Urban Design After the Pandemic

Urbanists are rethinking what's important about our cities after 2020's public health crisis.

CC BY 2.0. Grafitti in Vienna/ Lloyd Alter

Everyone is talking about what we are learning from the events of the 2020, and how things might change when it is over. We have already looked at how our home designs might change, and even how our bathrooms might adapt. But what about our cities? The way we live, the way we get around? How must all of this adapt?

This Is Not an Issue of Density

Montreal street view
This part of Montreal is as dense as Brooklyn.

Lloyd Alter

There is still a lot of talk about density, which we previously discussed in Urban density is not the enemy, it is your friend. But as Dan Herriges notes in Strong Towns, it might well be easier to control the spread of viruses when people are more concentrated.

"..there are ways in which spread-out living arrangements might even speed contagion, because our lives are less local than ever, for both better and worse. In the traditional city, a larger percentage of your interactions might take place close to home, resulting in geographic clusters of disease that can be tracked and contained. But we've normalized long-distance travel in modern America, not just for tourism but for everyday purposes. When you work 30 miles from where you live—and your coworkers in turn live all over a large metropolitan region, attend different places of worship and send their kids to different schools—tracing and containing transmission chains becomes almost impossible very quickly."

And as I keep tweeting, it's how you do density that matters.

More "Missing Middle" and Goldilocks Density

©. Opticos Design

The problem is not that cities are dense (because in North America they are not), it's that they are spiky. There are square miles of single-family housing, while the apartment buildings and condos are piled up on former industrial lands far from the NIMBYs. We need to smooth it out with more "missing middle" housing. As Daniel Parolek wrote:

"Missing Middle is a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single-family homes that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living. These types provide diverse housing options along a spectrum of affordability, including duplexes, four-plexes, and bungalow courts, to support walkable communities, locally-serving retail, and public transportation options."
courtyard in Seestadt Aspern.
Courtyard in Seestadt Aspern.

Lloyd Alter

This kind of housing can accommodate a lot of people, yet leaves a lot of open space. You don't have to be trapped in an elevator; you can easily get outside. In the densest parts of our cities, people do not have access to green space, and the sidewalks are crowded, there is nowhere to go. But if you spread the density around, you can accommodate just as many people and still give them room to breathe. I have called it the Goldilocks Density:

"....dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can't take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity."

Richard Florida also notes in the Globe and Mail that there are different kinds of density:

"The virus has exposed a deep density divide: rich people density, where the advantaged can do remote work and order in delivery from their expensive homes, versus poor people density where the less advantaged are crammed together in multigenerational households who must head out on transit to work in crowded, exposed conditions. This density divide weakens all of us because vulnerable communities open all of us to the spread of the virus. A city cannot be safe if it is not equitable."

Widen the Sidewalks and Make Way for Micromobility

One of the things that has become abundantly clear is how much space we have given up to cars, both moving and parked. There's John Massengale's famous shot of Lexington Avenue in New York, where they took out all the light wells and stairs and even knocked off all the ornaments to take away sidewalk space. And as Toronto activist Gil Meslin demonstrates, it even happened in suburban Toronto at a smaller scale.

Garbage in New York City
Garbage on sidewalks in New York City.

Lloyd Alter

Now, everyone trying to keep six feet apart means that people need a lot more sidewalk space. Yet the sidewalk space is used for everything; people don't put all their garbage in the roads, that's reserved for storing cars. Instead, people have to walk around all of this. Maybe New York needs a garbage lane as well as a bike lane. We quoted architect Toon Dreeson earlier:

"With fewer motorists commuting to work, normally busy roads are largely empty. This starkly illustrates just how much of our city is devoted to cars and moving people quickly through the city from one place to another, without stopping to experience the sense of place we’re passing through. Meanwhile, as we try to keep physical distance between us, we realize how narrow our sidewalks are. As we try to keep our physical distance, picture how challenging it is to navigate narrow sidewalks at the best of times, let alone when they are covered in snow or ice. Now picture this as being an everyday occurrence if you are pushing a stroller or using a wheelchair. Maybe it’s time to rethink equity in the built environment."

Richard Florida suggests that these changes should be permanent:

"During this crisis, we have all learned that we can be outside for walks or bike rides. Biking and walking will be our safest way to get to and from work. Bike lanes should be expanded, and bike and scooter sharing programs should be, too. Some cities are already pedestrianizing crowded streets to promote social distancing. It makes sense to keep such changes in place for the long haul."

Rethink the Office

Bank to the future: Lots of space around every desk
Bank to the future: Lots of space around every desk.


