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

Interested in Postgraduate Study? Join one of our Google Hangouts to find out more

Kent School of Architecture and Planning are pleased to announce we will be hosting a series of Google Hangouts for prospective students and current applicants interested in our postgraduate courses. These events are free, and will be held online, hosted by our respective programme directors. The full list of dates and times are below:

To book your place on any of our online Google Hangouts, please email ksapadmissions@kent.ac.uk with the Google Hangout(s) you would like to attend, and the email address you would like your invitation sent to.

MA Architecture and Urban Design (Paris) – Student Profile – Tamilore Oni

What made you choose to study the MAUD with a term in Paris?
During my bachelor’s degree, I became especially interested in the urban design (the design of cities) aspect of Architecture. As a result, I tailored my search for a Masters programme to finding one that would specifically address that topic. I came across the MAUD (Paris option) programme online, and was immediately taken with the idea of studying about urbanism in a city rich in architectural and urban history.

Can you describe the Paris campus for those who have not been before?
The Paris campus is in Reid Hall which is located in Montparnasse which is a very nice, busy part of Paris with lots of cafés, cinemas, theatres and shopping. Montparnasse is home to the famous Le Bon Marché, the Tour Montparnasse (at the top of which you can get one of the best view of Paris), and the tunnels of the Paris Catacombs run beneath it. Reid Hall is on a street off the major Boulevard du Montparnasse. It is a three-storey group of buildings. The premises are shared with the students and staff Columbia University. It has a little courtyard which is nice for seating to chat or have lunch. Seminars and classes are held in a well-equipped room, and it is has constant internet supply. There a couple of vending machines for snacks and coffee on the ground floor. There loads of cafés, and “sandwicheries” around, so you won’t go hungry! Staff from the University of Kent are always available to help in any way.

Tamilore with Prof Gerry Adler in Paris
Tamilore with Prof Gerry Adler in Paris

What module have you enjoyed the most and why?
I can’t say I have a distinct favourite. The Paris modules are really great because you talk about something in class, and then literally just walk out to see it – either during a trip organised by the school, or on your own.

The MAUD gives you the freedom to study modules from other departments; what did you decide to study and how did this benefit you?
I chose the Paris: Reality and Representation module, and I think it was a great choice. It is essentially a literature module where you examine the urban, social, economic, and political representations of Paris in selected works, bearing in my mind the actual conditions of the time. It is interesting to see the various impressions that individuals had about the city.

Are you enjoying exploring the city of Paris?
Yes, very much. There is so much to see and do. It’s been a great experience; well worth it, I would say.

What is the support like on your programme?
Prof Gordana Fontana-Giusti, and Miss Friedman helped me with my move from Canterbury to Paris. I also got help with my visa application and the programme coordinators assisted me in every way they could, and that was extremely helpful. The staff in the office over here are friendly and approachable.

After the programme, what are you planning to do?
I am looking to see if I can get any work experience, or research opportunities. I am very interested on furthering my studies in urban design. I am considering going further with a PhD.

For advice on finding accommodation in Paris, please visit our blog.