What Will ‘Liveable City’ Mean After COVID-19 Lockdowns?

After COVID-19 lockdowns, the restoration of the city’s livability will rely on deepening its walkability. In the new normal, street life will be hyperwalkable.

Witnessing still-life cities all around the world, it’s been hard to imagine when we’ll be able to navigate the streets as we used to. Which features will we able to actually keep from the walkable city model? Which changes will we be forced to introduce? What opportunities do we have to make better cities?

The Unwalkable City

Since the lockdowns, the walkability has been partially suspended. The time and the way we spend time on the streets have been constrained.

The notion of ‘walkability’ taught us city streets are not mere transitory places. However, since the beginning of the quarantine, most of us have been using them as a connective tissue between point A to point B, namely home and the nearest supermarket.

Under normal circumstances, walking through the downtown is fast, green, and fun. That’s because axial and auxiliary uses complement each other successfully. For instance, if we arrive early to the appointment with the doctor (i.e. axial use), we may have some coffee at the nearest Starbucks (i.e. auxiliary use). And once we are done with the physician, before going back home, we might shop for groceries (i.e. axial use). It’s a network.

The network has stopped working. While part of the population has been able to carry on axial activities, auxiliary ones have been frozen. Gradually, we hear proposals to reopen indoor areas like cinemas, restaurants, and shopping malls.

The defrosting methods might sound safe, but they don’t look like the fastest.

This is the moment to stop and ask ourselves whether the post-COVID-19’s cities should be walkable at all. Is walkability a sine qua non condition for successful downtowns? Do cities actually need auxiliary uses? Yes, yes, and yes.

None of the benefits that come with walkability — those related to health and environment, as well as the economic advantages — would be possible if auxiliary uses wouldn’t exist. Jane Jacobs explains that intricate and close-grained diversity of uses give constant mutual support, both economically and socially.

There are two operational requirements for walkability. One is the infrastructure. To name a city walkable, there should be certain types of sidewalks, streets, buildings, parks, and transit facilities. The other requirement has to do with the pedestrians’ positive perception. That is, feeling pleased to walk because the landscape is alluring or the likelihood of finding interesting activities on our way from one place to the other. Such a gratifying experience is possible when there’s enough diversity.

The origin of a city’s diversity is primarily economic. Jacobs defines big cities as natural generators of diversity. They are prolific incubators of new enterprises, including small ones. It’s there where the standard coexists with the strange, and the large with the small.

When everything’s working, diversity occurs naturally: sameness is subtracted at the time diversity is added. During the confinement, this was not quite the situation. So, what will happen in the mid-term future? Will city streets keep us amused again? Will we be able to calmly enjoy the street life as we used to? As an optimistic, I resolved that yes, we will. The next question is how?

There are those who say this is a cycle. According to this idea, now we’ll face further dark side and then things will get better (again). I don’t think we’ll go back to any point. Good urban planning shouldn’t be cyclic but evolutionary.

The Three-Steps Formula

There is one indicator of urban development more powerful than skyscrapers, LED screens, pavement, or zebra crossings: coffee shops.

A coffee shop is not a shop you go to and get coffee. It can be a disconcerting feature to noncity dwellers. But those of us who spend a not-insignificant amount of time at any of our favorite cafes know this is true. It’s been so since their creation. Back in the 15th century, in Mecca, people would meet at qahveh khaneh to chat, play, and discuss politics. Oh, they did get coffee too.

The coffee shop synthesizes the essence of a walkable city. It gives people a good reason to leave the private sphere. It can be a living room, an office, or a university library. Better, it can be all those things at the same time. More interestingly, we don’t need to enter a cafe to enjoy it. I don’t mean they normally offer a takeaway service. I mean coffee shops enhance city streets. Along with other buildings, they protect sidewalks from monotony and walkers from boredom. Senior City Planner Claire Bowin once told me the opening of Insomnia, Downtown LA’s first coffee store, was a turning point.

You know you are in a non-walkable city when you see people going to cafes to actually get coffee. They enter, sip their drinks, and leave the place. That’s that.

