News and Insights

6 Takeaways From Cities in a Post-Pandemic World

October 21, 2020

Inspired by CatchOn’s recently released white paper, Future Cities, we gathered five thought leaders in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, and London to discuss what lies ahead for our cities – and how the pandemic has changed the way we view urbanization.

Will cities survive in a post-pandemic world, and if they do, how must they evolve to accommodate our new realities? Moderated by Charmaine Chan, Design Editor at the South China Morning Post, this insightful dialogue assembled Aric Chen, an independent curator, and professor and director of the Curatorial Lab at Tongji University’s College of Design and Innovation in Shanghai; Khee Poh Lam, the Provost’s Chair Professor of Architecture and Building as well as Dean of the School of Design and Environment at the National University of Singapore; Victoria Whenray, Partner at Conran & Partners; and Sean Affleck, Director at Make Architects.

Below, some key takeaways from the webinar.

1. The qualities of an ideal city continue to evolve, with green spaces, ease of accessibility, and vibrant high streets as constant attributes.

With millions forced to stay at home, at no other time have green spaces been more important. Should all cities then aspire to be like Singapore, a city in a garden? Khee Poh Lam says, “There’s a lot that can be learned and adapted from the development of Singapore, but it’s been a journey. In the mid-2000s, there was a visionary adaptation of ‘Garden City’ to ‘City in a Garden’, repositioning the garden as the main setting. Most recently we’ve been talking about a ‘City in Nature’, expanding beyond the manicured garden to fully embrace nature.”

Apart from greening our urban centers, keeping the vibrance of our cities is paramount. Victoria Whenray, an academician at the Academy of Urbanism and a lead assessor for European City of the Year, identifies pedestrian cities, light vehicle traffic, and exciting high streets as other qualities of a great city. “Something that interests us at the moment is the idea of a walkable neighborhood,” she says. In Paris, for example, the idea of a 15-minute city – where everything is accessible within 15 minutes on foot – has been well-received. In another city, Utrecht, in the Netherlands, bicycles are the predominant form of transport. “With that comes health and lifestyle, greater sociability, and improvements to businesses,” Whenray points out.

2. Pre-fabrication and modular construction are the future of building.

Sean Affleck is an advocate of modulization and pre-fabrication, which are gaining momentum for different reasons. “There’s got to be a more sophisticated way of building buildings. [Modulization and prefabrication] is a fantastic way to reduce noise and pollution; it will speed up construction. It has to be the future. But what’s really important is you’ve got to design that way at the beginning. It’s seriously exciting and it will transform construction and it will transform buildings,” he says. “We need to approach building buildings the way we approach cars and planes – they need to be just as sophisticated.”

3. Outdoor ventilation is fundamental to a city’s health.

In our post-pandemic future, cities must promote health and wellness. “One of the features is outdoor ventilation – making sure that our cities are well ventilated, not just our buildings,” Lam says. “As much as we want to promote a healthy indoor environment with natural ventilation, I always say, if your outdoor air is bad, people will not open the window. If you get the outside right, then the opportunities for creating healthy indoor environments will naturally follow.”

Adds Affleck, “We have to tackle pollution right at the root.”

4. Smart cities are great, to an extent.

Chen says, “Smart cities do bring benefits–[they’re] more convenient, improve traffic, garbage collection, etc. But in many ways, the future is not what it used to be. AI and machine learning were imagined 50 to 100 years ago. These are not new ideas. What’s new is that we are enacting them in real life nowadays and dealing with the real-world implications of those enactments. It’s not so much the technologies we need to think about, it’s more the ethics and value systems, the wisdom to use those technologies in good ways.”

5. The sharing economy will be alive and well, but we’ll want to keep it clean.

With new standards for social distancing, the sharing economy has largely struggled throughout the pandemic. But Whenray predicts co-working and co-living spaces will return to life. “Co-working, for example, is a great way for people who work by themselves to feel part of a community,” she says. How these spaces might be reactivated in the future however will depend on a different, creative approach.

“We’re social beings, we like companionship,” Affleck notes. “We’ve been in conversations with hoteliers, and the old model of the hotel was that the cleaning, the staff behind the scenes were invisible. Now it’s got to be in front of you – it’s like a piece of theater, like going to a restaurant and seeing the chef cooking. That’s what they [consumers] want – they want to see the cleanliness, they want to see people cleaning, dusting, scrubbing down lift buttons. And I think that’s really nice because that’s what makes a city work – all of these invisible [elements]. But maybe the exciting thing is that this won’t be invisible anymore. You’ll appreciate it more.”

6. The city as we know it is not dead – but it can and should be better.

According to Aric Chen, it’s unlikely the pandemic will transform cities to the extent that some are predicting. “The pandemic has not changed the world so much as it has greatly accelerated many processes that were already underway, for better or worse,” he says. “On the better side, [it has accelerated] the desire for more green spaces, the imperative to be more sustainable, the growing movement of pedestrianization.”

Adds Whenray, “Cities provide stimulation, and it’s a place of possibility and surprise. We have had an opportunity to dwell and to actually understand what we like and don’t like about our cities. Hopefully it will push the door open with decision makers.”

“My prediction is I will be living in a city [in 20 years’ time], and so will most of humanity,” Chen concludes. “Let’s make sure we do it well.”

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