COVID-19 Pandemic: A Plea for Pro-Active Urban Planning by Urban Planner, John Letherland

Today we are living in an unprecedented state of uncertainty, in the midst of a viral attack on humankind that is having profound effect on our health and our urban way of life. While it may be the most immediately severe, the COVID-19 pandemic is the not the only crisis causing us to question the way we coexist and our relationship with the world, affected as we are by climate change and the erosion of our eco-system, conflict, religious persecution, displacement of communities and the ever-rising gap between the rich and poor.

As an urban species, growth and quality of human habitat are some of the biggest issues we face today. In the context of the largest wave of urbanisation in human history, for the first time more than half the world’s population lives in cities. Sadly, this isn’t the first global pandemic we have had to face, and probably not the last; it is the proximity within which we live our lives that is one of the main reasons why the virus has been so successful in taking hold.

Cities have played a critical part in human development for almost 10,000 years and they continue to grow in importance as the primary form of human habitation. By 2050, the UN predicts there will be 9 billion humans and that two thirds will live in cities. As the global population continues to grow unabated, the urgent need for space and resources places us in competition with our environment as well as our fellow humans. Paradoxically, it is generally accepted that high-density living is the most efficient way for people to live with lowest carbon footprint, where infrastructure and transport networks can be effective and run efficiently.

Europeans have for thousands of years been living in densely populated societies, where infectious epidemic diseases (such as smallpox, bubonic plague, cholera, etc) have been the major cause of death. But, when we take as an example the violent outbreak of cholera in London in 1854 and the waves of bubonic plague that hit London in 17th century (killing an estimated 100,000 people), it is clear that the rapid spread of disease was symptomatic of a wider malaise – massive unplanned growth in population that the infrastructure couldn’t cope with.

‘…London in 1854 was a Victorian metropolis trying to make do with an Elizabethan public infrastructure.’

– Steven Johnson: The Ghost Map

The current COVID-19 pandemic must therefore be seen in a broader historical context and recognised as a symptom, not the cause, of a wider global problem – a huge explosion of growth in our urban population that, like the earlier lessons in time, has not been adequately learned and planned for. It is easy to be wise after the event, but contagious diseases are more predictable in our high-density urban centres, particularly in the context of expanding urban populations. Surviving and recovering well from pandemics like COVID-19 will therefore depend upon creating healthier cities. So, is it possible to turn this crisis into an opportunity for good urban place-making and the benefits this can bring us?

Now, more than ever, is perhaps the moment to think about what can be done to make our cities healthier. Cities are irrational organisms with a unique character and life of their own; like any organism they need to be fed and nurtured, their waste removed and their arteries kept clear to enable them to evolve and grow healthily. This includes providing them with breathing spaces – the parks, gardens and green spaces – where people can relax in open space, enjoy nature, breathe fresh air and exercise within the context of social distancing.

Large urban populations mean that fewer people have access to open space and nature, and cities like London, New York and Madrid have suffered more than most from the COVID-19 infection. However, living in high densities does not automatically equate to living in insanitary or under-privileged conditions. Evidence suggests that some of the highest density boroughs in London, for example, are also those in which residents enjoy the best health and the highest life expectancy. There is a direct correlation between these areas and the location of some of London’s largest and most treasured open green spaces. After the crisis has abated, there will be many things we need to do to set things straight; perhaps amongst these we could make our cities of tomorrow more liveable and resilient by making them greener and healthier.

This may sound like a solution more suited to the planning of new cities, but history shows us that we can adapt and retrofit our existing cities successfully, often on a grand scale. As Jack Shenker points out in his recent Guardian article of 26 March 2020 (Cities after coronavirus: how Covid-19 could radically alter urban life), the splendour of the Victoria embankment resulted directly from the construction of Joseph Bazalgette’s innovative sewerage system in direct response to the 1850’s cholera outbreak in London. Around the same time, Louis Napoleon and Baron Haussmann were in the process of transforming the congested and disease-infested inner-city slums of Paris into a network of beaux-arts style, tree-lined boulevards that would ease congestion, improve living standards, generate prosperity, eradicate cholera and in due course create a city that continues to captivate the world.

