Disease and disaster have for centuries triggered big changes in the built world. Cholera outbreaks led to the water and sewer infrastructure we all use to this day. Great fires made cities require new building methods and materials. The 9/11 terrorist attacks spawned a slew of security measures that have become part of the landscape.
The calamitous year of 2020 will likely bring about a similar reset. The rampant spread of coronavirus — which revealed racial and economic disparities, while also underscoring the imperative to address the climate crisis — has set the stage for a significant rethinking of the design of homes, workplaces, transportation infrastructure, and the public realm.
Some of the innovations may become permanent in anticipation of the next airborne pathogen. Some are simply good ideas that were accelerated by the events of 2020. It may be hard to envision amid the current devastation, but these trends are aimed at a future that is healthier, greener, and more equitable.
Bus lanes, bike paths, parklets, and “streateries”
It’s really been an extraordinary transformation of the public realm, as cities closed off blocks and turned sections of street into mini-parks and outdoor dining — and behold, the world didn’t end over the loss of a few parking spots. The same is true for painted bus lanes, which let workers cut through Boston congestion for quicker routes to work. Private cars have enjoyed many decades of being the center of attention, but the lull of lockdowns allowed cities to focus on building more infrastructure for walking, biking, and scootering. In the process, the urban streetscape assumed some of the character of European city centers.
Different versions of home
The 1918 Spanish flu was in many ways quickly forgotten, but that pandemic did spur several trends in residential design — first-floor bathrooms near the entryway so guests could wash their hands, for example, or rooftop terraces for fresh air. Unadorned white walls and interiors became the calling card of modernism, but a primary function was that those surfaces were easier to wash down. The virtues of open-air common areas, porches, and balconies will continue to be evident, but as part of a broader reimagining in multifamily housing in particular. The concept of home is changing along with demographics — more singles without kids, and also multiple generations under one roof. Look for more thoughtful layouts in midsize apartment buildings with central courtyards, the “gentle density” of two- and three-family homes, and carriage houses or tiny homes in backyards where caregivers and grandparents can stay.
New needs for the workplace
The big question is whether millions of square feet of office space, which is ultimately the most basic building block of most cities, will ever be needed again. It’s difficult to predict, but it looks like there will be more reliance on remote work, versus requiring employees to report to headquarters every day. The ongoing redesign of the workplace will continue accordingly, with the emphasis on flexibility and shared spaces for in-person meetings and increasingly nomadic workers. Because work can occur in so many other places besides the downtown office tower, designers will have their hands full retrofitting older buildings like warehouses or even auto repair shops. Any number of storefronts might turn into so-called “third places” — communal gathering spaces offering both privacy and meeting space, enhanced with online connections. Technology promises to make commercial real estate smart, healthy, and green, with sophisticated ventilation systems, for example, that can replace the air in rooms regularly and instantaneously.
Pop-ups and modular construction
This may seem like an aside, but speedy construction reflects a fundamental shift in planning. We don’t need to think of every building as grand and permanent; sometimes a simple prefabricated assembly is all that’s needed to get the job done, whether a grocery store branch in a food desert, housing for homeless people, or a testing center or other medical facility. Big retailers have embraced this approach as a supplement to spacious brick-and-mortar stores. But a pop-up retail outlet in a parking lot can be a godsend for small business owners who can’t deal with expensive, long-term leases. Accordingly, rules and regulations might be adjusted to smooth the way for such construction, to cut the red tape that typically comes with trying to build anything in American cities. The design of temporary urbanism, also known as tactical urbanism, can be every bit as classy as a permanent structure. Recent examples include Starlight Square in Central Square in Cambridge, and Birch Street Plaza in Roslindale.
The 15-minute city
Zooming out to a broader scale, an idea promoted by C-40 Cities, a network of the world’s largest cities focused on sustainability, calls for multiple compact neighborhoods where residents can get everything they need within a 15-minute radius, whether walking, biking, or taking transit. In what’s known as a polycentric model, dozens of smaller mini-cities, including in suburban locations, would provide an alternative to one big central business district. Think Newton Centre, repeated across a larger landscape. Looking at the region at an even higher level, smaller, post-industrial cities like Worcester or Hartford might become more affordable alternatives to the hot-market metropolitan centers of Boston or New York — if they can be linked by high-speed rail.
These potentially major shifts in the design of the physical environment are already being facilitated by information-sharing forums, like those established by Bloomberg Philanthropies and others. There will inevitably be some trial and error. Oakland’s “slow streets” initiative got pushback from lower-income residents this year who said the closure of some thoroughfares wasn’t working for them. Cities across the country, including Boston, are vowing to make sure any new urban development achieves equity goals. Montreal recently started screening all municipal actions to determine their impact on climate.
For anyone interested in architecture, planning, and urban design, it’s a lot to keep track of. Yet a common purpose is interwoven throughout — a determination to make sure the built environment works for everyone. That might be one of the few good things to come out of the year that was.