Architecture & urban design of the post COVID-19 city


DR: In this episode we will be discussing architecture and urban design of the post COVID 19 city.

In the last several months, millions of people around the world have had to quarantine, self-isolate, and social distance. Our private lives, public lives, our family lives and our work lives have drastically shifted into what many call the new normal. While much of our attention has been given to medical experts and following government guidelines, architecture and urban design play a key, if not overlooked role, in our lives as we face the pandemic and look beyond.

Here to discuss this is Ashraf Salama:

AS: I’m Ashraf Salama. I’m a professor of Architecture at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, U.K.

Ashraf has published over 170 peer reviewed articles and book chapters and authored and co-edited 14 books. From the start of the global pandemic, Ashraf immediately began thinking about the role of architecture and urban design in the face of COVID-19 and began looking ahead to the post-pandemic world. In mid-April 2020, Ashraf published an open peer-reviewed opinion article on Emerald Open Research in the Sustainable Cities Gateway titled Coronavirus questions that will not go away: interrogating urban and socio-spatial implications of COVID-19 measures.

DR: Thank you for joining me today, Ashraf.

AS: Thank you so much for having me.

DR: Yeah, in your work you explain that architecture and urban design must plan for a post-pandemic life. What are some of the questions and issues that you think we need to be discussing?

AS: I think there's a number of substantial questions that one could raise, but I would focus on, you know, key four questions that are more relevant to architecture and built environment related fields or disciplines. The first question that comes to mind is about the nature of transformation. So, what is the nature of transformations post-pandemic and how urban factors and urban qualities will be impacted by these transformations and whether COVID-19 alter our understanding of urban space and urban life, dialectics how are we going to operate within the urban environments in the future, whether it's going to generate new environments that accommodate new living and working patterns. And also, there is an important question about nature and will engagement with nature be favoured over engagement with other people or with the built environment? So, I would say these are the most relevant questions in the context of social distancing measures; the perception of sanitation and cleanliness, public health issues, disruptions to urban mobility. So, these are the key questions.

DR: Right, so we've all had to adjust to these new government guidelines on how we interact in public. Do you see these having a long-term effect on how we interact in spatial environments in public with strangers, for example?

AS: I think it will have, definitely, an impact on long term in terms if these pandemics become part of the collective psyche of people or of a group of people or within a city. And if these pandemics, also, many people are talking about if this is going to be annual events, so like influenza or other types of diseases that are seasonal. So, if they become annual events some part of the collective psyche then they will have impacts on how people engage with these environments and how governments introduce measures that could be flexible and changing throughout the year based on safe periods and risky periods.

DR: So, are we having to rethink how grocery stores might be laid out or how public spaces might be laid out or workspaces laid out because of the pandemic?

AS: There will be impacts on this and currently we can see it in terms of the distancing measures required and how people stand in line for payment and at tellers, and all these aspects, but as I say, these could be flexible and changing because now, for example, we see now in England it says, okay, it could be one meter instead of two. So, these will continue to be dynamic, these aspects. There will be impacts in office spaces, office environments, living environments also in addition to shopping places and grocery stores.

DR: Right, you know, so a lot of us have gotten used to working at home, if people are able to work remotely, but a lot of people can't work remotely. They have to work in public. Is this changing a little bit how architects and urban planners are thinking about social environments?

AS: Currently, of course, there are already articles, there are already discussions about these issues. If people have to work from home, then this requires like new standards, whether new standards for retrofitting or for adaptations and appropriation of the current spaces or of the existing environments. So, if you, for example, if an insurance company now must work in their workplace still, then this would require really re-allocating furniture, re-engaging with smaller groups, retrofitting the entire spatial environments to accommodate these pandemics. If you were designing new environments, then there is a lot of, I would say research required to understand how people behave within these limitations and restrictions.

DR: Right, so in the last few months we've been calling this the sort of 'new normal' but you refer to it that it could become the 'actual normal.' From your point of view, what are the negative consequences of this new 'actual normal' and are there any positive consequences of it?