In the UK, London has its unique network of Royal Parks, green spaces and garden squares, and urban expansion in the Georgian and Victorian eras was planned around them. As a direct descendent of this tradition, the city has made a commitment to transform itself into the world’s first city-based ‘National Park City’ – aimed at coordinating and linking existing green spaces to make the city’s greener, healthier and wilder outdoor space more publicly accessible.

Similarly, Boston in the US benefits from the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted, who built an entire park system for the city in the 1870’s known as the ‘Emerald Necklace’. This investment in green infrastructure is a wonderful seven-mile-long network of parks, meadows, marshlands, and pathways that winds through the city and provides a sanctuary from the clamour and grit of urban life. Boston continues to lead the world in city planning with its more recentResilient Harbour Project’, a series of elevated green landscapes, pathways and protective parks along its 47-mile low-lying shoreline to better protect the area from flooding and increase public access to the waterfront.

Other global cities are also leading the way in investment in ‘green infrastructure’, many conceived in response to the climate crisis and yet all providing inspiration for how to make our cities more liveable, resilient and healthy in the context of the current pandemic. China is designing 16 ‘Sponge Cities’; areas piloting ecologically-friendly alternatives to traditional flood defences. Lush vegetation is being planted to bring down the temperature, and large green open spaces created with permeable pavements, rain gardens, grass swales, artificial ponds and wetlands to absorb rising flood waters.

New York was widely applauded for the transformation of an elevated rail viaduct on the west side of Manhattan into the ‘High Line’, a 1.45-mile-long elevated linear park that took its inspiration from the earlier ‘Promenade Plantée’ in Paris. Now a more ambitious project is planned, called the ‘Dryline’: 10 miles of flood defences along the shoreline will be provided by acres of green space containing protective berms and planting, walkways, promenades and bike paths to protect the city from hurricanes.

In contrast, organising cities like Paris on a smaller scale can also be a demonstration of proactive and big picture thinking. Mayor Anne Hidalgo is proposing to phase out vehicles and to reinvent the city centre as a ‘15-Minute City’ or ‘La Ville du Quart d’Heure’. The aim is to offer Parisians what they need, on or near their doorstep, to ensure an ‘ecological transformation’ and to reinforce the capital as a collection of characterful neighbourhoods or ‘Urban Villages’. This, she hopes, will decrease the need for travel, reducing pollution and stress in the process and create socially and economically mixed districts to improve the overall quality of urban life for residents and visitors.

It would be naïve to imagine that we can eradicate all disease but also inappropriate to think that urban life is doomed as a result. Cities will continue to hold the key to the entire world’s future as centres of civilised culture and expression, and as a vital part of the solution to the climate and health. However, the current pandemic is highly likely to require the further reshaping of our cities, and rightly so as we continue to learn from it.

The role of today’s architects and urbanists in pro-active urban planning is therefore more important than ever, if we are to rise to the challenge of continuing to thrive in close proximity to each other in dense urban populations into the future.

By John Letherland
Urban Planner and Master Planner
Programme Director: MA Architecture and Urban Design

Applying to MArch? Professional experience requirement waived for entry in 2020

Kent School of Architecture and Planning’s MArch architecture programme is validated by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). The award is also prescribed by the Architects’ Registration Board (ARB) as giving exemption from Part 2 of their professional examinations. Typically, we ask for applicants to have a minimum of six months’ experience in professional practice prior to starting the course.

However, in light of the current economic situation, the condition of six months’ experience in professional practice prior to starting the course will be waived for entry in 2020. Students admitted to the programme without the usual year-out experience may intermit their studies between the two years of the March programme to gain practical experience. However, this will not be mandatory.

If you currently finishing an undergraduate degree and applying without any year-out practical experience, your application can only be made once you know the outcome of your degree.

