From garden streets to bike highways: four ideas for post-Covid cities – visualised

As the pandemic wreaks havoc on existing structures, we look at some visions for post-Covid cities – and how they hold up

Chris MichaelLydia McMullan and Frank Hulley-Jones in The Guardian, 25 Sep 2020

There is a huge, looming, unanswerable question that overshadows our cities, like an elephant squatting in the central square. Will a Covid-19 vaccine or herd immunity return us to “normal”, or will we need to redesign our cities to accommodate a world in which close proximity to other people can kill you?

From garden streets to bike highways: four ideas for post-Covid cities – visualised

After an anxious summer in the northern hemisphere, during which those of us who were able to safely do so mimicked a kind of normality with limited socialising on patios and in gardens, winter is coming – and it will test the limits of our urban design. Regardless of whether we “solve” this latest coronavirus, humanity now knows how vulnerable we are to pandemics.

Can we mitigate the effects of the next great disease before it happens? And has the colossal disruption to the way we work and travel created a renewed impetus to organise cities in a more sustainable, more pleasant way?

We asked four architecture firms to share their visions of what cities should do, now, to better design everything from offices to streets to transport – and we have analysed each one – to help inoculate our cities against a disease that is proving so difficult to inoculate against in our bodies.

The idea
In our pandemic summer of 2020, cities exploded with bicycles as millions of people avoided public transport and took advantage of the sunny days to get around on two wheels.

The expansion of cycling infrastructure in car-centric cities from Moscow to Mexico City to Mumbai – and the corresponding pedestrianisation of space by closing streets to cars – has been one of the great global urban success stories of the 21st century, and architecture practice SOM proposes extending these measures.

  • Flexible indoor/outdoor retail pavilions
  • Socially distanced al-fresco dining
  • Cycle route and footfall info accessible via smartphones
  • Pop-ups related to commute
  • Socially distanced outdoor meeting spaces near buildings
  • Resting areas with foliage

The firm envisions a “comprehensive reshaping” of city streets and the construction of a network of bicycle highways, all in the service of a “sidewalk economy”.

It proposes streetscape amenities such as flexible, indoor-outdoor retail pavilions, umbrellas for eating areas or socially distanced al fresco office meetings, and technology for riders to find the quickest, least busy cycle routes.

“Bicycle commuting is another one of those things where if we can use, or respond to, the pandemic with a solution that actually works really well, maybe it’ll stick,” says Scott Duncan, a design partner at SOM.

Guardian analysis
There is not much to complain about when it comes to expanding cycling provision. As a way of getting around cities it is healthy, cheap, improves air quality, reduces congestion and – if accompanied by vehicle restrictions such as ride-sharing, the reduction of street parking and last-mile delivery hubs – prises away much-needed physical space from cars.

SOM’s proposal for a cycle superhighway is laudable but more notable in the US context – London has had one for years.

And while the fearmongering of the business community that more bike lanes will hurt footfall has been proved wrong, cycle superhighways also do not magically transform a streetscape into a more liveable place.

The superhighways crisscrossing London are just that: highways, with commuter bikes zipping past at high speed. Replacing one type of artery for another does not radically alter the street-level experience; what does are holistic “complete streets” approaches that work cycling into a more relaxed mixed environment of pedestrians, parklets, shopfronts, greenery, street furniture and more, as in Copenhagen.

However, just because existing networks have not turned out to match SOM’s future vision, does not mean cycle superhighways are not a good thing – and the somewhat lumbering US cities such as Chicago, where SOM is based (and where 70% of workers commute by car v 3% by bike), would do well to catch up. Then again, what about when it snows? It is hard to imagine colder cities ever fully jilting the car for the bike. CM

The idea
If the great urban deprivation of the pandemic was to deny us many of the collective experiences that make big cities great – gigs, museums, restaurants, shops etc – then Foster and Partners argue that the great advantage was to wake us to the overlooked resource of our immediate neighbourhood.

The firm proposes making the most of the local streetscape by turning them green, leafy and parklike. Many cities lock most of their green space into private gardens, in effect planting inequality into the built environment; meanwhile, roughly 65% of the public realm in the UK is dedicated to vehicles yet 80% of the time cars are static. Front gardens are occupied by bins and there is often nowhere public to socialise and relax.