AS: This is a very, very, thank you very much for the question, it’s really a very important question and I, maybe I would expand here a little bit in terms of… The new or actual normal has been predicted. We have been talking about it and many visionaries have been talking about since eighties, nineties and early two-thousands and we can look at the work of many social scientists and including architects and theorists talking about, for example, the, how the global city is seen as a process, not necessarily a physical entity. There have been discussions about e-topia, electronic-topia and how strategies for the creation of cities, on how they're going to be sustainable but also how they will accommodate the domination of the digital over the physical. We can see a lot of data and predictions about that. So, the negative part of it, speaking of negatives and positives, the key negative, I would say, is that reshaping human interactions so what we were used to have might end up totally changed so in terms of human relationships and the sense of physicality, the sense of touch, the sense of engagement. All these will change and will require or will end up with new forms of engagement at the physical level, but I would conceive it also from a positive perspective that the current condition could be seen as an invitation to think beyond the stable state or the stable normal. This idea has been generated also in the seventies by many theorists including Donald Schön. Donald Schön has written a book in 1972 called Beyond the Stable State in which he argues that we live in a time of loss of the stable state which is a representation of where we are now at the moment, a period in which stable views of occupations, interactions, religions, organisations and value systems have been eroded. And this tells us a lot that we need to learn from the current condition and we need to adopt a learning system that is subject to continuous transformation and continuous change. We have to be able to adapt, really, in the future rather than have a stable view or a stable normal that we operate within. And this applies to organizations, governments and individuals and communities. It applies at all levels.

DR: Well it seems that the pandemic has really accelerated this sort of vision set out earlier on by earlier theorists. What do you think the impact is of the pandemic itself on this evolution that had already been envisioned?

AS: Currently, we operate with what many people say 'dynamic conservativism' which is basically fighting to stay the same. So, the impact is that organisations and individuals also will have a better capacity and abilities to adapt and appropriate and react quickly, but also in the mindset of many organisations there will be this condition of continuous transformation and continuous change. How this is influenced by, or influencing these designing of cities and designing of spaces is a different issue, but, a different issue in the sense that it is going to have to be flexibility embedded in everything architects and planners do so that the notion of adaptation, the idea of appropriation, are possible and contingent and dynamic situations.

DR: Right, so travel and transportation is one example of that and travel and transportation is a key part of urban planning and that has been affected in in big cities; people who use, you know, commute to work and things like, how that's virtually halted in in a lot of big cities or changed quite a bit. Do you see long-term effects in the way that urban planners look at travel and transportation because of the pandemic?

AS: I can see different modes of transportations will be encouraged. Still we are going to rely on public transportation no doubt, but I would say there will be more incentives for cycle to work, encouraging walking, encouraging minimisation of big public gatherings within transportation systems or within transportation stations, and buses, and all this, but at the same time it has already impacted the global networks. So, when you see the amount of flights some cities are relying on the travel routes, and they call them airport societies where many people passing through Dubai, passing through Singapore, passing through other cities, and the city economy is based on this idea of while going from Europe to Australia, you stop by Singapore two or three nights. The economy of the city is based on this. So, basically, the travel routes, the travel connections, the reduction of these have impacted these cities already and the economy of these cities already.

DR. So are we in a state of sort of wait and see to see if this passes in the next year?

AS: Yeah, there is no doubt, it’s still under, I would say, as you say, wait and see and we need to see also the impact because one view says actually airports and seaports can be seen, for example, as a source of disease because this is the first point of contact of travellers. So, how do you control that? Basically, airport areas might end up having different limitations and different restrictions and even different densities and planning rules than other parts of the city, if it's proven that airports are the source of virus spread, for example.

DR: There's been discussion about retrofitting existing buildings to adjust to the pandemic. Is there something you can say to us about that?

AS: Yes, actually, it is really very important moving forward that planners, architects need to start by developing standards in terms of how retrofitting is not going to take place at the level of making buildings in a better shape in terms of material, in terms of construction, but also it will need to look at these spaces within these buildings and how these spaces can accommodate new workstyles and lifestyles, basically, how to integrate in a living space, how to integrate a workspace within a living space and of course this is based on the type of users. Again, when we talk about users, there are different types and regardless of their cultural background or age group or these dynamics, it's really very important to consider the nature of work they you do so some people call this life moods based on work, life moods based on work. The wage earner would be very different from a career oriented person and would be very different from a self-employed person. The meaning of the home environment will be very different to these people. These different people who have different work interests, for example, the career oriented person basically would use the home as a work environment. So, the home environment and the work environment are really interacting heavily. The wage earner, the home environment for a wage earner is very different. So, you go to work, come back from work, so the home environment becomes an entertainment place dedicated for a time, or a spare time you spend with the family, watch TV, and all of this. In the process of retrofitting, all these aspects should be considered and, in my view, but especially the idea of emerging working and living patterns and how this interferes with family responsibilities and family practices within the home environment. I don't know if there are standards being generated at the moment, but I know that there are research proposals to generate new standards are being developed.

DR: Right, so what we've been talking about so far are highly organised environments like airports or transportation, work environments and things like that, but what about overlooked areas such as slums, like the slums of Rio de Janeiro or places like that. How much of a role can architects and urban planners really play here and how does the pandemic affect these types of communities differently than highly planned environments?

