Only a few months ago, the changes sweeping our social, economic and political spheres were considered unfathomable: social isolation, working and studying from home, and the scientific overture of daily political briefings. While some of the emergency measures will be scaled back as the infection curves flatten, others will remain in place for the foreseeable future. As the response to the pandemic now enters its next stage, we are exploring how we can harness this crisis to bring about positive change in cities. With a specific focus on our home city, we will broadly sketch three strategies for helping London survive Covid-19 and thrive in its wake.
London is no stranger to viral epidemics. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw multiple instances of plague spreading throughout the city, followed by the especially severe Broad Street Cholera outbreak of 1854. For a century since the calamitous outbreak of the Spanish Flu in 1918, the city was untouched by any serious epidemics. But the sheer density of 8.9 million people creates the perfect breeding ground for viruses. So here we are, once again, only this time we have modern medicine and digital technologies to aid our resistance. Those that can afford to do so have fled the city for the countryside in pursuit of a safe distance; the latest data puts that figure at 250,000, or 2.8 per cent of the population. The rest must negotiate a socially distant twelve square metres when in public – a tall order for most, and altogether impossible for most essential workers.
Many of the prophylactic measures introduced in lockdowns the world over have challenged the very essence of cities, as well as our aspirations as urban designers and planners. Normally, we design public spaces to facilitate congregation. Yet, the new guidelines prohibit socialising beyond one’s household. Normally, we espouse the importance of public transport. Yet, we see Transport for London preventing all but essential workers from using the Underground and buses. Normally, we champion local high streets and vibrant marketplaces. Yet, this crisis has hastened the online migration of retail and left the future of our high streets uncertain. Whilst it is too early to say what the post-Covid-19 normal will look like, we believe this is an opportunity to catalyse positive change in our built environment.
To live in a city like London with its sky-high rents is to trade private space for public space. Many of us live in shoebox apartments in exchange for living close to some of the capital’s most coveted destinations. But to live in London under lockdown is to be deprived of these museums, restaurants, concert halls and clubs that offer us social solace and respite from our cramped homes. The closure of these great indoors have, however, opened our eyes to the great outdoors on our doorsteps. Recently, CityLab asked people from all over the world to create maps of their lives under lockdown. A consistent theme among the hand-drawn maps sent in from cities across the world were local parks and leafy streets. The buildings seemed to almost disappear, fading away to reveal just the streets, gardens and parks.
Seen from a satellite, London is exceedingly verdant, with more than 800 square kilometres of green area. However, only 26 per cent of the green spaces is accessible to the public, while 36 per cent is locked in private gardens and the rest largely cordoned off for agriculture. The pandemic has highlighted these spatial inequalities: between people who have private gardens and those who don’t; those who have access to public green spaces versus people who live too far away from them. One way to remedy this inequality of access to green areas is to reclaim space from cars and give it over to people. The Garden City Movement at the turn of the nineteenth century aimed to marry the health benefits of nature with urban conveniences. What if London took a leaf out of the Garden City manual and transformed its streets into miniature greenbelts surrounding homes? In Japan, doctors regularly prescribe time spent surrounded by nature for certain medical ailments, a remedy increasingly supported by the science on biophilia and its myriad mental and physical health benefits. Providing Londoners with greener, safer, friendlier and by extension healthier streets would surely ease the pressure on the National Health Service.
Cities have increasingly been investing in people at the expense of the car since the 2000s. There are the Paris Plages, the seasonal artificial beaches along the Seine, Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma, where cyclists get precedence every Sunday, and Times Square in New York, which now hosts a permanent pedestrian plaza, to name a few. Beyond these centrepiece urban projects, what is needed is more granular investment in small-scale tactical interventions at the residential street level. Of course, not all streets are made equal, and some are more adaptable than others. To determine which neighbourhood roads could be transformed will require a systematic sifting process that would consider traffic circulation patterns, proximity to green infrastructure, as well as community needs.
Readymade case studies such as Derbyshire Pocket Park and Van Gogh Walk are proof that urban acupuncture – small, tactical interventions in the built fabric – has the potential to make a big impact. Whilst quantifying the qualitative benefits of neighbourliness is difficult, the seminal sociological analysis of the deadly Chicago Heat Wave of 1995 found that social isolation was the common denominator among deaths, and the strength of community support – built on years of sitting on stoops and block parties – literally saved lives. Today we have apps and community aid groups to fast-track neighbourliness, but above all, we need places – communal front gardens in place of parked cars – where neighbours can gather, and children can play.
The average London commute is forty-two minutes each way. Over an average lifetime, a Londoner spends one full year in transit, travelling more than 225,000 kilometres in total – the equivalent of going 5.5 times around the equator. Pre-lockdown, 35.5 per cent of London journeys relied on public transport, 37 per cent used private motor vehicles, 25 per cent of travellers walked and only 2.5 per cent cycled. While London has seen an 85 per cent reduction in vehicles on the roads since the lockdown, there has been a surge in car rentals, which points to an uptick in car commutes by those who fear contracting the virus on public transport. This trend threatens to undo the painstaking efforts to limit inner-city air pollution due to car travel. As public transport will continue to be a source of angst for travellers, the logical solution is to invest in pedestrian and cycling infrastructure.