If it wasn’t for the quarantine, I’d be writing this article in one of the 13 coffeehouses I have within a four-block radius of my house. No big deal: Spotify’s Coffee&Beats playlist and a cup of Folgers do the trick. Unlike other spots in the city, there’s nothing we do in coffee shops that we can’t do elsewhere. If we fracture a leg, we go to the hospital. If we have to sit for an oral examination, we go to college. Besides both, a broken ankle and an exam are related to specific city services, they also have a precise time frame. But coffee shops are absolutely dispensable. That’s what ultimately makes it the quintessence of walkability.

Due to COVID-19, we had to learn how to #StayAtHome. That might be natural to homebodies or those living in mansions, equipped with micro-cinema on the fourth floor, and surrounded by nothing but a private golf course. Most urban residents, on the contrary, are trained to go out since childhood.

None of us — neither those who’ve been struggling with the confinement nor those who can’t really complain about it — know when will it be safe to be on the streets. More importantly, when will going out be a compelling plan again?

Trying to answer these questions, I’ve developed a three-step formula. It aims to keep the virtues of the walkable city model while introducing safety measures, and fixing long-standing problems of urban planning.

The first step consists in considering the pluses of the ideal walkable city we want to keep. The main ones are the:

  • easy access to axial and auxiliary uses
  • diversity of the landscape — that mixture of old and new buildings, as well as the mosaic made of bistros, laundries, bakeries, post offices, greengrocer’s, and clothing stores
  • high-level professionals
  • good air quality, a consequence of low motorized vehicles usage and the presence of parks and trees
  • cosmopolitan population, including best professionals and entrepreneurs
  • first-rate services, like health and education systems
  • varied activities ranging from museums and operas to cinemas and night clubs.

The second step is the first actual move to build the post-COVID-19 city: the safety measures. Commerces will have to continue reinforcing the cleaning and disinfection procedures. With time, we may find sanitizer dispensers hanging on traffic lights. It will be challenging with more people on the streets, but we need to get to grips with social distancing rules. Little is known about COVID-19, yet maintaining 6 feet of space between people it’s a sure thing. Also, the use of masks has been mandatory for the last months. That probably won’t change in the coming ones. We may even keep incorporating items into our lives, such as touchless door openers.

In the third step, I focused on those urban planning issues we have to get rid of. It’s the opportunity to revise the worst performing mechanisms. Here, the two previous stages are synthesized. That means, the final step analyzes what’s been working and distinguishes which add-ons are needed. Among the most preeminent situations we now have the chance to work on are:

  • Restructuring non-walkable neighborhoods. The ultimate goal is to give residents the opportunity to do as many activities as possible nearby their homes. The infrastructure should provide both axial and auxiliary uses. There’s no need to be creative here, as the strategies we know have proved to be efficient. Boulevards with bistros and cafes can replace the existing drive-thru facilities. Local grocery stores will let dwellers off driving to a hypermarket 15 minutes away if they run out of milk. These new commerces create jobs and allow people to spend more time locally. Far from building gated communities, the idea is to give residents the possibility of choosing when to travel elsewhere. A restructured, walkable neighborhood intends to save inhabitants the burden of commuting every day. This will enhance their lives at the time it will prevent crowds in urban cores. A great example of an urbanized suburb is Wimbledon, a district of southwest London,
  • Eliminating the disadvantages which made deprived areas’ residents COVID-19’s most affected victims. The duties include access to safely managed sanitation and core services. Part of the process will also consist in getting rid of overcrowded households.

Towards the Hyperwalkable City

The three-steps formula led me to the new attribute of livable post-COVID-19 cities: hyperwalkability. The structures, functions, and habits that made up the walkable city need to be multiplied. The reason is simple: public space must stay free from unwise amounts of people.

To create distance within compactness we have to manage two variables: space and time.

Once all of us return to new normal, the demand for space will skyrocket. Creating space is already tough. But when doing so in a hyperwalkable city, there’s still one more factor to keep in mind. The added space should be smart, never dead. Space, within the context of a livable city, isn’t an equivalent of vacuum. Space design will have to guarantee a safe and dynamic flow of people. To discourage people from commuting and clustering we can, for instance:

  • open new restaurants and cafés;
  • add sidewalk seating. This measure might be more or less workable in different zones of the city. Besides staying healthy, customers should feel safe seating outdoors. To enjoy a dinner on the street, there shouldn’t be threats of any kind, including vehicle traffic and thievery;
  • reconfigure high streets with new pedestrian walkways;
  • open new and bigger coworkings to reduce the number of clerks in offices;
  • increase the number of parks.

