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Rethinking urban planning in the wake of Covid-19

Over the last two decades, the world has seen up to five pandemics. The advent of Covid-19, one of the biggest public health crises of all time, has also forced us to reconsider deeply held beliefs about good city form and urban planning. What should we do to make our cities more resilient?

Rethinking urban planning in the wake of Covid-19

For a city to be resilient, everybody needs to cooperate and work together, and to change their social behaviours for the greater good.

Over the last two decades, the world has seen up to five pandemics. The advent of Covid-19, one of the biggest public health crises of all time, has also forced us to reconsider deeply held beliefs about good city form and urban planning. What should we do to make our cities more resilient?

There are some planning paradigms that drive the way cities are planned. For example, most cities are constrained by limited land. 

Driven by the imperative of efficiency, land use planning aims to optimise land and resources, which generally leads to higher density developments. 

With globalisation, cities have also outsourced much of their production to cheaper locations. 

Cities that thrive on trade, such as Singapore, have invested heavily in transport infrastructure like ports and airports.

Pandemics such as Covid-19 force us to re-think some of these paradigms. This is not to say that we need to throw out what we've been doing. Indeed, many planning paradigms are likely to continue or even accelerate. But we may have to layer on new considerations.

For example, supply chain disruptions have derailed and slowed construction and manufacturing activities. 

Geopolitical imperatives are driving a shift from globalisation to “glocalisation”. 

There are now calls to shift production of essentials and medical goods back home. Travel restrictions threaten the hub position of key cities and have decimated tourism. 

Such changes demand new strategies to ensure that economic activity and growth can continue. 

In terms of environmental and spatial considerations, there are also calls for de-densification, with a new focus on living conditions and spacing out peak commuter traffic.

How then do we find new ways to live, work, play and learn in the post-Covid environment? What shifts in urban planning and design do we need to make?

FROM JUST-IN-TIME TO JUST-IN-CASE 

One initial shift is to reframe our planning from a just-in-time to a just-in-case approach: To rethink efficiency versus contingency. 

To minimise supply chain disruptions, we may have to increase storage capacity to stockpile essential materials, chemicals and medical supplies, as well as build up selected local production capacity. 

Singapore feels this keenly, because we import almost everything.

Thinking just-in-case instead of just-in-time also means we need land and multifunctional spaces that can be converted very quickly into dormitories and healthcare facilities, or even quarantine facilities if large numbers of people are infected in a pandemic. 

Zoning regulations may need to be reviewed to afford more flexibility for land use.

FROM BORDERLESS TO BUBBLES 

Another shift is from going borderless to creating bubbles. 

This means attempting to ring-fence clusters of infection within a specific geography — at different scales — to minimise the spread of infection.

On a national scale, planning should aim to reduce the concentration of people in key areas such as the central business district (CBD) and reduce peak-hour commutes on public transport. 

The key is to adopt a more decentralised spatial strategy — dividing up the city into various self-contained zones.

Fortunately, Singapore has already been developing as a polycentric city over the years: This spreads out jobs and amenities so workers do not have to travel across the island and crowd public transport to work in the CBD.

At the neighbourhood and district levels, there can be more self-contained neighbourhoods. 

In Singapore, more than 80 per cent of the population is already housed in public housing towns, each comprising several neighbourhoods of about 4,000 to 6,000 units each, all well‑served by shops and amenities and accessible by walking and cycling. 

Each neighbourhood is, in effect, a self-sufficient bubble, minimising the need for residents to travel to amenities elsewhere.

FROM DENSIFICATION TO DISTRIBUTED DENSITY 

Does this mean urban density is doomed? 

High‑density cities are hubs of innovation and engines of growth; they are more efficient and sustainable than urban sprawl, accommodating the large numbers that flock to a city for jobs and amenities. 

Interestingly, highly dense cities like Hong Kong and Taipei have contained Covid-19 reasonably well. 

The challenge is to find innovative ways to accommodate large numbers of people by combining design with lifestyle changes. 

For example, a hybrid work-from-home and work-from-office arrangement can reduce workplace density and enable work stations at the office to be spaced further apart.

Another design challenge is mass communal living in dorms, nursing homes and hostels — potential infection hotspots in a pandemic. 

For example, in a worker dormitory, distributed density means that groups of workers should be housed in different blocks, with each block and floor ring-fenced to minimise inter-mingling. 

Singapore had to address these norms when a serious Covid-19 outbreak occurred in our migrant worker quarters. 

We will be building new quarters with better standards and more space per person in the longer term.

We need to re-establish confidence in the notion of density. This means liveable density and quality living conditions that can benefit all residents.

FROM LIVEABILITY TO HEALTH AND WELLNESS 

Going beyond liveable cities, health and wellness must now be a priority in the design and planning of cities, to reduce the prevalence of pre-existing medical conditions that can increase health risks for patients infected with Covid-19.

Here, the science matters. 

We developed a biophilic framework to guide the design and development of our public housing towns, based on research into how greenery contributes to health and wellbeing. 

At the town and building levels, we deploy tools like wind flow modelling to capture breezes and achieve better air quality while maximising natural ventilation and lighting.

We should also look into establishing bio-secure buildings, with filtration systems for better air flow and fewer high-touch surfaces; and incorporate inclusive design to support special needs groups and an ageing population.

INNOVATION AND SOCIAL RESILIENCE 

Covid-19 has led to many innovations in a short time: The rapid development of diagnostic kits, cheaper ventilators, contact tracing applications, mask technologies and even antiviral drugs and prospective vaccines. 

Following this crisis, there could also be greater use of prefabrication, robotics, artificial intelligence, automation and 3D printing, particularly in essential services and the construction industry so as to reduce reliance on migrant workers.

Going beyond Covid-19, cities should ride on this wave of innovation to boost opportunities for urban planning and to advance the healthy development of our cities.

But physical and behavioural paradigm shifts must go hand in hand. 

For a city to be resilient, everybody needs to cooperate and work together, and to change their social behaviours for the greater good.

Governments play an important role in supporting businesses and job creation, as well as setting legislation for stay-at-home rules and enforcing quarantines and border controls. 

But it is critical to build social capital and to persuade citizens to be part of the solution, so that they will chip in to help each other cope with new vulnerabilities.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Cheong Koon Hean is Chairman of the Centre for Liveable Cities and former chief executive officer of the Housing and Development Board and Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore. This is an edited version of the article published in the January 2021 issue of Urban Solutions magazine, a publication by the Centre for Liveable Cities under the Ministry of National Development.

Related topics

urban planning city innovation Covid-19 URA

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