Emboldened by the emergency powers granted by local and central governments, cities around the world are widening cycle lanes and pavements: Paris has added 650 kilometres of cycle lanes, Lima has added 300 kilometres, and New York has added sixty-four kilometres since the lockdown. Similar, albeit more modest, measures are being rolled out across the UK with road closures, speed restrictions, pop-up bike lanes and wider pavements. In 2016, London appointed its first Walking and Cycling Commissioner, a sign that the city was already moving towards a ‘two feet and two wheels is better than four’ strategy. However, the current crisis presents an unprecedented opportunity to fast-track these changes. The Mayor of London and TfL recently unveiled their ‘London Streetspace’ programme, which will rapidly transform London’s streets to accommodate a possible ten-fold increase in cycling and five-fold increase in walking when lockdown restrictions are eased, and the government has pledged a two billion pound fund to boost active mobility.
Identifying the relevant routes is a challenging task as there is likely to be a shift in mobility patterns and modes of transport. Designers will have to defer to local authorities to identify appropriate streets for creative reuse. In the meantime, given the capital’s open data policy, we can mine the hundreds of datasets to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the current infrastructure and come up with creative solutions for repurposing streets for active mobility.
For instance, the freely accessible streetscape designation dataset created by Nicolas Palominos, doctorial researcher at the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture, allowed us to zoom into a typical London residential street and identify possible ways in which we could reclaim underutilised space from parked cars. Today, the average residential street provides two thirds of its width for vehicles and just one third for pedestrians. Two narrow pavements are lined with cars, and what are meant to be front gardens are often unusable, with a lot of this space taken up by dustbins. Our vision sees the street transformed into a space for the community, a public arena rather than a through route. The consolidation of parking creates an opportunity to prioritise walking and cycling, and the reclaimed territory can be used to create areas with more vegetation, seating opportunities and a centralised waste chute that will help to free up the front gardens. Of course, no two streets in the capital are the same, and each deserves a bespoke design response. But the policies, datasets, and design tools are at the ready to take on the challenge.
In London, the Square Mile and the City of Westminster host 25 per cent of the capital’s jobs on just 1.5 per cent of its land. There are 7.5 times as many jobs as residents in these two local authorities alone, which explains the everyday commuter congestion as people flood into these centres of work. In 2019, the percentage of people working from home in the UK was just 5 per cent. Today, due to the unprecedented response to the Covid-19 crisis, that figure stands at 50 per cent. It should suffice to say, the gradual working from home evolution has turned into a working from home revolution. The return of the workforce to these centralised offices will be a slow and arduous process and perhaps one that may never be complete as the possibility of working from home becomes more appealing for both employers and employees.
Casting our eye back to 1943, the London County Council instructed planners Patrick Abercrombie and John Henry Forshaw to develop a plan to help with the reconstruction of London after the anticipated end of the Second World War. Their ‘Social & Functional Analysis of London’ remains one of the most iconic maps of London. The map depicts London as an agglomeration of neighbourhoods, each delineated and anchored by a high street as its commercial centre. Most of these high streets are still with us today. However, many have suffered from a change in consumer behaviour, threatened not just by the rise of online retailers, but also retail clusters in the West End and newer shopping centres. While most of London’s famous retail streets have the benefit of consolidated ownership or management structure, which has enabled them to survive in an ever more challenging world, to-let signs have become a common sight on many smaller high-streets across the country.
Just as the pandemic has forced everything except food shops and pharmacies along the high street to close, the concomitant working from home revolution could become the catalyst for a revitalisation of the local high street. Across the capital, 38 per cent of London’s population lives within a three-minute walk of a high street. Many more live within a comfortable five- or ten-minute walk or a short cycle ride. The empty properties on high streets could become a new breed of community co-working spaces and other support functions to provide a much-needed change of scene from working in our homes. Based on an initial survey of our own colleagues, it is apparent many would opt for more flexible working conditions, allowing them to work from home, or indeed co-working spaces closer to their homes. Until the architecture of homes catches-up with our newfound flexible working situations, a diffuse network of small-scale co-working spaces could become the new high street flagship store, allowing residents to work and play locally. This would go some way towards transforming sleepy residential enclaves and dusty high streets into vibrant mixed-use neighbourhoods.
Throughout history, London has been decimated by fire, plagued by epidemics, and bombed in war, only to emerge stronger and more resilient. Out of the ashes of the Great Fire of London in 1666, emerged a city hardened with brick, mortar and stone. The Cholera epidemic of 1848 led to great strides in public health and gave us Joseph Bazalgette’s sewage system that is still in use today. The craters left by bombs in the Second World War were filled with many new buildings of public importance, such as the Royal Festival Hall along the Southbank and the mixed use communities and institutions of the Barbican, unleashing a civic and cultural renaissance across the city.
Crises and catastrophes focus our attention and sharpen our commitment to protect lives, and in the process improve the quality of life. What we need now is good governance and policies that will enable progressive change. Designers can then work to reimagine and reengineer our cities towards healthier streets, revitalised high streets, and more resilient neighbourhoods. As the conversations around de-densifying places where we work, shop and eat unfold over the coming weeks and months, it is important not to scapegoat cities. We must remember that cities much denser than London, such as Tokyo and Seoul, have weathered the worst of the crisis, and places of comparative low density such as northern Italy were worse hit. Disentangling the root causes of these discrepancies will take years perhaps, but we must not lose those years in carelessly demonising density and devaluing the city. Cities are and have always been the engines of progress, places where innovation and creativity take root. The response to the threat of Covid-19 represents a watershed moment for London and many other cities around the world, and much like the previous crises, we believe it will emerge stronger on the other side because of the density of talent that will transform this challenge into an opportunity.
14 May 2020
Bruno Moser, Theo Malzieu, Paula Petkova
Bruno Moser, Theo Malzieu and Paula Petkova are part of the Urban Design team at Foster + Partners, a diverse group of planners, spatial designers, economists, anthropologists, landscape architects and mobility groups working together to create thriving and resilient environments.