If you have any queries about the application process or what is required, please email

Former KSAP PhD student, Itab Shuayb, publishes new book

A big congratulations to former KSAP PhD student, Dr Itab Shuayb, who has published her new book titled, ‘Inclusive University Built Environments: The Impact of Approved Document M, for Architects, Designers and Engineers‘.

Dr Shuayb’s book focuses on an area of her PhD research which was to investigate whether universities adopting the British Accessibility regulations have impacted the built environment to the level that it became inclusive or whether the built environment is accessible for only people with mobility impairment. Dr Shuayb’s PhD research was done in collaboration with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) their specialists for inclusive design. CABE’s inclusive design work has since been incorporated into the Design Council agenda. Professor Gordana Fontana-Giusti was Itab’s first supervisor, with her second supervisor being Ann Sawyer, an access consultant based in London.

Dr Shuayb writes, “This book focuses on examining accessibility in the educational sector in the UK to investigate whether adopting an inclusive design approach in a university setting is preferable to just meeting legal building requirements. Six building case studies at the University of Kent were selected in order to investigate whether the design solutions had addressed the needs of a wide range of users. Moreover, the book investigates the impact of the legislation and Building Regulations on  six different university buildings dating from six different decades, the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, at the Universities of Essex, Bath and Kent to determine whether they have achieved inclusive design .The book then sets out a proposal to deliver the benefits of adopting the inclusive design approach by recommending alternative design solutions to tackle accessibility barriers that affect a wide range of users, including individuals with disabilities at the University of Kent.”


MArch Stage 4 student, Kehinde Pereira, awarded Venice Biennale Fellowship

A big congratulations to MArch Stage 4 student, Kehinde Pereira, who has been awarded the Venice Biennale Fellowship, run by the British Council in partnership with selected Schools of Architectures, including Kent School of Architecture and Planning.

Kehinde will be spending a month in Venice during the Architecture Biennale 2020. Kehinde writes, “As a successful candidate, I’ll also participate for approximately three days per week as an invigilator in the British Pavilion with the remaining time used for study and research in response to ideas within How Will We Live Together and/or The British Pavilions’s exhibition of the The Garden of Privatised Delights.”


Dr Caputo and Professor Bagaeen discuss co-designing green infrastructure in Rio de Janeiro

Director of Research and Innovation, Dr Silvio Caputo, and Professor of Planning, Samer Bagaeen have co-written an article for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RISC) World Built Environment Forum titled, ‘Co-designing green infrastructure in the slums of Rio de Janeiro‘.

Dr Silvio and Professor Samer Bagaeen are currently working on a research project, which focuses on green infrastructure as a catalyst of improved health outcomes and food production. The research project is looking into alternatives to current industrial food systems which rely on carbon-intensive production and distribution methods. In May 2019, the duo ran a week-long workshop in Rio de Janeiro building on shared expertise in urban agriculture and urban resilience.

Read the full article on the RICS website to find out more.

Kevin Smith and Julien Soosaipillai discuss collaborative process of creating PPE in fight against Covid-19

Kent School of Architecture and Planning (KSAP), along with colleagues from School of Computing and the School of Engineering and Digital Arts (EDA), have collaborated to design and supply 300 sets of personal protective equipment (PPE) for East Kent’s largest hospice charity, Pilgrims Hospice.

KSAP’s Workshop Manager, Kevin Smith, along with 3D CAD Technician, Julien Soosaipillai worked on the project from inception. They documented the pitfalls and progress of the project to date, “We experimented with several designs which were sent to NHS facilities; they preferred the PRUSA 3D V3 printed frame design which is designed to hold a clear plastic screen, bent around the head secured on a radial arrangement of forward-facing location studs. These are sized to just fit through a standard paper hole-punch hole, the idea being that anyone with a hole-punch could make the clear plastic shield front screen.