  • Shared space for pedestrians and cyclists
  • Bins replaced with centralised waste disposal
  • Restricted through-traffic
  • Reduced/consolidated on-street parking
  • Trees providing shade
  • New street furniture
  • Front gardens freed up for vegetation

Why not transform streets into “miniature greenbelts” surrounding homes, thereby improving our health and reducing the strain on hospital services? By centralising bins (as in some European cities), planting trees and adding furniture such as benches, as well as restricting car parking and through-traffic, you give people room to gather, children room to play and generally use small-scale interventions in public life to make a big impact.

The firm does not propose eliminating cars, given that people with disabilities and certain deliveries rely on them. “But if you can free up that space, and if you can control the amount of traffic that goes through those streets – which in many cases actually isn’t very much – we feel it will be an opportunity to create a decent public ground,” says Bruno Moser, an urban designer at Foster and Partners. “And not everybody is lucky enough to have their private garden.”

Guardian analysis
The benefits of green streets have been well established since Janette Sadik-Khan became what counts in the urbanist world as a celebrity by doing the supposedly impossible: pedestrianising Times Square.

If New York City could close traffic lanes for planters and deckchairs and in effect parkify the heart of urbanity on Earth, why couldn’t any old residential street do the same? Foster and Partners have good form in this area, too: Norman Foster’s masterplan was used for the similarly ambitious pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square in 2003.

Particularly during the pandemic, scandals such as segregated playgrounds and pseudo-public space prove that our cities desperately need more equitable distribution of green space. The “guerilla urbanists” who do not ask permission before transforming street parking into mini-parklets would no doubt agree. Foster and Partners, too, argues that “urban acupuncture” – small, tactical interventions in the built fabric – have the potential for big impact.

Of course, relying on being able to free space taken by residential car parking is a big if. Also, there is the question of the meeting place between the designs of large urban developers and the bottom-up efforts from local residents who have to live there. Most large developers now talk a good game about placemaking and engaging local communities, but it can feel toothless if they don’t practice these ideas themselves.

Rather than waiting for a global design firm to spruce up your pavement, there are ways to take a look at your neighbourhood, think of an improvement, join a community group and push your municipality to make changes.

Covid-19 has, of course, made it harder for communities to come together and organise. But there are opportunities to do so without meeting in person – from the use of urban crowdfunding platforms such as Spacehive to neighbourhood apps including Nextdoor. If that’s too slow, the next time you see an empty parking space, just set up a table and chairsCM

  • Supporting a circular town centre economy
  • Food-sharing and waste-reduction schemes
  • Locating sites to test temporary interventions
  • Deals and promotions to buy locally
  • Coordinate stock and delivery logistics
  • High-speed internet for businesses and visitors
  • Improved public transport connections with dat

The idea
In a post-Covid world, digital technology could allow us to make better use of the high street, according to a collaborative project between the architecture studios We Made That and Gort Scott, advising the mayor of London on adaptive strategies for high streets and town centres. Monitoring traffic and footfall could help people avoid busy times, while air-quality data would help those with vulnerable immune systems.

Wifi accessibility could help remote or nomadic workers stay connected outside of an office environment, and better-managed transport such as increased capacity at times of high demand or data showing riders the least-congested times of day would allow for more effective social distancing.

That is to say nothing of improvements not specifically related to Covid-19: accessibility, last-mile logistics, reducing food waste, monitoring noise pollution, or even tracking what people spend to better enable a local circular economy.

“Street markets are increasingly valued as external places to shop locally, which is likely to be safer than indoors,” adds Fiona Scott, co-director of Gort Scott. “It’s important to support micro-businesses by improving access to digital services and skills. Home or office workers should be able to order their lunch digitally and go pick it up. Or indeed how about a service where your market shopping can be collated across different stalls like a food/veg box for collection at a convenient time?”

Guardian analysis
Predictions about the digital enablement of our urban landscape (whisper it: “smart cities”) have become the urbanist equivalent of a tired joke: if any of us read any more about futuristic bins that tell rubbish collectors when they are full, we’ll bang our heads against a smart street light.

