Letter from London
Paul Finch, 19 July 2020
Getting to grips with new virtual realities
‘As COVID19 emerged, the line between virtual and reality has blurred. Place-making and public space have become suddenly irrelevant. We can communicate through a wide variety of digital technologies, work out in our home by following YouTube tutorials. You can now do the things you used to do in person by using the internet, with more and more people accessing the information cloud. Growth now is not focused on the urban, but on information flows. Will this result in new spaces being introduce in urban settings and in buildings? What would this look like?’
This challenging question was submitted during a WAF webinar earlier this month, and in truth would make for a stand-alone discussion (which may yet happen). It is challenging because it invites us to contemplate the abandonment of the informing ideas which have underwritten our assumptions about architecture and cities for many years. Private cars bad, public transport good; private space bad, public space good; object buildings suspect, place-making all-important.
The rise and rise of digital technology have been chipping away at some of these assumptions for two decades, but Covid-19 has brought certain trends into sharp focus, the question being whether a trend will accelerate, decelerate or even evaporate. In London, for example, we have simultaneously been encouraged to avoid using public transport and its unhealthy congestion, while penalising to an unprecedented extent using a car in the middle of the city – a £15 tax now extended to 10 pm and weekends. Obviously staying at home is smarter than moving around.
The big alternative now being touted is cycling, and its proponents seem to regard it as universally applicable in all cities, just because it is convenient in Scandinavia. It is difficult if not hazardous in many climates, especially if it involves commuter journeys rather than those cheery images of happy families (without shopping or any other heavy load) cycling around in pleasantly sunny weather. How about a one-hour journey to work in 30deg heat?
The transport question relates to another planning idea, from the 19th century, as a possible approach to city planning in a post-Covid world, but assuming that there will be more pandemics of one form or another. That idea is the garden city, invented in the UK but made a matter of public policy in Singapore in recent decades. Of course, the difference is that rather than garden cities being suburban/rural satellites of big cities, Singapore has made the city itself a ‘green’ development, with green space (eg jungle) accounting for much of the state’s land mass.
Could we re-adopt decentralised city development as an approach, or try to green the existing? In the case of the former, there is an implication that increased public transport would be essential, unless employment underwrote the development instead of housing. As for the latter, it surely holds out more hope since we have more to lose if we can’t make it work. And there is precedent, even if it may be some while before visionary plan’s like Michael Sorkin’s, to adapt New York so it could feed itself, are likely to become reality.
One of the answers to the question at the start of this article is that public space, particularly public green space, becomes more desirable – despite the health problems currently associated with intensity of use – precisely because open and green space is so lacking in many residential and workspace buildings. No doubt there will be a premium put on future apartments and office floors which include terraces and roof gardens, but what about much existing stock?
As far as dwellings are concerned, what about the need to plan for a greater proportion of time being spent in home-working? We will need to reverse the trends of many decades if we are going to invest in larger units (some homes in the UK and London in particular, are scandalously small; there is no state-enforced minimum size currently).
The apartment with added study and terrace; the office floor with a terrace (as well as plenty of cycle storage facilities); the house and garden re-appreciated; the growth of gardens and parks – not so far from the Modernist ideal of space, sunlight and greenery.
Another contributed question to our webinar prompted this thought: ‘Have we really ever left the post-pandemic period of the Spanish flu and the effects it had on architecture and urban planning by motivating the modern movement? I feel like we are seeing a merging of pandemic effects on planning.’
Much to ponder as we come to terms with the past extraordinary year.