Post-COVID-19 City Design May Transform Built Environment

June 24, 2020

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The plunge in ridership could mean drastic changes for public transit systems, just one of many such transformations ahead as cities reopen in the wake of the spring pandemic. Above, a New York subway rider awaits a train as the system resumed full service June 8, 2020. Photo: MTA New York City Transit/Marc A. Hermann, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

Issue Backgrounder: Post-COVID-19 City Design May Transform Built Environment

By Joseph A. Davis

Among the many ways the coronavirus pandemic will change our world may well be in the way we design our “built environment,” especially our cities.

If you walk out in Manhattan or Washington, D.C., these days (keeping an eye out for any demonstrations), you can already see profound changes. For one thing, the streets are often quiet and empty of cars. Even after any “reopening,” some of these changes may persist. For better or worse.

So this may be a good time to reflect (and report and write) about what changes we may see in city design in a post-COVID-19 world.


Pandemic among many constraints for cities

While it’s just speculation now, one thing to ask immediately is how quickly changes might happen and how long they might last or how permanent they might be. If the world falls into a prolonged economic depression, we might not be able to afford many of them.

Also, remember that few of our cities actually are “designed” from scratch (there’s Levittown, N.Y., Reston, Va., Columbia, Md., and actually Washington, D.C., and others too), whether the designs reflected utopian vision, practical livability, class aspiration or downright greed and racism. Most of our cities just grow, and are revised repeatedly. For better or worse. Purposefully or otherwise. 

One other thing to keep in mind is what other trends of social, environmental and economic change might be going on at the same time. For instance, will sea level rise change the profile of many cities? (Spoiler: Yes). And many policymakers, especially in Europe, see the current downturn as an opportunity for “Green Recovery,” creating jobs by investing in the energy transition that is already underway.


Even on the health-and-disease front,

it may be wise not to assume that

a viral pandemic is the only

constraint we might need to adapt to.


Even on the health-and-disease front, it may be wise not to assume that a viral pandemic is the only constraint we might need to adapt to. Disease has long shaped cities. Cholera and typhoid were common in the United States little more than a century ago. As the microbial causes of disease were better understood, modern sewage treatment and drinking water systems evolved, systems that virtually define many incorporated municipalities. 

These systems are still evolving today, to deal with challenges like Legionnaire’s disease and cryptosporidium. Nor are microbes the only health threats; toxic substances are just as grave in today’s urban environments.  

Here are nine potential changes to watch for:

  1. Traffic Dwindles: Suddenly, because of the virus, traffic in many U.S. cities has thinned or stopped. Many people, at least those lucky enough to have the option, are working from home, not commuting, not going shopping and not going out in public. At the same time, we have discovered that almost-empty streets are delightful for strolling or biking. As tax revenue and traffic both plummet, many freeway-widening projects are tapping the brakes. 
  2. Spaces More Walkable: Traffic-free downtowns have turned in many cases into de facto pedestrian malls, whether streets and parking have been closed or not. Some urban spaces have already been refurbished to make them more pedestrian-friendly — or pedestrian-only. And urban planners have been holding webinars on the subject. The question is: once pedestrians have gotten used to more hospitable streetscapes, will they ever be willing to give them up? Even without the virus, walking is more healthful
  3. Ridership Recedes: Public transit ridership has plunged during the pandemic. People are anxious about viral transmission in the enclosed spaces of buses and subway cars or the possibly inescapable crowds on platforms. Many jurisdictions issued stay-home orders and public transit agencies cut back their schedules. Revenues dropped with ridership, and some transit systems have been staring at financial disaster. The question now is what paths can lead to recovery. And what permanent changes will make transit systems safer for passengers and operators. 
  4. Bicycles Boom: Long before the COVID-19 came to town, many cities have been getting more bike-friendly (but not all, as fatality numbers attest.) But bikes are having a surge of popularity right now because of the virus. If you want to buy one, there’s a waiting list (may require subscription). People see bikes as a non-contagious way of getting there. Many cities are building more protected bike lanes and other features of advanced urban bikeway design. And don’t get us started on electric scooters and e-bikes.     
  5. Dining Density Dropping: The pandemic has shut down restaurants and other eating spaces. That’s a huge economic hit, with restaurants representing some four percent of GDP nationally and even more in terms of sheer jobs in some places like Las Vegas. Add in cafeterias and school dining halls. It seems likely that when they reopen, food service facilities will be reoriented to less-dense seating, more carryout and delivery and more outdoor spaces. Those are the guidelines. While some fear the food service industry may never fully recover, others think it may adapt and evolve. Sanitation and front-of-house jobs could increase.
  6. People Flock to Parks: Ironically, people flock to parks for healthy outdoor activity and sometimes to get away from crowds. But crowded parks, playgrounds and similar public recreation facilities have often been closed during the pandemic to prevent spread or to protect staff. Even playgrounds for kids (who are typically not good at social distancing) have closed. Worse yet, parks are a political symbol (as well as an economic driver). We can probably expect some changes in the parks after reopening, whether tighter visitor limits or one-way hiking trails.
  7. Stadiums Reassessed: Sports withdrawal has been one of the harshest symptoms of the coronavirus, whether football, basketball or baseball. Dense, shouting crowds in big stadiums are a huge virus-spreading risk. Spectator-less games don’t seem like a permanent solution, although tele-viewing may get a boost. Stadiums are likely to get redesigned to change everything from entry procedures and food vending to the (less dense) seating patterns themselves, to the point where we will be lucky if tailgating survives. More profoundly changed may be the economics of sports.   
  8. Malls Hit a Wall: On the one hand, the malls were dying (may require subscription) long before we ever heard of the COVID-19. On the other hand, the Mall of America just reopened — in a very limited way,  limping financiallyDepartment stores, too, are falling like flies. Certainly the trend toward online shopping has been accelerated by the pandemic. Amazon owner Jeff Bezos got $34.6 billion richer between mid-March and mid-May. Where is retail headed? If we knew, we’d be rich. But keep an eye on bigger big boxes, contactless payment, fast delivery, curbside pickup, used-goods emporia (“re-commerce”), virtual fitting rooms, etc. We are still waiting for the robot that delivers.    
  9. Offices Overhauled: Only the lucky have forgotten what their office looks like. But a lot of offices and stores have been closed, even if many on the front line (e.g., meatpackers) have to keep going in. The open-plan office and cube farm may become a thing of the past rather than the future. Plexiglass shields and dividers are already hip. Rotating and staggered schedules may be a lasting change. Elevator etiquette will get serious. Office redesigners will prosper. Telework will be normalized. Smaller meetings, sure (but can they be shorter too?).

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheetReporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 25. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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