Cities and pandemics
The COVID-19 pandemic has spread worldwide, driven by global urban interconnection and perpetuated by human contact. The repercussions of this pandemic go far beyond health, affecting the economy and society at large. As we are all experiencing, many affected countries have declared a state of emergency and have imposed social distancing measures, hoping to limit the virus transmission and flatten the infection curve.
For many of the world’s cities, epidemics and pandemics are no new occurrence, some of which were far deadlier than COVID-19. Yet, these dark episodes in human history have helped develop and perfect the city model that we know today. For example, we owe our modern sewage systems to the Cholera epidemic that prevailed in Europe in the mid-19th century.
COVID-19 will also bring a new set of social changes, first on inter-citizen relationships and more broadly, on how we design public and private urban spaces. Interrogation of the outcomes and effectiveness of urban planning choices has been an important part of the design phase of the Green City of Benguerir (GCB) in Morocco, which is a new city halfway to completion. This continuous interrogation offers us the opportunity to review and incorporate aspects related to the current crisis in our design as we go on.
Development and inclusiveness
GCB is a new city whose identity revolves around knowledge, research, and sustainable development; an ambitious urban project built with the Mohamed 6 Polytechnic University at its core and as a driving power for its development.
What makes GCB a particularly challenging development is its location close to the existing city of Benguerir, of which this new urban area should be the spatial extension and social continuity. In order to rise to the challenge, key components of the design phase of the new city aim to authentically reflect the uniqueness of the place, the research on modern development techniques, and international urban planning trends. This recipe is part of an integrated and inclusive urbanization approach that reconciles economic and the ecological aspects in service of social development.
With this in mind, several socio-cultural amenities have been programmed in the area connecting the old city with the new one. These public amenities promise to bring a form of social inclusion to both sides, particularly among young people from Benguerir and University students, each coming from different backgrounds. The COVID-19 crisis and the social distancing measures it imposes today call into question the very function and purpose of public spaces. For example, how can we reconcile warmth of human contact with social distancing measures?
Confinement and public spaces
Naturally, it is in times of lockdown that we recognize that public spaces are important as places for recreational activities, development, and creativity.
Overnight, many city dwellers have found themselves trapped in their homes with all the psychological risks such brutal change can generate. The city’s self-organizing power has had to operate to restore a certain balance. Thus, we have seen people all over the world turning their balconies and terraces into places where they can meet and exchange with their neighbours. It seems like they found a substitute for the local café, the theatre, or the night walk. However, what if the housing of the future is called to play- in addition to its traditional shelter function- other roles that have until now been served by public spaces? Could the city ever thrive without its public spaces? What would be the impact on existing public spaces?
Connectivity and smart data
Switching from direct social contact to virtual one has proved its worth during this period of crisis. This confirms GCB’s choice to adopt a latest-generation fibre optic network, to offer residents a high-speed internet connection. This will enable users to access all remote services such as teleworking, distance learning, telemedicine, telepayment, and home delivery services.
This broadband connectivity will also support the collection of reliable and up-to-date urban data that will be of great use for better territorial planning and management. Moreover, we have seen that urban data, when geo-localized, has helped some countries to reduce the spread of the virus and to lift confinement measures more quickly. However, we still need to collect this data without infringing on individual privacy.
Spaces and mobility
The COVID-19 pandemic has also revived the old debate on sustainable urban form: the dispersed city versus the compact city. On this question, GCB has chosen a polycentric structure, offering a balance between density and spacing. GCB plans to develop several residential districts with reasonable density, designed as autonomous entities, equipped with the necessary local services. Each of them will be spaced from other neighbouring residential districts by vast green spaces and public amenities.
In terms of mobility, the pandemic has shown that many of our urban trips are unnecessary and that we can avoid them favouring active transport, relieving our public transport systems as full capacity, and improving air quality. For people that cannot work from home, the city should implement a transport system providing appropriate health safety measures. Thus, as some countries are preparing for the gradual lifting of containment measures, we see that the demand for bicycles is exploding and that many are opting for walking. In this aspect, GCB has done well from the beginning to equip itself with a double traffic grid that superposes a soft traffic system for bicycles and pedestrians as fundamental to the road design.
Health and Living Well
Confinement measures are efficient to slow the spread of the virus, so as not to exceed the capacity of existing hospital services. However, cities concerned about the well-being of their residents will aim to ease these restrictions and, therefore, will have to ensure quality health services with sufficient capacity.
Regarding this aspect, GCB is planning to set up a University Hospital that meets international standards, which will bolster and strengthen the hospital capacity of the city of Benguerir and will host medical research to deal with current and future pandemics.
Supporting the transition
We should not consider the COVID-19 crisis as a singular and passing event. Rather, we should see it as an opportunity to question the current models, through constructive self-criticism, and to prepare for future pandemics.
The Green City of Benguerir, with its vocation as an architectural and urban planning laboratory, should seize this historic opportunity to join and contribute to the worldwide transition efforts toward more inclusive and healthier cities for all. It is therefore time to strengthen communication and dialogue with its citizens and partners in order to facilitate and support the change in minds and behaviours.
Featured photo: Green City of Benguerir © SADV/OCP Group.