The original design called for 0.5mm PETG but this is in very short supply due to the unprecedented global demand. We experimented with the 1mm PETG we use for laser cutting but found it to be too stiff; i.e. it kept popping off the frame. PETG is preferred as it is fairly tough and reasonably resistant to solvents (often used for machine guards etc.).

We wanted the shields to be as sterile as possible. The 3D parts can withstand being soaked in Isopropanol to achieve this, so the screens needed to be similarly treatable. We also needed something that was available in paper sizes in case a hole-punch was to be used and preferably available in easily accessible large numbers. We had a stock of 0.24mm PVC A4 Binder covers and experimented with these. Although unable to withstand any significant heat they proved to be completely safe with Isopropanol so we cut a few samples and sent them to a local GP practice and the Pilgrims Hospice for trials. The feedback was good but said they would prefer a more wrapped around design.

3D CAD Technician, Julien Soosaipillai, redesigned the frame using Fusion 360, pulling the side arms in whilst retaining the hole-spacing. The modified sets were duly dispatched and approved. The University of Kent’s Design and Print Centre made 2000 PVC sheets available and the Schools of Engineering and Digital Arts and Computing supplemented our dwindling supplies of filament with everything that they had.

We have now set up a 3D printing Hub in the Digital Crit space using all the KSAP printers together with those from EDA, The School of Computing and School of Physical Sciences. Currently we are running eight Ultimakers, along with four Prusa printers, all printing a mixture of PLA and PETG.  Jigs were duly designed to drill and trim 100 screens at a time and a rotary winder is used to wind on elastic at a predetermined length, speeding up the cutting.”

The visors are supplied flat packed, each pack consists of 10 frames, 10 screens, and 10 lengths of elastic with some printed instructions. Kevin Smith, Workshop Manager, estimates that the team can make and pack 280 – 300 visors per day. Kent Innovation and Enterprise has been co-ordinating enquiries from the start and are currently arranging funding to order more materials to maximise production.

KSAP to take part in ‘Virtual Reading Marathon’ organised by Antonello Alici

Kent School of Architecture and Planning are joining forces with Architect and Assistant Professor at Università Politecnica delle Marche in Ancona, Antonello Alici, who will be hosting and introducing the ‘Virtual reading Marathon’ of Giancarlo De Carlo’s literature. This is an opportunity for students to be part of an online network of students interested in De Carlo’s work. PhD student, Benedetta Castagna, is part of the editorial board of this exciting new project. The schedule for this series of events is below:

  • 04.2020: Introduction with Anotello Alici
  • 04.2020: Morris 1
  • 04.2020: Morris 2
  • 04.2020: Morris 3
  • 04.2020: Morris 4
  • 04.2020: Wright 1
  • 04.2020: Wright 2
  • 05.2020: Carré Bleu 1
  • 05.2020: Carré Bleu 2
  • 05.2020: L’arch 1
  • 05.2020: L’arch 2

Antonello Alici, architect and architectural historian and critic, based in Romae and teaching in Ancona at Università Politecnica delle Marche, is currently working on the relations between Italian and British architects in the Post-war, and on the travels of Nordic architects to Italy. Since 2014 he is the Program director of the summer school ‘The Culture of the City. Understanding the Urban Landscape’ dealing with the regions affected by earthquakes.

To keep up to date with the ‘Virtual Reading Marathon’, or to take part, please follow on Instagram or join the Facebook Group.

Professor Samer Bagaeen discusses, ‘Covid-19: Is this the new normal?’

Kent School of Architecture and Planning’s Professor of Planning, Samer Bagaeen, recently discussed current global challenges, including Covid-19, in relation to urban planning and resilience as part of our new mini-lecture series which can be found on YouTube.

Professor Bagaeen, programme director for MA Urban Planning and Resilience, has also written an article titled, ‘Covid-19: Is this the new normal for the urbanised world?‘ for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). In this piece, Professor Bagaeen discusses the growth of the pandemic and the impact this is having on the built environment and the economy.