Six perspectives on healthier, more connected cities

An urban designer draws insights from his work designing resilient cities post-COVID.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and our adjusted baseline is a catalyst to rethink our relationship to and dependency on our built environment and the planet. While physically distanced, how can we still create healthy and connected communities? How do we protect our future to be sustainable and resilient, while addressing the present-day concerns of virus transmission and health safety? There is a need for all of usdesigners, property owners, city officials, and the communityto recalibrate our thinking and strengthen our commitment toward creating equitable and resilient cities.  

Leveraging this opportunity and combining it with holistic thinkingsix perspectives are proposed to support this recalibration: 

1. Being Together Redefined

There is a clear need to redefine the idea of being together—both to strengthen a sense of community and alleviate the feeling of isolation following social distancing. Fortunately, there are both in-person and virtual ways to rethink connectionOne is to foster a shared sense of purpose by, for example, creating opportunities for people to grow their own food in community gardens within the public realm or rooftop gardens. Another is to thoughtfully leverage technology to support virtual and social media platformsRecognizing an existing digital divide where not everyone has access to technology, a challenge ahead is to identify creative, innovative solutions that provide access to all 

miro board
In person events are now hosted virtually.
We are leveraging technology, such as Microsoft Teams and Miro, now more than ever to stay connected, engage, and collaborate effectively.

2. Planning for the Continuum

We need to balance short-term solutions with longterm gains. While the pandemic is currently at the top of our minds, the ongoing climate emergency still prevailswith or without the virus. From the early days of lockdownto our current moment, to the post-vaccine and post-COVID world on the horizonthis experience has taught us the importance of change management  about our environments and our behaviors.  

These changes could vary in scale and implementationfrom the adaptation of a simple door handle to facilitate touchless entry, to investing in one’s overall health and wellbeing by practicing safe exercise, to being comfortable with using public transit as a sustainable mode of travel again—we need to plan for the continuum in order to look beyond the pandemic. For instance, a reduction in transit ridership puts the public investment in transit services at risk. In the long run, this leads to a demand decrease for transit services altogether, resulting in a lack of sustainable and equitable options for all. This can be prevented by increasing the safety and perception of transit use from the very beginning to ensure there is sufficient ridership 

Aaniin Community Centre and Library
How can we practice safe group exercise in community centres moving forward?
flexible housing model
Vancouver studio's Phil Freelon Design Competition entry, Pivot, earned a Merit Award for its flexible, modular design for co-living that pairs complimentary lifestyles with shared resources.

3. Flexibility is Key 

From residential to commercial spaces, there is a demand to design for flexibility and adaptability in the built environment. While affordability has made a case for open and adaptable unit plans in residential buildings, there is also a need for compartmentalization to support various activities within these same units. The spaces we create through different furniture and systems need to be flexible. This approach allows for multiple users and the likelihood of transforming the space for different uses, for example, children being homeschooled while parents are working from home. Offering users options is integral to providing comfort, reducing stress, and improving their overall health and well-being.

4. Future is Shared 

Despite the pandemic, the sharing economy is likely here to staywith shared resources such as amenity and workspaces used on-demand. While co-sharing within our current circumstances seems challenging, proper adoption of safe practices and good design solutions can address concerns and facilitate this practice. Ultimately, we need to play the long game referenced above, continuing to reduce the consumption of resources, energy, and material use to uphold a high level of sustainability. When thinking about the design of shared resources and amenities, keep in mind location, need, and accessibility through the social equity lens. 

agile office
collaborative space in office
Our Toronto Studio
The open studio is a space of 54 free-address workstations supported by focus rooms and collaborative space – providing a greater range of supportive environments that allow staff to choose where, when and how they work.
Despite the pandemic, the sharing economy is likely here to stay—with shared resources such as amenity and workspaces used on-demand.

Viren Kallianpur
Urban Design Practice Leader , Associate Principal 

5. Nature is the Best Medicine 

Biophilia has long been proven to be an important aspect of wellbeing—but only now are many of us feeling the benefits more tangiblywith the pandemic heightening our appreciation for (and exposure to) natureThis has emphasized the importance of balconies, natural light and views, and integrating nature into our  dwellings however  possible. We are not limited to plants and trees, but also have the option to promotnatural ventilation and daylight into our living spaces. Looking at a more long-term view, can we consider shallow residential floor plates, dualaspect units, or open units to promote cross-ventilation in our homes?  

VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre
Natural ventilation is assisted by a solar chimney, which converts the sun’s rays to convection energy.

6. Generosity is Required 

Last but not leastgenerosity is needed to enable resilienceWe need to equip buildings and spaces to respond to changes in a robust way. There is a need for generosity within both the public realm and built environmentfrom wider sidewalks, better entryways, and larger common areas within a building, to more generous private spaces such as decks and balconies. These are all strategic design decisions we can make to enhance livability and wellness while managing efficiency and cost. 

565 Great Northern Way
A generous roof deck provides a communal space that capitalizes on the spectacular view to downtown Vancouver and the North Shore mountains.

While these six perspectives are not all encompassing, they represent a growing body of knowledge and scholarship in this fielda critical intersection of architecture, medical sciences, sociology, environmental sciences, building science, product design, real estate development, and marketing. For the ideas and strategies that arise out of these lenses to be implementable and effect positive change, it is important to take a collaborative and inclusive approach.  

Designers and planners have a call-to-action to make sustainable and resilient choices that promote heath and wellbeing in both the design process and product. It is critical for communities to build their collective knowledge and stay engaged to steer the direction of developments in their cities. For cities and authorities to be stewards, it is important to initiate standards and requirements that support healthy, connected communities.  

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