AS: This is a very, very important question given that it's really very interesting to see that most of the current discussions, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, during, let's say, end of March, April until mid-May, no one was talking about informal settlements in Rio de Janeiro or in India until very recently. Toward the end of May, we started to see some reports on Cairo, Delhi, Mumbai and the squatter settlements within these cities. I would say that definitely architects have a role to play if they have sufficient information because there is sever lack of information about the virus spread in these settlements and there are no records of the numbers of infected populations and number of death cases and mortality rates and all these aspects. But, overall they can plan to hopefully, lessen, eradicate or lessen the consequences of the virus spread, introduce new strategies, new services and new awareness campaigns as part of or in collaboration with social scientists, establish new lenses through which they can really focus on health issues as it relates to architecture and urban environments because health is not considered in these environments and in many other environments, even in planned environments, it's not seen as a critical factor in determining our understanding of urban qualities. Health is always in the backseat.

DR: Right, so when we're looking at something like the slums of Rio de Janeiro, are architects part of the conversation in terms of planning these environments because it doesn't seem that they actually really are planned environments per se the way that urban centres are?

AS: Architects, formally, they are not part of the discussion because also these environments are very difficult to intervene in, but in most cases you can find NGOs working with architects, some social service associations working with architects in trying to introduce services or to improve school environments, for example, or public spaces or sanitation services, but not at an official level so even informal settlements involve informal efforts also to intervene in, not official efforts in most cases. In other cases where governments intervene, they always intervene by demolition, not capitalising on what people have done throughout the years in terms of building for themselves and so improvement versus demolition is a challenge that architects and planners would need to continue to work with.

DR: Right, so seasonal migration, for example, that's an example of something that may not be so highly planned.

AS: Seasonal migration, of course, it's not planned for but the pandemic can be seen as encouraging people or those who can afford to leave crowded areas within the city or areas characterised by very high density within the city and move into the periphery of the city or even rural areas. But this will also create issues. You know, in the seventies and eighties, the heart of many cities, many cities in North America and Europe, were struggling really with crime rates and with anonymity and issues with city centres after working hours. After five o’clock the entire city centre is deserted. So now, if many people leave these places and move with their companies or for residential, or leave for outside the city, move outside the city, they would end up really struggling again with city centres. So, there has to be some form of a balance in terms of planning for this or allowing this to happen, or creating incentives for people to stay in highly dense areas assuming that there will be very good density management in case of a virus spread.

DR: Right, so it seems there are a lot of elements that go into these types of discussions around these spaces and in your research you take a transdisciplinary approach and you think that architects and urban planners need to look at this from a transdisciplinary point of view. Can you describe this and specifically what it means to architects and people such as yourself?

AS: Transdisciplinarity of course, it’s an ideal condition that academics have been calling for since maybe ten-fifteen years and in terms of architecture there is a number of problems and a number of issues that architects need to deal with and these issues are really complex and the architects cannot solve on their own. If we're talking, as you mentioned, about travel, for example, travel impact, travel on urban planning, you really need to collaborate with transportation engineers, with urban geographers, with human geographers and architects and planners. If we're talking about the impact of social distancing measures on people's perception of engagement with public spaces and public environments, this requires collaboration with environmental psychologists, disaster psychologists, with architects and planners. So, creating the mechanism for this to happen starts from higher education institutions. So, the way we apply this, or we try to apply this, whether at the level of transdisciplinary knowledge, the knowledge that is delivered to future generations or to university students are basically stemming from different disciplines. That's one level, but if we're talking about transdisciplinary action where problems are resolved based on expertise of a number of people, this still, I would say, is immature, is not happening at the mature level, at a clearly defined level.

DR: I see that you are still busy giving talks and speaking with experts in architecture and urban design. What have you learned from the conversations that you've been having over the last few weeks?

AS: We’ve been having lots of discussions about how we really try to understand people’s movement in public spaces, whether health is going to be a key parameter in understanding urban qualities and whether there will be a rise for biophilic design and biophilic design is simply engaging with nature, engaging with nature at different levels and how nature could impact health and well-being of people and building users and city users. And I think there will be a rise to some of these trends that are already established, but they will grow more. Knowing that when we talk, for example, about nature there are two versions of nature. There is a managed version of nature where you bring nature to the city or there is an actual nature, an actual version of nature where you go and build within nature. So that kind of balance is also important and bringing as much as possible, especially in contexts where this is relevant as much as possible natural elements to public spaces, creating views to buildings, trying to understand the impact of nature on children, for example, on school environments, on people’s productivity in workplaces and so on and so forth.

DR: Well as an educator you have an impact on the new generation of architects that are going out into the world, and urban planners. I saw that in a blog post about a recent symposium that you participated in you said some really interesting and powerful words about architectural education students. If you wouldn't mind, I'd like to read a little bit of what you'd written and then get your response to that.

As: Please.

