Different cities, but similar ideas. COVID-19 has changed the priorities of the residents of major European cities such as Berlin, London, Madrid, Milan and Paris. This has emerged from the latest City Living Barometer carried out by Arup, a company specialising in design and consulting, which underlines the need for cities to have a rethink once the health emergency is over.
"We have an opportunity to learn from the pandemic and to become more resilient," emphasised Malcolm Smith, Global Masterplanning and Urban Design Leader at Arup. Three priorities have emerged from the survey, which has also been highlighted by Stefano Recalcati, Associate Director of Arup Italy: "Rethinking the ground-floor areas in buildings with a view to having more spaces where services can be set up for the local community; introducing in new buildings communal areas where forms of co-working can be promoted in the neighbourhood and play and recreational areas can be created. And lastly, encouraging organised forms of neighbourhood communities in new urban developments, with dedicated areas, which might help to create a greater sense of identity."
The pandemic has brought us closer to the vision of the 15-minute city as for many it has cut out the commute. It has shone a light on the importance of developing cities in smaller modules, with essential services concentrated around community hubs.
The 5,000 respondents to the survey have expressed some particular preferences and have emphasised, in general, a significant improvement in their quality of life during the pandemic. For example, Londoners have enjoyed having less traffic (37%) and the reduction in air pollution (30%), and also spending more time with their children (25%). In addition, the survey also showed that more than half (52%) of Londoners used local shops during lockdowns and that as many as three quarters (77%) expect to continue shopping locally after the pandemic.
According to the respondents, the best quality of life is experienced in cities which have greenery or services just a 15-minute walk or bike ride away. "The pandemic has brought us closer to the vision of the 15-minute city as for many it has cut out the commute. It has shone a light on the importance of developing cities in smaller modules, with essential services concentrated around community hubs. I hope COVID-19 will lead to lots of smaller scale but widespread interventions – bringing green spaces to grey places, the prioritisation of cycling and walking and the revaluing of local amenities," highlighted Malcolm Smith.
According to the survey, respondents in London estimated a distance between them and green spaces and services of around 23 minutes, followed by Berlin (16), Paris (15.5), Milan and Madrid (13.1). This fact also clearly explains why the British capital comes out top in the specific ranking on who thought of changing cities during the pandemic – 59% of respondents actually thought about it – and on who actually moved during the pandemic – 41% of Londoners compared to 20% of Parisians, 13% of Berliners and 12% of residents in Milan and Madrid. Excessive distance from the workplace is also why 80% of London respondents are in favour of remote working, followed by 50% in Madrid, 49% in Milan and 46% and 40% in Paris and Berlin, respectively.
Excessive distance from the workplace is also why 80% of London respondents are in favour of remote working, followed by 50% in Madrid, 49% in Milan and 46% and 40% in Paris and Berlin respectively.
The pandemic has also highlighted anxieties and fears of city-dwellers. According to the City Living Barometer, three quarters of respondents (74%) are now more concerned about future pandemics, more than half (55%) are concerned about climate change, while 54% fear overcrowding in the major cities. A general sense of pessimism for the future is felt by all respondents. According to 46%, it will take until the end of next year or even longer for things to return to normal, while 7% do not expect to see things ever go back to where they were before the pandemic.
For this reason, cities must seriously start thinking about their future. The priorities indicated by Arup's City Living Barometer definitely include the focus on walkability in the major cities. This is an important step, because making the streets pedestrian-friendly would mean making the environment and people themselves happier, as they would be forced to walk about and build ties with their neighbourhood and their neighbours.
Another key step involves rewilding the cities. Many cities have green areas that are difficult to access and often squeezed out by concrete. One possible solution is modular parklets like those created, for instance, in Liverpool, combining planters and street furniture, thereby giving residents the opportunity to live in a more relaxed environment. Another issue to be resolved concerns how to use public spaces. According to Arup, it is important to reserve public spaces as play areas, in an attempt to build a child-friendly city which will provide a more relaxed environment for young and old, and to imagine multifunctional spaces capable of reusing existing structures provisionally or adapting any which have been long abandoned.
Finally, Arup recommends using technology to a greater extent to imagine the future of cities. One possible scenario involves creating digital twins, virtual copies of major cities, which could be useful in terms of testing the impact of certain environmental choices, evaluating the risks and opportunities they entail for residents.