In 2021, we face two major challenges: climate change and the health emergency caused by COVID-19. But it has been the last one that has precipitated the debate on certain aspects related to the city, and has highlighted the need to rethink the city model. If we have already talked about how these two challenges mark architecture trends, we could not leave aside the analysis of what the cities will look like in a no longer future.

In this sense, post-COVID cities must provide a better quality of life, transmit security to their inhabitants, bet on the use of increasingly green public spaces and promote proximity. This is no easy task. The 21st century post-pandemic cities will have to adapt to all the new needs that have arisen after the coronavirus and will be characterized by being: safe and contagion-free spaces, with public transport that is not overcrowded and places where local commerce is encouraged to reduce mobility.

All this taking into account that the challenge increases if we add that more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and the figure is expected to rise to 70% by 2050. According to Spanish urban planning expert Laia Soriano-Montagut, “the pandemic has highlighted, for example, the kilometer area, where there must be essential services within reach of citizens. This shows that we must have dynamic, multifunctional and self-sufficient cities”.

More sustainable, inclusive and smart cities

This is the new urban paradigm that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has already outlined in its latest report ‘Cities Policy Responses‘. Post-COVID cities that value how to offer services, plan spaces and resume economic growth. In this sense, concepts such as the ’15-minute city’ are emerging, which is already relevant and which large cities such as Paris are beginning to implement. 

In other words, a city concept in which everything (markets, restaurants, schools, jobs, medical centers…) is ‘just around the corner’. The objective is clear: to reduce pollution and improve the quality of life. Urban planner Carlos Moreno, the architect of the idea of a city in which basic services are less than a quarter of an hour away from the home, is working along these lines. He advocates “a multifaceted city, offering quality of life over short distances, the chronotopia, for easier access to the six essential urban social functions: to live, to work, to get supplies, to take care of oneself, to learn and to rest”.

Post-COVID cities: what should we take into account?

This same OECD report focuses on 5 key lessons to be taken into account when building and thinking about the post-covid cities of the future:

– The need for place-based and people-centred approaches.

– The rediscovery of proximity: provides a window to shift faster from a target of increasing mobility to one of enhancing accessibility by revisiting public space, urban design & planning.

– The health problem is not related to urban density but rather to structural inequalities and the quality of urbanisation.

– Digitalisation, a major game changer during the crisis, will remain a key component of a “new normal”.

– “Greta effect” accelerated environmental awareness, which should also be applied to the construction of new post-covid cities, both in urban mobility and in the construction of new buildings under what is known as sustainable architecture.

One of the conclusions of this report states that “cities must adopt long-term recovery strategies that transform them into smart, green and inclusive cities to cope with the health crisis and its consequences”.

How to create better cities post-COVID

Already, many architects, designers and urban planners are focused on defining post-covid cities, the cities of the future. For example, Foster + Partners’ Urban Design team is already working to see how recent developments, spurred by the coronavirus crisis, affect and shape the London of the future and other cities around the world.

Meanwhile, Space10, IKEA’s research and design lab in Copenhagen, has published The Ideal City, a book exploring what the cities of the future should look like, what requirements they should meet and what will characterize them. But what are these key aspects of the cities of the future?

5 keys to create better cities

1. More resourceful cities

According to several studies, the cities that will be “born” after the pandemic will foremost be resourceful. That means it must be ecologically and economically sustainable How? By closing the loop on energy, water and food production. 

There are already examples that show that the most resourceful cities are not a utopia. The Copenhagen harbor toilets and CopenHill, by architect Bjarke Ingels, are two shining examples. The former cleans and filters the water in Copenhagen harbor while providing a public space for people to bathe and relax, while the latter is the iconic waste-to-energy plant with a green roof that becomes a ski hill on top.

copenhill by BIG
CopenHill by BIG ©Dragoer Luftfoto

2. More accessible cities

The cities of the future must promote and facilitate diversity, inclusion and equality among the people who live there. In other words, everyone, equally, should have easy access to services, healthcare, employment, education, leisure, culture, sports… and, of course, affordable and decent housing. 

Right now, 1.5 million people move to urban areas around the world every day, but many cannot afford to live close to the opportunities of these cities and end up living on the periphery.

3. Cities that share space and resources

This means betting on a much more circular urban economy. According to the book The Ideal City, “the ideal city shares a lot more than just spaces. It also shares services, skills, finances, transportation, and energy, and it uses models of ownership and access that are geared toward the public good”.

And it gives an example: the Microlibrary Warak Kayu in Semarang, Indonesia by SHAU Indonesia. A space that provides access to knowledge to the most disadvantaged and poorest residents of Indonesia.

Microlibrary Warak Kayu by SHAU Indonesia ©KIE
Microlibrary Warak Kayu by SHAU Indonesia ©KIE

4. More safe cities

Post-covid and environmentally conscious cities must be able to protect their citizens against extreme weather events and offer healthy and safe spaces, where physical and mental well-being is promoted.

5. More desirable cities

The final requirement for the cities of the future is that they must be attractive and fun places to live, designed by and for citizens and people. Inhabitants must feel that the neighborhood is theirs, that it is a place where they can interact and where they can find everything they need to live.

One example is the pedestrianization of Times Square in New York developed by Gehl Architects, whose co-founder and CEO Helle Søholt says she is “a little bit encouraged by some of the changes we’ve seen under the COVID-19 crisis”. Maybe we can return to more 24-hour neighborhoods where people are living closer to where they work and we can start redesigning our communities and streets so that we are promoting walkability and cycling in a proper way”.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”

Jane Jacobs