In sum, once we identify the hot areas and understand why they are popular, we can recreate them all over the city.

The next variable is time. We can agree that cities don’t sleep, but not without asking ourselves how much time they are efficiently active? Stores close at a certain time, employees return home by 5 or 6 pm, and we know we have higher chances of finding a seat on a bus on public holidays. So, well, yes, metropolis don’t get night’s sleep but they do take long after-dark naps.

Besides rethinking space distribution, COVID-19 may provide us the opportunity of reorganizing circulation in the city in terms of time. What if urban activities would be more evenly distributed throughout the day? Besides doctors, bartenders, police officers, and waste collectors — all of which work graveyard shifts — there are new ways that cities could boost their nightlife. For example:

  • coffee shops, coworkings, and libraries could stay open late for lychnobite and night studiers;
  • delivery of any kind — consumer goods, mail, vehicles supplying products to stores — would be easier without pedestrians, bikers, and cars;
  • with extended working hours, clientele wouldn’t flock to laundries, barbershops, and hairdressers;
  • banks, public offices, and any other place people usually do paperwork at could offer late-night services.

The uttermost goal of reconfiguring time and space is to alleviate crowding on public transport. Imagining a rush-hour-free metropolis is an excess of idle optimism. A first, and still bold goal to accomplish would be a transportation system without train pushers.

Hyperwalkable cities will have to enhance the public transit to make it safe and convenient for passengers. Keeping our trains and buses uncongested and our streets with as few cars as possible won’t be enough. The point isn’t to improve the public transport means but to encourage people to run errands on foot. Making transit usage more convenient is good but now cities will work best if residents walk. They should be able to reach most places on foot, riding a bike or a scooter. The key in this strategy is to forestall an undesirable outcome: a rise in private vehicle ownership.

Coronavirus has made of public transit a source of exposure. Since then, those who had the chance, have been getting around in car. Automobiles aren’t safe. That said, the alternative means of transportation must pose no threat. It’d be aberrant thinking of the car-centered model as a feature of healthy cities. We can’t overlook such a fallacy when shaping our post-COVID-19 cities.

Spread Livability, Not People

The premise of the hyperwalkable city is adding places where citizens go to every day. This will alleviate crowding on public transport, parks, and inside shops, cafes, and other commerces. More infrastructure will keep us safely distanced, but still on the streets.

Quarantines are temporary measures we respond with to unpredictable circumstances. Neither metropolis survive with its residents confined to their homes nor the new normal should look like a lockdown.

Living in a sort of eternal quarantine would mean that urban planning has gone backwards. That’s not an option. Every adjustment should be an innovation to further improve cities’ livability. For this reason, I deplore — unlike some journalists — urban cores where citizens will do shopping mostly online.

Most of the challenges aren’t a direct consequence of the coronavirus. Rather, the pandemic has made them visible and worse.

Slum residents have been particularly damaged. High density and poor sanitation is a combination with detrimental delayed reaction. What to do, then? Spreading such population isn’t a smart solution. It isn’t a solution at all. This conclusion has its origin in a misconceiving idea that slums supplant healthy urban tissue. As Jane Jacobs points out, the reality is quite the opposite: the first sign of an incipient slum is stagnation and dullness. Hence, to unslum slums it necessary to make the area lively enough so that its residents are able to stay there happily, enjoying city public life and sidewalk safety.

In a way, hyperwalkability consists in applying this same strategy to different districts of the city. To do so, urban planners need to understand what makes certain places more popular and usable than others. Then, they have to understand what’s missing in the less walkable spots. Zones with more commuters are a place to start.

Given many commerces were forced to close during the quarantine, they might consider reopening not in the core locations again, but in peripheral areas. Thus, bringing livability to suburbs beyond city centers would be fairly organic. Within the hyperwalkable city, suburbs shouldn’t look like they do now. With more and more stores and residents who can’t afford a place in the downtown anymore, the outskirts will have a new urban feel.

I travel and write about walkability.

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