DR: You wrote: 'Architectural education needs to qualify students to intervene in the rapidly changing systems and processes of human settlements and have the capacity to reconnect people in place in a dynamic synergy that leads to positive impacts on human well-being. The architect needs to be an agent of social and spatial evolution towards a better ecological harmony in its broadest sense.' So, what is the statement means you in the context of the Post COVID-19 City.

AS: It means a lot. Number one, at the level of engaging with students, educators and students have a responsibility to really start to think about people more than physical artefacts and that relationship between people and environments, the built and the human. And some schools of architecture worldwide still there is a focus, heavy focus, on how it looks, not how it works. We're not saying we want to ignore how it looks. Of course, how it looks has been a characteristic of the work of architects, but at the same time how it works is really critical, how architects can support people’s activities, enhance their well-being through design. This requires lots of studies and how to integrate, really, research into design. These are important parameters that we try to adopt in our school and I think there are many schools that are focusing on these issues, the dialectics between people and environments.

DR: As a teacher, what are some of the most valuable lessons or values you seek to pass on to students? 

AS: In general, the key lesson stems from this idea of people engagement with the environment, how we see environment influences people's behaviour, how the environment can be designed based on cultural attitudes, how design can support different types of populations, how design should not see the idea of the average user. Sometimes when we talk about users, we say 'the user' and the user could be anyone and there is no average user. Users are different in terms of age group, in terms of cultural backgrounds, in terms of needs, wants, values. So, I would say, understanding people and the categorisation of people and reacting to this is a key for future architects and I try to adopt this in my teaching and in my research. Some of my students are working on issues of belonging in cities, how U.S. populations have this idea of belonging to public space. Others are working on quality of urban life in Sub-Saharan African cities. Others are working on post-conflict issues and how people react and build and interact in crisis situations and contested environments. So, all of these aspects are really important for the future and we try to address them as much as we can.

DR: I imagine they've been, these students, have been thinking about these issues before the pandemic. Has the pandemic affected the outlook of your students or maybe some of their interests and what they're going to be studying going forward?

AS: I have some students actually started to look at the idea or the notion of the street. What does it mean to inhabit the street in the future post-pandemic? How the sidewalk will operate? How engagement with the shop fronts? How high streets will be impacted? Many of them are starting to look at some of these issues, also about public spaces and the idea of passive engagement versus active engagement. We always promote a balance between the two, but now after the pandemic, probably active engagement again will take a backseat and then the focus will be on passive engagement. People will go to places and public spaces within cities to watch rather than engage because they will avoid engaging with strangers. So, all these aspects my current students doing master thesis and this over the summer are studying some of these aspects. Future wise, there is no doubt that, as I was saying, the idea of health will be an important design determinant although it wasn't in the past. Nature will be an important design determinant regardless of the type of nature we discussed whether we're designing in the desert or in the forest. At the end, engagement with nature will be an important parameter on design and how architects would react to it. So, all of these issues will likely shape the new content of architecture education and the future of architecture education. In addition to that idea of transdisciplinarity, the current condition is encouraging people to work together and that's an important aspect, was not seen in the past as one would see it now. 

DR: So you are clearly a researcher who wants to have a real impact in the world. How do you see the work you're doing in your publications having a real world impact?

AS: Well that's a very, very important question and in terms of actual impact, you know, in humanities and social sciences and architecture can be seen more as part of humanities and social sciences. The impact takes longer to be visible, but most of our research is the outcome of it is in the form of guidance whether with a design guidance or policy guidance to authorities, to public agencies, so even NGOs and how they intervene with cities. So, we are always talking about policy impacts or impacts on policy in terms of our outcomes. In terms of developing new knowledge, it's also an important impact at the level of academic knowledge and the type of basically leading the way in certain areas of research like quality of urban life, for example. It's an important area that emerged in the sixties and died in the seventies and eighties and then it’s emerging again now. There are areas that we try to address and I myself, in terms of my research and publications, continue to spread the word about these areas so that one can maximise the impact. Some of our research have been… our outcomes have been of benefit to planning authorities and some countries in the Middle East or even architectural practices and architecture offices also on utilising some of the ideas that we generate through our research.

DR: Great, thank you so much for joining us today. I had a really, it was a very insightful conversation.

AS: Thank you so much Daniel and thank you very much for having me.

DR: If you are interested in learning more about Professor Salama’s research and editorial work, you can find a link to the journal Open House International in the show notes as well as a link to the International Journal of Architectural Research which includes a call for papers for the Special Issue Architecture, Urbanism, and Health in a Post Pandemic Virtual World.

Next week I will be speaking with Bob Doherty and Madeline Power of the University of York about how COVID-19 has exposed inequalities in the UK food system.

Join us then and thank you for listening.