Shirley Blumberg
courtesy KPMB Architects Shirley Blumberg

Throughout history, disease has had a profound impact on urban life and design. What has the COVID-19 pandemic taught us about creating a better future?

Urban population density fuels the spread of illness, particularly in areas with poor living conditions. But monumental public health crises have also advanced the design of cities, indelibly defining them for the future. In the 19th century, London and Paris built robust and unprecedented sewer and sanitation systems to counter the threat of cholera. Additionally, Napoléon lll appointed Georges-Eugène “Baron” Haussmann to reimagine Paris with a vast public works program of generous avenues, parks, and squares that introduced light and air to the city center.

Before the mid-20th century breakthrough development of antibiotics, treatment for tuberculosis was largely environmental: fresh air, sunlight, rest, and nourishing food. In New York, when we believed the lack of fresh air caused malaria and cholera, Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park to be “the lungs of the city.”

Perhaps Alvar Aalto set the standard with his approach for Paimio Sanatorium, completed in Finland in 1933: He believed we should design for the person in the weakest position.

The COVID-19 pandemic not only joins the list of long-standing global problems—including inequity, populism, social unrest, mass migration, and climate change—but it also underscores them. For example, the necessity of social distancing has made clear design shortcomings in our public realm: narrow sidewalks, too much land surrendered to cars, and insufficient public spaces and parks for people to gather safely. In response, some cities are converting streets to pedestrian walkways and building more extensive cycling networks.

The pandemic has also revealed how inextricably bound we are to the global community—and how fundamentally reliant we are on each other. The international collaboration and the extraordinary speed at which scientists developed highly effective vaccines give us hope that the disruption from life as we knew it will inspire us to imagine our world anew.

The pandemic has also revealed how inextricably bound we are to the global community—and how fundamentally reliant we are on each other.

Driven by disease, architects and city planners worldwide are called upon to respond to urgent societal challenges. Under pressure from this existential threat to humanity, tectonic shifts are underway in our design culture. Like scientists, who took on the seemingly insurmountable challenge of developing successful vaccines for the coronavirus in an impossibly tight time frame, architects and engineers can achieve lasting change. But it does require political will and innovative entrepreneurs.

Imagine if architects came together to solve the global housing crisis. The pandemic has exposed the appalling conditions in long-term elderly care, the lack of housing for those experiencing homelessness, and overcrowded living conditions in underserved neighborhoods.

Imagine if city governments realized how public green spaces are essential for people’s health and well-being—as COVID-19 demonstrates daily—and took action on the current inadequacy of the size and quality of our urban public realm.

As the New Orleans–based design justice activist Bryan C. Lee Jr. has written, “For nearly every injustice in the world, there is an architecture that has been planned and designed to perpetuate it.” The built environment is not equitable. Injustices and exclusion are embedded in our cities, and architects have been complicit. Who gets access to affordable housing, and who does not? Who can occupy public space without fearing for their lives, and who cannot? Who can seamlessly work from home, and who cannot?

Our cities have many scars. Can public space be a place of healing? Can we create trust within communities through how and what we design and build?

Imagine if design was driven by generosity, if architecture offered people freedom and choice as to how to inhabit the space in which they live.

Encouraging examples are underway. In 2020, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo launched the “15-minute city” plan, where every resident will have their most frequently used amenities available within a 15-minute walk of their home. Additionally, the city recently completed Clichy-Batignolles, an eco-district situated on a former rail yard that combines passive-house buildings with a robust green infrastructure of public space and serves as a laboratory for building future carbon-neutral cities.

Pritzker Prize winners Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal are renowned for their imaginative reuse of buildings, intervening with the most economical of means to create gracious housing and cultural buildings. “Economy is not a lack of ambition, but a tool of freedom,” they believe.

Architects are first and foremost citizens. Our greater responsibility is to our fellow citizens. We live in a time when our synthetic skills of design-thinking and problem-solving have never been so relevant. Our collective work has social, environmental, and economic impact—and if we really understand this, we can help mitigate inequities and climate change and deploy our resources more wisely around the world.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

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