Reinventing city space during and after the coronavirus pandemic

Due to several changes in our daily routine caused by the coronavirus pandemic, our cities’ public and private spaces have been put to the test, bringing to light previously unknown problems and creating innovative ideas that could change our daily lives.

It is inevitable that after this global pandemic life is not going to be the same as it once was. Our cities, big or small, are facing diverse obstacles like density and proximity that can make it difficult to control the coronavirus. They have to reinvent their public and private spaces to create an urban environment where the risk of the coronavirus can be minimised.  As we can see in the city of Utrecht, in the Netherlands, some measures have been taken to keep the recommended distance between citizens, placing an amusing roundabout in the middle of the street.

city utrecht pandemic

© Irati Cledú


Over the course of the years, several pandemics have hit the urban areas, creating original innovations that improved the living conditions of the inhabitants. For instance, the tuberculosis pandemic hit the cities from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. It was a disease associated with the fast growth of industrialization and a poorly maintained urban working class who lived in insalubrious, overcrowded conditions. As a result of different investigations that connected architectural design with physical recovery, new buildings and spaces where created which improved the lifestyle of the citizens by emphasizing purity, hygiene, fresh air and sunlight.

In the photo below, the connection between architectural ideas and health and hygiene can be seen. It is an image of Le Corbusier’s, a Swiss-French architect, immeubles-villa. It was used for the Pessac social housing estate near Bordeaux and used flat roofs and terraces to provide the residents with a better lifestyle connected to purity, hygiene, fresh air and sunlight.

city 20th century pandemic

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New changes, new lives, and, in this case, better lives for the citizens by building healthier cities. However, the coronavirus pandemic kept most of the world under its heel due to the rapid growth of infections and fatalities. Consequently, actions like quarantine at home must have been accomplished. This period of time has been extremely tough and complicated for many cosmopolitans, who are not used to spending long periods of time at home and live in relatively small houses in close proximity to each other.

On March 26, 2020 Lucia Ruiz de Aguirre, a Spanish architect turned fabric designer, decided to write a simple housing questionnaire which she shared with her 26,000 Instagram followers. She wanted to have a vision of what was happening during the confinement inside the homes in Spain, and the results were highly interesting. More than 2,000 people answered the survey and as Lucía Ruiz de Aguirre explains: “The mistakes that people are suffering now are the past mistakes that were not noticeable by the people who live inside the houses, because they were not using the house as a dwelling but as a bedroom.”

The biggest problems found during this period were two: the noise coming from inside the building such as when the neighbour flushes the toilet or children playing, as well as the housing configuration, where some residents felt the lack of space in children’s bedrooms for them to play. Moreover, the need for terraces and balconies has been one of the main topics of this quarantine as far as she is concerned. “The thing about the terrace is something that has been idealized as the only place on earth where you can go out for a breath without breaking any law. But the terraces are an extremely dirty place that take the dirt from the entire street and the need enormous maintenance to be good, and since we are not at home they are not maintained and are not used.”

Notably, the coronavirus pandemic has brought to light some of the deficiencies of the Spanish houses that also affect cities by creating an inadequate living situation in times of corona. To understand where these problems come from, we should go back to the past. Irene Roca, an architect living in Paris, has been working on a thesis which aims to showcase interiors that represent the societies that inhabit them and that evolves with them. As she explains, “the problems we are facing now come historically from the mid-twentieth century when there was a boom in the production of domestic spaces. They started to design the houses with the minimum resources and selling us how we had to live those spaces without leaving room for experimentation.”

city pandemic small house

© Irati Cledú


Consequently, the places that we live in are less focus on each person’s necessities and more into making money and supporting technology. As Irene Roca explains, architecture’s main function is to build the environments we inhabit creating a connection between society and space and questioning it.

Cities are communities of citizens, without people there is no city. Rules have been made to organize this space and create harmony between its inhabitants. However, during the last centuries, the social factor has been slowly displaced when making choices regarding public and private spaces. Most of the people have not been encouraged to understand the use of the space where they live, not even to think that they can take part on its public live developing new ideas and activities. According to Irene Roca now is the moment to change this.