But one change to our interactions with the high street that is more tangible is in the way smartphone maps have given each business a digital footprint, which lets you check their opening hours, services, busiest times of day and fastest directions. The idea that the high street could soon be fully mirrored in augmented reality (AR) is by no means farfetched.

In this context, Gort Scott and We Made That’s vision seems eminently plausible: your first interaction with the high street mediated digitally before you visit IRL. Your AR experience could include everything from footfall patterns to sentiment about particular businesses, while the municipality could help those business provide better services by more deeply understanding local spending, and reducing waste or pollution.

As ever, and particularly so post-Covid, the danger is a slow slide into a surveillance state: while you are using technology to monitor the city, the tech is monitoring you right back. Ethical management of urban data is a fine principle but fuzzy in practice – one of the torpedoes that sank Google’s much-vaunted smart city project, Sidewalk Toronto.

One solution could be Cory Doctorow’s argument: that anyone with a smartphone should own the data it produces. After all, there is no reason you shouldn’t be able to check when the next bus is coming without the bus checking when you are, too. CM

  • Industrial building with climbing wall and tennis courts
  • Converted industrial building, providing internal sports halls and community facilities
  • Residential and industrial space in the same building
  • More free space for recreational facilities

The idea
The best-known urban proposal to gain traction during the pandemic is the 15-minute city, most prominently championed by Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris. Also known as the polycentric city, it means a city of little villages, where everything you need is within a 15-minute walk or cycle ride from your front door – thereby reducing the need to travel into the denser and (supposedly) more virus-rich city centre.

The problem? Many cities, drunk on the profits that flow from the construction of high-priced housing, have become monocultures of residential areas, with large dirty industrial areas that are no-go zones for anyone who isn’t employed there. The “work” areas are busy during the day and utterly empty at night; the “home” areas the reverse. dRMM proposes a solution: why not stack industrial units on top of each other?

Many new “quiet” industries – such as technology startups, urban farms, breweries or bakeries – do not require as much ground-floor access or noisy machinery as traditional factories. Stacking them would free space for parks, swimming pools, climbing walls and other attractions, which would bring people into the industrial areas while at the same time giving housing developers in those areas a big new sell: cool, modern industrial units right next door.

They would “not only provide jobs but are an actual benefit to the marketing strategy for the residential developments – lots of clients are looking into this to make a point of distinction, especially when competition is fierce”, says Will Howard of dRMM. In a pandemic, who doesn’t want to walk to work?

Guardian analysis
Zoned cities were a bugbear of legendary urban theorist Jane Jacobs, who thought there was nothing stupider than the likes of “museum districts” – monocultural by day, abandoned (and dangerous) by night – and nothing more pleasant than mixed-use neighbourhoods where shops, homes and workplaces jostled together in polyphonic harmony all day long.

She considered such “fine-grained” communities to be the true and natural pinnacle of the human urban environment: not only safer (because of her vaunted “eyes on the street” theory of how shopkeepers keep the peace) but more efficient, less stressful (no commute!) and just generally more alive. So the 15-minute city is nothing new, but planners have found it so difficult to loosen the grip of the car over the decades that our cities remain zoned: with suburban housing, central office districts and sprawling industrial plots all separate from each other.
dRMM’s fun idea of industrial tower blocks is not new, either: it already happens in some city centres; in a sense, WeWork is a kind of stacked industrial unit. And industrial chic is by now many decades old: what young urban dweller, since the Hacienda made an old Manchester factory hip in the late 1980s, has not wanted to live in a warehouse loft?

The danger has in fact been the opposite – that the few industries that do still remain in cities will get pushed out for good, replaced by an endless monoculture of identical housing developments, each with its own ground-floor coffee shop. (The British government’s latest laissez faire wheeze to scrap planning regulations in favour of US-style zoning is almost certainly going to make matters worse in the UK.)

What about doing the reverse as well – ie, putting industrial and commercial units back into those residential neighbourhoods? Developers could be incentivised to provide space for real businesses that make things, and neighbourhoods would slowly start to become more than vast dormitories. Unless we can crack the monopoly of housing, the 15-minute city will remain tantalisingly out of reach. CM

Chris Michael is the Guardian’s Cities editor

Chris MichaelLydia McMullan and Frank Hulley-Jones