as the temporary pedestrianisation of squares and other public areas as a way of responding to the need for physical distancing due to the pandemic.
While they are reversible interventions, they can also lead to interesting situations for normal times. It is interesting that during an emergency, the objective of reclaiming the streets or shared spaces – a topic much discussed in urban planning literature – coincides with the objectives of enlarging the space available to pedestrians for physical distancing.
Similarly, local markets can be spread across much larger spaces and streets to reduce crowding, street vendors can equip themselves to operate safely, and the opening of restaurants into public space can allow these businesses to operate without too drastic a reduction in the number of people served as a result of the health and safety rules in place.
More generally, many activities that take place indoors can move outdoors, providing them with much larger spaces to allow for distancing, especially during the warmer months (from lessons in school playgrounds to outdoor speakers, as well as open-air cinemas, concerts and theatres).
Another option to consider is reusing large containers that are abandoned or underused, industrial or otherwise, as temporary locations for activities that normally take place indoors in cramped spaces which do not allow for distancing.
During the most severe phase of the emergency, we saw temporary hospitals being set up inside exhibition halls or convention centres.
In our city, Milan, we have long learnt to use many large-scale spaces in a very flexible way even during normal times, be it for Milan Fashion Week or the Salone del Mobile. We would only need to be able to extend these practices to other events and activities.
Another possible temporary measure might be to use municipal housing agencies to ensure that the owners of accommodation marketed on Airbnb have their properties rented out at controlled prices during the crisis of the tourist market.
In short, these temporary adaptation measures can be both a necessity and a form of experimentation for any city that wishes to be more capable of reacting to today’s rapid economic and social changes, many of which come up against a certain resistance in the form of the rigidity of the physical space.
These types of temporary and reversible adaptation of urban space also require direction and management – they involve the need to systematically map out transformable roads, large open spaces capable of being repurposed for temporarily transferred events and large abandoned containers that are temporarily reusable.
This is an essential exercise in facing emergencies that can open up interesting prospects for the future of the city.About this Content