The pandemic has caught us all in surprise. Yes, Gates said it would happen, but we never believed it would affect developed and resourceful cities and countries. We hadn‘t anticipated the damage such a pandemic could cause to urban preferences. Density, variety, mixed-use, and urban sustainability became a curse, and the nemesis of good quality living. The sentiment was amplified by leaders, such as Governor Cuomo who put it in a tweet in March, “There is a density level in NYC that is destructive…”
I have been talking to many urbanites in the States, Europe and Israel all considering leaving cities, opting for more relaxed, open-spaced, and distanced housing. And I can’t blame them. High-quality urban housing has become expensive, access to open spaces has been restricted, and living in a downtown apartment building can be at times very-very-lonely.
The fact is that while the rich and the digital workers can leave the dense city centers—or buy a holiday home—the less-privileged or location-based job force (that cannot substitute the office to online working) are stuck. Urban density has its flaws, but the future of urban living should not be based on access to technology, design or amenities, as some propose, but on enabling residents to influence their own surroundings.
While there is a loud call to fix post-COVID-19 urbanism, I seriously believe that this has little to do with structure or design, and everything to do with how you put it all together to fit real “needs” and “wants”. Common practice has seen amazingly designed urban residential blocks for the rich, and simplified, plain and under-detailed housing for the poor(er) due to the market economy and cost of building. The sad fact is, those who live in the better designed apartments are the first to leave the city.
The solution will come from creating urban living with a taste of home, something worth staying for. The problem is that we don’t know what people really want or need when we start the long process of designing, licensing, building and buying the property. This lengthy process results in apartments designed for imaginary humans—not homes. It will be essential to reshape the planning and building processes to be flexible and dynamic, if we want urbanism to have a fair fight over the urban flight. The planning system has to be fast tracked to focus on structure and volume, while leaving the “home taste” i.e. usage, size & detailing for later, to enable housing which is really needed (and wanted).
Data collected by and with users, about demographic and cultural demands will tell real-estate professionals, developers, and local authorities what types of housing and services are really needed. Young couples need medium-sized apartments that can grow over time, as well as proximity to kindergartens, schools, and open spaces; young professionals need smaller apartments with more amenities and access to nearby work and play; seniors will need accessibility and adjacent services and healthy, secure open spaces. Such data should enable near-real-time changes in the urban planning process to accommodate changing needs, while enabling variety, flexibility and affordability, similar to the ZARA business model.
In addition, we also need to build with flexibility and modularisation, to enable changes while they are built or accommodated, through ‘loft’ designs. Interchangeable components and flexible facades (such as proposed in the no-longer-continued Sidewalk Labs in Toronto) can enable larger or smaller units, additional features to fit changing demographics, trends and needs, and additions of public and commercial components to enable better access to services. Such flexibility should also enable the decrease of private spaces, through temporary or permanent removal of walls and components to gain access to nature, open spaces, and secure places to meet within or near the buildings.
None of this is sci-fi. All of these processes and structural components can be applied tomorrow. These ideas actually make housing more affordable because they remove uncertainty, and enable finalizing the structure closer to habitation—fitting housing more accurately to needs instead of shaping the users based on the structure. This kind of flexibility may have flaws. Some formalistic planners may say that this will lead to chaos and a direct path to slums, while others may say that it has logic but it is a regulatory nightmare, and that is why it cannot work without community ownership and co-design.
People dream of suburbia because it enables personal decisions about what, how, and why, and therefore the urban “competition” should enable residents engagement and decision-making by design. Flexibility regarding how or when components may be changed has to be made or agreed upon by local residents, utilizing available digital technology to demonstrate and share outcomes of change for better housing, sustainability, affordability and sense of community, enabling faster agreements and municipal approvals.
Flexibility calls for visionary municipal and commercial leadership, higher levels of proficiency (and dedication) amongst local planning officers and building professionals. COVID-19 leaves us no choice—it’s fight or flight.