The history of western cities is often a story of disease. Many modern cities have been shaped by past contagions and this begs the question, how will Covid-19 shape the urban realm?
Usually, cities are a racket of noise and a crush of people, but the past few months have marked a significant downturn in human traffic. The streets have often been eerily quiet, and when people have ventured into their nearest city, the empty roads have enabled them to fully appreciate the architecture surrounding them. And without realising it, the buildings that we look at in our urban environments have been shaped by disease.
It may seem like a strange concept, but in the past, cities were much more unhealthy than rural locations. A worker moving to Manchester in 1890 from a northern agricultural village would have seen their life expectancy significantly reduce.
Disease was the primary reason for this reduction in life expectancy. It was widely believed that diseases were spread through rotting air, so concerted efforts were made to clear the air by, for example, lighting bonfires.
When cholera arrived in Europe in the early 19th century, the authorities tried barricading people into their homes and confining them to hospitals to prevent the spread of the disease. But this policy sparked mass rioting. At this point, the authorities knew that they would have to adapt the cities themselves in order to make them healthier.
In the mid-19th century, lots of grand civic improvements were designed to prevent disease, such as sewerage systems and public parks.
By the late 19th century, tuberculosis became the focus of urban thinking. Urban reformers believed they needed to reduce overcrowding and improve airflow through the creation of air shafts. The desire to reduce overcrowding led to the first suburban developments and increasing investments in rail infrastructure to move people into the suburbs. In some cities, building density was limited, and the height of buildings was restricted.
In the early 20th century, European architecture was fundamentally shaped by tuberculosis. Planners in this period created a sterile architecture. They also zoned the city’s functions into distinct sectors.
Fast-forward to 2020, and the question is – how will coronavirus live on in the blueprint of our urban centres?
We can expect a shift away from density, particularly with the popularity of remote working.
New planning regulations will mean that buildings in town centres will be able to change use without planning permission. Such regulations, combined with a social distancing policy, could mean that office spaces are converted into new homes; the risk being substandard quality.
But we also need entrepreneurs with innovative ideas to take advantage of the freedom afforded by the new regulations.
Not only should more residential use be encouraged, but more green spaces should be incorporated into towns and cities. At the same time, town centres should gear themselves towards both pedestrians and cyclists, rather than cars.
If anything, the pandemic has awakened urban dwellers to the importance of nature. What we need are visionaries with the ability to develop flexible, multi-use urban centres.