As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the planet, not only are governments, health care systems and economies undergoing a stress test on an unprecedented scale, but so are our cities. Pre-existing conditions are exacerbated, straining and foregrounding vulnerabilities and shortfalls in the way we do things. The definition of essential goods, essential services, essential work and essential measures is under contestation and debate, calling into question many of our fundamental assumptions about urban living.
Working from home, with our office in Amsterdam closed, UNStudio’s Futures team is taking this time to reflect on the impacts this extended crisis will have on urban life-as-a-we-know-it. We realise that, when it comes to spatial planning and design, now is the time to take stock. What essential services, systems, and infrastructures must we sustain? What must we adapt and what must we completely transform, so that our cities may better weather the shocks and uncertainties in the immediate months and years ahead?
In a series of articles and posts over the next six weeks, UNStudio Futures asks how we might weave the following six ‘essentials’ into the cities we inhabit, with a particular focus on building in resiliency at every scale.
Essential 1: Deep Adaptation
Adaptation concerns changes to our infrastructures, as much as it requires changes in our practices and processes of city making.
We find ourselves urgently altering our routines and habits within constricted material constraints. Similar multi-scalar coordination, innovation and collaboration is required to transform our city-making processes with a view to respecting planetary boundaries.
How might we change the metrics by which our cities are planned in order to change what we build?
Essential 2: Public Health Places
Health is cultivated in public places as much as it is administered in healthcare institutions.
The essential role public parks and shared outdoor spaces play in our wellbeing has now become more apparent than ever. Beyond the provision of green space, public and semi-public places too have the capacity to nurture our personal and collective wellbeing.
How might we programme networks of ‘third places’ to deliver preventative public health-in-place across multiple and diverse needs?
Essential 3: Meaningful Engagements
Physical proximity is no longer the sole measure of meaningful social engagement.
The recent necessity of principally connecting with our colleagues and loved ones digitally, has afforded us an unprecedented opportunity to experience, observe and identify the conditions that are essential for meaningful exchange. Freed from density for productivity’s sake, we can reprogramme existing infrastructures to host people and their activities as needed.
How might we design blends of physical and digital space to optimise our spatial flexibility?
Essential 4: Self-sufficient Communities
Over-dependence on centralised production and distribution leaves us vulnerable to shocks.
When our essential needs are left without sufficient backup, we are confronted with the limitations of the centralised systems we depend on. It is at times like this that we realise that the chains of automation and labour – those that are mobilised through digital and spatial interfaces - comprise an essential public infrastructure.
How might we plan for a diversity of decentralised systems of distribution and production - of certain goods, food and energy - at the city scale?
Essential 5: Infrastructures of Care
Housing is more than just houses – it is an environment to thrive in-place.
Housing is a both a noun and a verb; it is an essential framework that underpins the conditions that engender social infrastructures of care, community and neighbourly respect.
How might we design and finance housing to cultivate and maintain the mechanisms of support we need across a lifetime?
Essential 6: Modelling & Simulation
Effective adaptation is enabled by the modelling of empirical and spatial information.
Broad spectrum data collection that at all times respects the individual’s right to privacy and transparent, public analysis are essential to activate collective and coordinated change. City models composed of diverse, anonymous inputs and multiple perspectives can help us to identify what we need to adapt. Simulations help us design strategies for how this can be achieved.
How might we align different city models for coordinated decision-making across multiple resolutions and scales?