“Now that urban planning or public space regulations are going to be relaxed for a few months because of the coronavirus, we must be active, and experiment with the space and while doing it prove to the people in charge that these new projects can work,” Roca said.

city utrecht pandemic change

© Irati Cledú


Santiago Cirugeda, a social architect from Seville, Spain, made from these ideas his way of life. He created the studio Recetas Urbanas in 2003 and he focuses on taking advantage of legal loopholes for the benefit of the community. He regularly occupies public spaces with containers, he constructs prosthesis on facades, patios, roofs and even on plots of land with the agreement of local residents.

Cirugeda tries to recall with his work the immense control to which we are subjected that separates architecture from people, and with his constructions he tries to improve urban fragments and resolve housing issues. The image below is one of his projects called HoW: House of Words (2015). It is an architectural, process-based artwork by him and artist Loulou Cherinet, and a collaborative project between Public Art Agency Sweden and GIBCA. Santiago Cirugeda’s part as it can be seen in the photo is a pavilion that was built trough a collective process with a diverse range of participants. Its main focus was to build a connection between Gothenburg’s inner city and its outer suburbs, and connect Sweden with the rest of the world.

santiago cirugeda recetas urbanas

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The pandemic has not only showed the weaknesses of the spaces that we live in, but it also has given the chance to create and explore new ideas and projects.

Bill Fulton, an American author, urban planner, politician and the head of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston, Texas since 2014, took this opportunity to describe the changes and new projects that are going to be developed during this period in his article How the COVID-19 pandemic will change our cities.

As he explains there are two main adversities that urban designers are going to deal with in the near future of our cities: the first one is to know how to create more separation in the dense cities, allowing proximity while at the same time creating separation both in private and public spaces. The second one is how to build things more flexible that can adapt very quickly from a close situation to a separated situation if another pandemic comes.

In addition, during quarantine the type of interaction with the objects and spaces around the citizens has changed. As Bill Fulton explains this pandemic has showed to some people that they can work at home, but for some others has been nearly impossible. “Home situations are very different, some people have plenty of room at home, other people have small children so working at home if the kids are at there is very difficult. Many people live on overcrowded conditions and it’s very difficult for them to work at home, even if they are office workers and theoretically could.”

So, different options would be developed where they can work near their homes, for example local co-working spaces near the residential neighbourhoods. Different spaces could be modified to create these kinds of places like retail stores, different locations from the shopping malls, now relatively unused to the crisis created by the pandemic. Moreover, people could also work in cafes. The proximity of the working environment and home will generate people to socialize revolving around the neighbourhoods, which in turn will result in more eating places and bars, developing the places social environment.

On the other hand, the number of retail stores will reduce. The rise of online will impact the small locally own stores that probably will go out of business and delivery-oriented retailers will increase. The space that the retail stores leave could be shifted to co-working spaces. However, as he says, it’s probably going to be taken by restaurants and bars not only because of the need for space to respect social distancing, but also because people will appreciate them more after been in lockdown.

restaurant pandemic change city

Some restaurant owners discussing the distance of the tables © Irati Cledú


And last but not least, according to Fulton there is going to be a more flexible public transit.

“We think that our only two options are to drive our own car, which we own,  or to ride on a bus with forty other people in close proximity,” he said.

However, he also explained that with the arrival of Uber and other ride hiring and car sharing services has begun at least in urban areas to break down the car ownership. These services may be more comfortable for people that do not own a car and who won’t ride a bus as they only share the car with four people. This third option is maybe going to blur the lines between the public and private transit and create many options in the cities.

On the whole, the coronavirus pandemic showed that our cities are living systems that change when the moment asks for it, when problems jeopardize the space that we have created, but in order to improve our actual situation and reorganise our space we should not only act but also wait, as great things always take time.