After the Pandemic: Better Cities for People and the Planet

24.03.216 min read
Caracas Metrocable by Urban-Think Tank

Written by Steph Wade

In the second part of this two-part series, we expand on ideas from The Ideal City, our book of recipes on how to better design, build, inhabit, and share our cities. Here, we look at how a sweeping recovery plan and a strong, optimistic vision can create more resourceful and desirable cities in a post-pandemic world. The future of cities needs to be green and equitable, to protect the future of both humanity and the planet.

2021 will be the year in which we begin to overhaul the systems that have existed as our societal foundations for decades. Even once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, it is clear that we won’t go back to business as usual — given that jobs have vanished, education has been disrupted, and extreme poverty has gone up for the first time in 20 years. Instead, our task is to use our collective power to rebound from this experience by rebuilding our societies and our economies, creating new jobs, and prioritising sustainable, circular principles — all the while tackling rising inequality and the climate emergency.

We have been offered the chance to transform urban life in a way that is beneficial to both people and all of Earth’s ecosystems — a remarkable opportunity that we need to grab with both hands. We can do this in many ways: from infrastructure that combines sustainable technology with biodiversity, to building with more energy-efficient materials like wood, and investing in public spaces that encourage meaningful interactions and nurture social cohesion. Whatever the steps, the recovery needs to be green, and it needs to be equitable.

SPACE10 – The Ideal City – p.23 — Photo Rasmus Hjortshoj — gestalten 2021
Amager Resource Center, also known as CopenHill, by BIG

Hedonistic sustainability

2020 has brought back to our urban cityscapes an appreciation of green and biodiverse environments — so now is the time to expand them. Not only will we as humans benefit from the positive outcomes of this approach, we will be bringing a new sense of vitality to our planet. ‘The more biodiverse we can make our cities, the better,’ Danish architect Bjarke Ingels tells us. ‘The arrival of biophilia as a health and wellness aspect of a city is important, and we’re going to see much more of it in the future.’

Ingels’s resourceful design solutions have propelled him into worldwide stardom. The work of his eponymous architecture firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), advocates for cities that promote regenerative behaviour and reduce-reuse-recycle actions, but in a way that is palatable, engaging, and even fun for the average citizen. In Copenhagen, their landmark Amager Resource Center, better known as CopenHill, is a huge waste-to-energy plant topped with climbing walls and ski slopes. ‘We wanted to show how clean technology is not only good for the environment, it’s actually great for citizens too,’ Ingels says. ‘It is a piece of infrastructure — energy and sanitation infrastructure — that is made so that it has positive social side effects in the form of a ski slope, hiking path, and climbing wall.’

It is a perfect example of hedonistic sustainability, a term Ingels himself coined, which means integrating sustainability into our cities, while also creating pleasurable environments for people.

‘The only way you can make sustainability win is if you make it more desirable than the alternative,’

Ingels says, adding: ‘[We need] to make our little fragments of the world more like the way [we] wish the world to be.’

In Singapore, Green Heart in Marina One conceived by English firm Gustafson Porter + Bowman is a high-density, mixed-use complex encased in flora; the geometry of the buildings creates natural ventilation and pockets of sunlight while providing space in nature for residents. Over in Los Angeles, Spanish firm SelgasCano designed the sprawling Second Home offices to be covered in vast landscapes of 6500 plants and internal gardens. And on the streets of Copenhagen, Tredje Natur designed the Climate Tile, a water management system which repurposes rainwater to irrigate nearby plants and green spaces. Not only does it mitigate excess rainfall, the project also brings more beauty to the city.

While different in their sizes, challenges and motivations, what draws the above projects together is their merging of green and sustainable resources with activities that foster enjoyment or well-being. They are proof that the systems that support our urban lives are linked, and we need to approach them holistically.