One of the main restraints on the growth of working from home was management resistance; many businesses just didn't permit it. But because of high operating costs, they just kept increasing the office densities, so private offices gave way to cubicles which gave way to basically shared desks. But now managers have been forced to adapt to the situation, and more importantly, nobody is going to want to come back to those offices we had before. Nobody is going to want to sit three feet away from someone who is coughing. Eric Reguly of the Globe and Mail writes:

"...office floor plans will have to change to give employees more of their own work space to ensure adequate social distancing. The trend toward less desk or workstation real estate began about two decades ago, partly for cost reasons, and partly because employees wanted more common areas for eating lunch and grabbing a coffee. It is now inevitable that personal workspace will increase at the expense of common space."

He thinks it might actually reduce the amount of office space that is needed in our downtowns. "Tight office-space supply could turn into a surplus really fast. Goodbye construction cranes."

Focus on Transit-Oriented Development with Streetcars, Not Subways

St. Clair Streetcar
St. Clair streetcar in Toronto.

Lloyd Alter

Subways are great at moving huge numbers of people in short windows of time, like rush hours when hundreds of thousands of people are trying to get downtown all at once. But what if Reguly is right, and people are not going downtown and are working from home and spending more time in their own neighborhoods? That's when you want streetcars and buses, where you can go short distances, you don't have to climb up and down stairs, and you can look out windows. That's why Toronto should cancel its multi-billion dollar subway right now; there may not be anywhere near the demand that is projected, and that's why they need to invest in the streetcar network.

Furthermore, those surface routes need a lot more capacity. Right now in Toronto where I live, the buses are packed, but they are not going downtown to the office buildings. Ben Spurr writes in the Star:

"Last week, writer and transit advocate Sean Marshall mapped out the busy routes and noticed many ran through industrial employment lands, particularly in the city’s northwest and southwest where there’s a high concentration of warehouses, food processing plants, light industrial facilities, and industrial bakeries. “These are industries where wages are low,” Marshall said in an interview. Employees are less likely to be able to afford a car, and the industrial areas they’re travelling to are also not easily walkable."

Jarrett Walker writes in Citylab about who is riding the buses, and how transit makes urban civilization possible. But he also points out that we have to change our way of thinking about why we actually have transit.

"In transit conversations we often talk about meeting the needs of people who depend on transit. This makes transit sound like something we’re doing for them. But in fact, those people are providing services that we all depend on, so by serving those lower income riders, we’re all serving ourselves. The goal of transit, right now, is neither competing for riders nor providing a social service for those in need. It is helping prevent the collapse of civilization. What’s more, transit has always been doing that. Those “essential service” workers, who are overwhelmingly low-income, have always been there, moving around quietly in our transit systems, keeping our cities functioning."

Everyone is suddenly calling the grocery clerks and couriers and cleaners "heroes" because they are doing the work that is needed to keep us all going. They have no choice. Walker points out that our transit systems are not serving them as much as they are serving us.

Fix Our Main Streets

Dupont Street

Dupont Street/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

This scene near where I live is not unusual; in many cities the neighborhood retail stores are gone. Big box stores, online shopping, and high property taxes have all conspired to make life difficult for small businesses on main streets. After noting that the office downtown may be dead, Eric Reguly thought that the trend toward working from home might actually help revitalize other parts of our communities.

"If more people were to work from home, neighourhoods might spring back to life. Imagine a relaunch of Jane Jacobs’s urban ideal, where neighourhoods have a diverse range of work and family functions, where municipal spending goes into parks, not urban expressways, and where single-use areas, like clusters of downtown office towers, dead at night, become archaic."

Richard Florida stresses the importance of saving our main streets, writing in Brookings:

"The restaurants, bars, specialty shops, hardware stores, and other mom and pop shops that create jobs and lend unique character to our cities are at severe economic risk right now. Some projections suggest that as many as 75% of them may not survive the current crisis. The loss of our Main Street businesses would be irreparable, and not just for the people whose livelihoods depend on them, but for cities and communities as a whole. The places that have protected their Main Streets will have a decisive competitive advantage as we return to normalcy."

Let's Not Forget What We Build Cities For

Graffiti in Porto
Graffiti in Porto, Portugal.

Lloyd Alter

Last word goes to Daniel Herriges in Strong Towns, who reminds us why we are here in cities:

"Staying healthy is one challenge. Social support is another. Cities foster the ability of neighbors to look out for one another, to deliver food and supplies to those in need, to coordinate child care so that parents can continue to work, to arrange makeshift shelter for the homeless, to get medical response teams to where they are needed quickly....The city is a marvel, a creation as uniquely human as the ant hill or beaver dam is to their respective architects. Its most marvelous trait is the way that cities concentrate and amplify human ingenuity and initiative and compassion, and allow us to do greater things together than we could alone."