Unlike a war and unlike a terrorist attack, a virus does not destroy buildings, streets or infrastructure and it also does not use explosives. It affects the city in a whole different way.
It does not come as a surprise, that Urbanists have been quick in outlining what the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic will be on cities, mainly quoting concepts from the past – from the reintroduction of the modernist Broadacre City of Frank Lloyd Wright across Hollywood blockbuster scripts with ‘Gated Virus Communities’ to a back to the village movement that would like to abandon the city altogether. They all advocate a profound change of the physical space of the city, of the very concept of the city as we know it.
Many of these prophets base their assumptions on previous outbreaks of diseases and pandemics: Pest, Cholera, Spanish Flu which all lead to changes in the way we build our cities. They caused changes in the hardware, the physical space: Sewers were built, city blocks were de-densified to allow for more air and light to enter and overcrowding was reduced by affordable mass housing programs.
None of these scenarios is likely and comes close to what we will experience. There will be gradual changes to our cities, but a looming recession will limit the economic possibilities and changes will be focusing on the affordable quick fixes.
Measures to keep distance are already taken. Many of them are of temporary nature and over time will be removed – also as a sign that the crisis has been overcome. Others will stay since they have proven to be the better solution. Often these changes have already been on the agenda pre-covid. Especially the role of cycling and walking will increase. London, Brussels, Paris and many other cities provide more room for these means of movement at the expense of space for cars, speeding up plans that have been in the making since years.
by Markus Appenzeller.
To really understand the changes we see happening, it is important, to understand the stages city development has been going though in the last 150 years: Cities started as densified villages, mainly providing safety and economic opportunities in craftsmanship. A city and its wealth was mainly measured in everything physical.
Since the end of the 19th Century that changed tremendously. Industrialization and the scale they had reached turned them into dynamic socio-economic complexes that required more sophisticated answers. Social security, healthcare, a different administrative setup, public services, high capacity public transport, and the trade of commodities and shares all developed into institutionalized services.
Today, these inventions form an operation system of cities that regulates procedures to follow and the basic services offered. The public authorities – the city’s government structure – is the administrator. For more than a century, local authorities managed to claim admin rights that could easily be secured in a closed system. Under this operating system, cities prospered and grew. City regions emerged and international relationships between cities became the main driver for economic development, leading to more and more global cooperation, drawing the present modus operandi into question.
Recent years show that the closed city operation system makes way for something new. With the success of mobile internet, multi sensor mobile phones and with social media quickly picking up users, new players started getting engaged. They don’t limit their operations to a particular local city operation system. Google maps guides us wherever we go, Uber moves us wherever we leave an airport, Deliveroo feeds us with food from all corners of the earth and Amazon fills our homes with all kinds of things from everywhere.
All these so-called disruptors had a massive impact on the way we operate in cities. Shops started emptying, classical taxi businesses started vanishing or adjusted their business model and restaurants managed to increase their reach in offering home delivery. This did not immediately solve all problems, but it had an impact. Traffic jams still exist but at least there are less, and we know, how long we have to endure them until we move again, or we exchange motorcars by bicycle sharing – also a disruptor – jam-free pedaling past the cars.
Occasionally, old and the new systems are getting into conflict with each other: Airbnb has been the target of many city administrations, trying to stop the proliferation of short term ‘touristic’ rental at the expense of long term ‘citizen’ rental and in some cities the taxi driver establishment successfully stopped app based services, rendering them capitalist and unsocial.
But compared to the scale of magnitude these disruptors have reached, the successes of their opponents are relatively small and the pandemic has further fueled their rise. Globally long-established habits changed within days. With everyone restricted to the own home, companies became virtual undertakings. Employees are now working remotely and zooming, teaming, or skyping instead of meeting in offices. The internet became the fulfiller of all needs. Working, socializing, learning, dating – all went virtual.
Many individuals and companies that used to provide services to real people also started offering services online or changed their model to include a much bigger online or self-service component: Need food? Russian supermarket chain Vkusvill opened vending-machine-like mini supermarkets in the entrance halls of residential buildings so that people can avoid leaving the house. Yoga? Core Power Yoga Studios offer online classes. Need medical or psychological help? The Rotterdam based Erasmus University offers psychological counselling online and so do many GP practices in the Netherlands. And if you feel like going out, TAXX in Shanghai – a disco club is offering cloud clubbing for the party crowd. Want to buy a house? Van Wensen real estate agents in the Netherlands offers entirely virtual tours of the properties on offer and others follow suit. Even exploring distant places has become easy: The Ngala private game reserve in Kenya offers live ‘sofa safaris’ where you can spot the big 5 comfortably from your couch.
Many of these new services are here to stay. They offer cost savings or increased reach and they do not require massive investment into large scale physical infrastructure. Already now, some companies have announced that they will not return to their offices. Twitter leaves it to its employees if they want to come back to the office when they are opening again and PiK, one of the biggest housing developers in Russia has announced that they will close their offices for good and move online. The university of Cambridge announced that all lectures will remain online for at least another year and it is fair to assume that most of them will remain there.
What does that mean for our cities? In the short term it will mean little when it comes to new space demand. Shops and some shopping centers will disappear which of course will raise the question what to do with them and how to keep a street active. Office buildings will become available and most likely will be transformed in to residential or other uses that still need physical space. We will need a bit more space for delivery vehicles and collection spots but with increased logistics intelligence, that demand will be limited.
The big effect of Covid19 on cities is the final breakthrough of the CITY AS SOFTWARE. After the city as a mere collection of hardware and the emergence of an operation system, we now see the next step happening at warp speed. This time it is not primarily physical space that is affected. It is the emergence of a new kind space – virtual urban space.
What makes this space urban one might ask? I believe it is the same dynamic that turned physical space urban: the amalgamation of users and social and economic activity. Together, they form a critical mass that triggers new dynamics, not observable elsewhere.
We are at the beginning of a new soft urbanism’. Its predecessor needed thousands of years to develop to today’s form. Soft urbanism will undergo the same evolution but due to its immaterial nature this will happen much faster. Currently it is still early days of soft urbanism and the means of accessing it – our mobile phones and computer screens – are still rather rudimentary. With better 3D technology, augmented reality, improved sensory kits and human/machine interfaces the future of soft urbanism can be a lot more sophisticated.
Most urbanists so far have ignored soft urbanism. I think this mainly is due to the fact, that virtual urban space asks for an entirely different toolkit they usually do not have: you don’t need rulers, sketch paper and pens anymore, but coding skills, algorithm modelling techniques and IT knowledge. Being able to influence the nature of soft urban space therefore requires, appropriating these very techniques. The urbanism schools and professional training programs are well advised to account for that in their offer.
But soft space also opens new opportunities for the hard urban space. Many of the functional demands that define our physical environments will move virtual. Stripped of functions, room can be reprogrammed and follow new paradigms. Beauty can play a more important role, leisure, and meeting in the open will become more important since humans will remain social animals and we will have the opportunity to give space back to nature. Maybe Le Corbusier and his modernist disciples were not entirely wrong when postulating the merger between landscape and city – but it will come to us in a way there were not able to imagine.