Regional Market in Dandaji, Niger, by Atelier Masōmī,

Micro solutions for a global change

It doesn’t take grand gestures to make cities better for all. Around the world, many smaller, down-to-earth initiatives are empowering communities with resourceful, sustainable and attractive solutions. In Niger, Atelier Masōmī designed the Regional Market in Dandaji with stalls made from compressed earth and circular metal sun shades. The vibrantly-coloured staggered roofs provide ample ventilation and shade from the heat while encouraging visitor and vendor interaction. Meanwhile in Mexico, the Apan Housing Laboratory, led by MOS and backed by the National Workers’ Housing Fund Institute, serves as an example of the possibilities of affordable housing. A community of prototypes designed by 32 different architects explores playful solutions to address the lack of affordable housing in the country.

We are seeing biodiversity incorporated into the center of even the most dense cities. In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is regreening itself one urban farming project at a time. VTN Architects’ Urban Farming Office is clad in scores of hanging planter boxes, which creates a microclimate irrigated with stored rainwater and vegetation. In Detroit, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative is a non-profit organisation promoting education through urban agriculture. With the help of locals, it has grown from a small garden to a three-acre farm that can provide produce to the entire neighbourhood.

These projects may be small, yet together they fuse into powerful, bigger-picture solutions. Crucially, they demonstrate how aesthetically-beautiful designs can be made accessible to everyone — not just to privileged and educated populations.

‘There needs to be thousands of small solutions, where every single micro project can have a macro impact,’ explains Canadian architect Michael Green. His pioneering timber-only practice is rooted in the philosophy that trees are one of our greatest allies in stabilising the climate crisis. The tip of the North American forest alone grows enough wood to build a large-scale building every four minutes, Green says. ‘We need to take the lessons of nature and evolution to understand that the lowest-energy solution is what will make us all survive.’

An example of this exists in Minneapolis, where his firm completed a seven-story all-wood building titled T3 — the first modern timber building in the United States in over a century. Green urges that in cities, laws on development need to change in favour of low-carbon construction:

‘There has to be a shift over the next decades towards growing almost everything we build with, and replacing all of the plastic and mining-based materials with something grown by the power of the sun.’

The Pakistani architect Yasmeen Lari has a similar point of view; her work advocates for simple design interventions to create vast social change. ‘Traditional urbanism really needs to be equal to eco-urbanism,’ she says. Living within our means and the means of our planet ‘can actually improve the quality of [our] life.’

SPACE10 – The Ideal City – p.81 – Photo by Heritage Foundation Of Pakistan – gestalten 2021
At the Zero Carbon Cultural Center designed by Yasmeen Lari in Makli, Pakistan, villagers are trained in local crafts.

A greener economy for all

Crucially, our recovery plans need to include a shift to a greener economy, which the United Nations predicts could create 24 million new jobs globally by 2030. It is a solution that will cost only a fraction of the huge economic loss the pandemic is causing every week. In other words, there is no competition between the needs of our planet and our economic well-being: what is good for the Earth’s systems is also good for people. ‘If [we] want an economically sustainable world, it cannot happen at the expense of the environment,’ Ingels says. ‘There has [to be] a lot of remapping of existing patterns as a consequence of the experiments we have experienced during the lockdowns.’

To be clear, there is no such thing as one solution to the global crises we are facing. Tackling both the pandemic and the climate crisis will look differently for every city and country.

But 2020 has shown us the collective power of individual effort —

when we all drive less, air pollution drops so much so that the effects are visible from space. When we work from home and avoid unnecessary travel, our personal carbon footprint decreases. When governments expand their relief packages, citizens can gain financial inclusion. ‘Everything we do, we hope [will] plant a seed of innovation that becomes part of a global circle of shared ideas,’ says Green. We need to ‘really try to leverage innovations that will make the quality of people’s lives better, and in doing so, make them more connected to the natural world.’

North Vancouver City Hall by Michael Green Architecture

Our book The Ideal City: Exploring Urban Futures is published in collaboration with gestalten and can be ordered here.