Heritage Forum

Imagining a Post-Pandemic Future – what will change and what will stay the same? The long term impacts of Covid 19 on our homes and cities.

Nov 12, 2020 | Essays & Opinions, Forum, News

Janine Loubser

Janine Loubser is an urban planner from Cape Town currently completing a Masters in Spatial Heritage at the Vrije University in Amsterdam. She has also been serving on the board of the Young Urbanists community since 2018. Intrigued by diverse contexts, her interest lies in cultural identity and people’s everyday experiences of urban life. Here she gives us her informed opinion on the impact that Covid-19 already has on how accommodation is designed and cities are planned, as well as the possible long-term effects of Covid-19 on our homes and cities.

Every morning at exactly 10:30 my neighbour waters her terrace garden. At around midday my upstairs neighbour sits outside for lunch. At 15:00 the café down the street can be heard packing up chairs. These insights to other’s daily routines and the sounds of our neighbourhoods have shifted from being part of lock-down induced discoveries to the defining characteristics of most people’s current working environment.

The manifestation of Covid-19 has had significant repercussions all over the world, manifesting in people’s daily lives in various ways and with vastly differing effects. Since facing this pandemic for the most part of 2020, new questions arise such as which ramifications will have permanent, longer-lasting effects on the way in which we live and function into the future? Many articles have been written on the topic, with even more radical ideas emerging. Designers are rethinking everything from our homes to our streets to fashion. From new ‘Covid-proof’ cities in China to personalised masks and Apple having to redesign Face-ID technology, businesses and policy-makers have been forced to rethink many aspects of human activity. But how many of these ideas will remain or even define future generations, and how many will be remembered as temporary measures and eventually fade with the pandemic?

Tracing significant changes in city planning and societal living back to wars, disease and world pandemics emphasises our ability to respond to crises. Pre-empting long term changes are however more difficult to imagine when still in the present – just as the idea of citywide sewer systems and indoor plumbing must have sounded back in the 19th century. Although some of the principles emerging from current ideas are useful – can we think more realistically in terms of tangible institutional and physical changes to the ways in which we function on a daily basis – 10, 20 or even 50 years from now? From architecture to urban governance to bottom-up human responses, some themes are emerging and briefly explored below.

INSIDE: Homes and Neighbourhoods
The reconfiguration of our homes is a reality that will play itself out at various scales as new developments arise. Even though we are no longer strictly confined to our homes in lockdownesque situations, our needs have intrinsically changed and this is already leading to a reevaluation of how we design private living space. Ranging from improved acoustics to sanitation infrastructure, we will see changes in how walls are sound-proofed or made more modular to adapt to different times of the day, to having cleaning stations and mask hangers at our front doors. These ideas are not only responding to short-term requirements but will become embedded in the design of our homes due to their new found importance, just as homes responded to new regulations, domestic appliances and technologies in the mid 20th century. The notion of working-from-home has shifted from being a temporary “forced” intervention to a solution that is being institutionalised by companies either as permanent policy or as part of a more hbrid model of working. Supported by evidence in cost and carbon emission savings, spaces for work will become a primary design consideration in future homes. Whether being a dedicated room or area in living rooms to something more temporary that can be modified or adjusted due to space constraints, ideas for home offices will continue to develop and become smarter. London studio Boano Prišmontas recently developed a self-build home office “pod” that can be built with only an allen-key in less than a day. This allows for the adaptation of existing homes without structural changes. But what if you don’t have a garden or cannot afford to consider additional space?

Boano Prismontas’  affordable prefab home office. Dezeen.

Boano Prismontas’ affordable prefab home office. Dezeen.

While some argue for balconies becoming a human right, others are proposing that principles of shared living should be installed in all new higher density housing developments. Including communal spaces such as shared lounges, meeting rooms or gardening areas could substantially improve the quality of future high density life, especially when confined to our homes by pandemics or natural disasters. Principles of shared facilities are even more important to consider when thinking of informal settlements or affordable housing in the future – especially in the context of South Africa’s current failing approach to public housing provision. New designs could consider how to incorporate these spaces while also saving on costs and improving living environments for these often already dense environments.


The MINI Living transformation project in Shanghai, where shared spaces are used to offset small sized apartments, and practical services like cleaning will be available to book. China Architecture News

High Street, a proposal by Noiascape, provides a range of living spaces connected to shared living rooms, study rooms and a rotating retail space.

Thinking of shared living also leads to asking if we can even still afford single use residential neighbourhoods, or will Covid finally force us to reimagine the Live-Work-Play notion to more than just a developer’s catch phrase as something with real meaning in how all neighbourhoods are designed and managed? In Paris a new urgency has popularised the decentralization of services and is promoted by politicians as the 15-minute city model, an idea that has long been provocated for by planners and urban designers and takes form in various ways. Will political leaders finally institutionalise these principles in the way in which urban management is approached? Let’s hope that the general “value shift” in housing design will also manifest at the neighbourhood level so that the role of public and communal space will be seen as non-negotiables, especially in areas where residents do not have the financial means to privately reconfigure their living environments.

The decentralization of services has become known as the 15-minute city, where you can do your job, go to school, see your doctor, and be entertained all within a 15-minute radius of where you live.

OUTSIDE: Cities and Infrastructure
From the closing of streets to creatively repurposing public spaces, governments all over the world have responded to improve dense urban conditions in times where distanciation defines the way in which we move and operate through cities. From Bogotá to Moscow to Milan, new bicycle infrastructure is dominating public investment expenditure, supported by huge spikes in bike sales (up by 60% in the UK and US since March). In Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, officials have allowed restaurants and cafes to spill out onto eighteen of the city’s public squares. Many other cities have followed suit as short term space measures are required, but this new organisation of activities in public spaces could hold opportunities through the prioritisation of activating sidewalks and streets. Especially now that benefits have been experienced by both business owners and customers. These ideas will most certainly have similar effects in South African cities and should manifest as businesses and the public partake and benefit from new space utilisation conditions.

Restaurants spilling out onto the Grote Markt central public square in Haarlem. Janine Loubser, Sept 2020

The acknowledgement of changes in working conditions have already led to dramatic policy adjustments in cities like London where a range of building types, including offices, are now allowed to be converted into housing without full planning permission. These proposals face physical and financial challenges, but as we reconfigure our ideas around single-use neighborhoods and buildings, incentives for adaptive reuse will become more robust and nuanced rather than a nice-to-have “risk” strategy. And similar to the emphasis on communal outdoor spaces in homes, local neighbourhood or pocket parks will receive greater focus as larger parks may take on a different function and use.

Faster construction methods will become a standard in future rather than something only associated with new cities in China or emergency situations. Modular construction – where standardized building components are prefabricated in a factory and then assembled on site – offers a fast, flexible, less wasteful alternative to traditional building while also facilitating urgency and need. Covid-19 has shown that this alternative can save money and lives and will therefore become more mainstream in architecture discourses, also offering fast and affordable solutions to the general housing need that will continue to define South African urban centres.

The Healthcare Skyscraper proposal by architects D Lee, Gavin Shen, Weiyuan Xu, and Xinhao Yuan consists of a steel frame with several functional boxes that are assembled in five days and can be easily installed to the main building with a very small footprint. AIMIR CG.

For affluent neighborhoods, new applications of adaptability and change are more obvious or implementable. Thinking about poorer neighborhoods and informal settlements will be our biggest challenge, especially in the context of South African cities and bleak economic prospects. But it also poses us with an opportunity to think even sharper, especially now that Covid-19 deepened our realisation of how exposed we all are when not just those closest to us but also our neighbouring communities do not have adequate protection.

The societal changes awaiting us are complex. Rising inequalities, economic uncertainties and an increasing lack of critical resources are inevitable. New imaginaries driven by architectural or political forces might change significantly once communities start interacting with these more permanent proposals and interventions. Therefore perhaps the most profound changes are likely to appear not in the physical makeup of cities, but rather in how people choose to live in them. As we all figure out our post-pandemic routines, it may take years before we are able to ascertain how the global pandemic will change the planning and design of public and private life. As avant-garde playwright Eugene Ionesco once said “You can only predict things after they have happened”. At least the shifting of values indicate that temporary transformations of our homes and cities will inspire more positive, permanent changes to fundamentally improve our daily living environments.

by Janine Loubser, 27 Sept 2020

References and Further Reading:
Vilnius Shows How the Pandemic Is Already Remaking Cities: Outbreaks of disease have shaped urban life for centuries. By Yasmeen Serhan, 9 June 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/06/coronavirus-pandemic-urban-suburbscities/612760/

Housing after coronavirus should feature bigger spaces and more balconies says Alison Brooks. By Marcus Fairs, 19 May 2020. https://www.dezeen.com/2020/05/19/alison-brooks-housingcoronavirus-balconies/

Boano Prišmontas creates modular garden office that’s “easier to assemble than IKEA furniture”. By Tom Ravenscroft, 17 September 2020. https://www.dezeen.com/2020/09/17/boano-prismontas-prefabricated-garden-office-modular/

China is building a high-tech ‘Covid-proof’ smart city designed for future lockdowns. By Rachel Hosie, 10 Sept 2020. https://www.businessinsider.co.za/tech/china-building-covid-proof-smartcity-designed-for-future-lockdowns-2020-9?fbclid=IwAR1KjikjfsiPtk0GX3nzhDkHUaRPGzmBUxawciMM8BenQjduBIyO5QT3SSQ

How the Coronavirus Will Reshape Architecture: What kinds of space are we willing to live and work in now? By Kyle Chayka, 17 June 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/dept-of-design/how-the-coronavirus-will-reshapearchitecture?utm_source=onsite-share&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=onsiteshare&utm_brand=the-new-yorker

Honey-Roses, J., Anguelovski, I., Bohigas, J., Chireh, V., Daher, C., Konijnendijk, C., …Nieuwenhuijsen, M. (2020, April 21). The Impact of COVID-19 on Public Space: A Review of the Emerging Questions. https://doi.org/10.31219/osf.io/rf7xa

IMAGINE Issue 2: Exploring the brave new world of shared living. Space10 x Urgent.Agency. https://space10.com/collection/imagine-exploring-the-brave-new-world-of-shared-living/

MINI’s First Project In Shanghai Transforms Former Paint Factory Into A Co-Living Concept China Architecture News. 26 April 2019 https://worldarchitecture.org/article-links/echvm/mini-s-first-project-in-shanghai-transformsformer-paint-factory-into-a-coliving-concept.html

London, New York, Paris and Milan give streets to cyclists and pedestrians. India Block, 7 May 2020. https://www.dezeen.com/2020/05/07/london-new-york-paris-milan-cyclists-pedestrians/

From garden streets to bike highways: four ideas for post-Covid cities – visualised. Chris Michael, Lydia McMullan and Frank Hulley-Jones. 25 Sep 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/ng-interactive/2020/sep/25/garden-streets-bikesuperhighways-cities-future-coronavirus

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