Balconies, bicycles and belonging: the future of communities after Covid-19

Urban planning experts from Abu Dhabi to Houston weigh in on the legacy of the pandemic

Quiet Meydan street, seen from Meydan bridge.
(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

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In the last month or so, we have become intimately acquainted with our homes. But as we step out into the light, amid a recovery from the global pandemic, what will our communities look like? Although our structures remain sound, following global existential threat, isolation and economic shock waves, a chance will still come to rebuild.

Previous encounters with mass illness - from the Plague of Athens in ancient Greece to the Spanish Flu that swept the planet coming out of the Great War - show us that these crises always bring societal shifts. Past pandemics and epidemics have led to a rebalancing of social strata, the establishment of public health, cleaner affordable housing and buildings cleared to make way for public parks, among other changes.

So what will be the legacy of Covid-19? Urban planners say now is not the time to ask what we think will happen, but instead to ask for what we want.

A flexible mindset  

Bigger balconies, flexible streets with more room for walking and biking, improved community organising, shops converted to multifamily apartments - these are some changes that, experts say, may take shape around the world in the years ahead.

“The tricky bit right now is thinking about urban resilience with regard only to pandemics, because then we’ll get the answer wrong,” Huda Shaka, an associate director of Middle East planning at UK design firm Arup and a board member of the Emirates Green Building Council, says.

It is highly unlikely the next shock to a community will be another pandemic, she adds. “It could be economic, climate, it could be 100 other things.”

By no means is this a death knell for the world’s cities. While in the short term, experts say there may be a small exodus or a slight uptick in preference for single-family housing, the drive towards urbanisation will continue apace. The UN forecasts that 2.5 billion people will pour into megacities in Asia and Africa between now and 2050.

For these economic power centres to thrive amid rising uncertainty, they must be flexible. “We always need to build in flexibility to communities, governments and healthcare systems,” Shaka says. “We need to be prepared, full stop. Not prepared for X or Y, but prepared to be flexible and to bounce back from anything."

Coronavirus timelapse: emissions drop over Italy

Coronavirus timelapse: emissions drop over Italy

Community networks 

She has observed that in her home country of Jordan, the community networks have not been strong enough to address a humanitarian crisis of getting adequate food and water to the most vulnerable. Deploying the military is not the right resource to connect locals with food and water, as happened in Jordan, she says. Instead, the government should have been able to tap “fully connected, fully functioning” local community networks that know “where the vulnerabilities are, how to get to them, what they are likely to need and how to reach out” to people.

Better networks, what Shaka calls “soft infrastructure”, may be a legacy of this pandemic.

Social distancing “is a very rigid measure in a time of crisis”, Shaka says, that she “hopes does not become the new normal” in the UAE or globally. “What I hope does remain is thinking around how do we allow our streets to be more flexible for more walking space? And building with a sensibility for need.”

Jens Aerts, an urban planner from New York who works with Unicef and the Bureau for Urbanism (Buur) in Brussels, agrees. He has been thinking a lot about the concept of "urban health", whether that means confronting pandemics or adapting to a rising tide of digital tools that can make cities more energy-efficient.

“Because we cannot return to the former normal,” he says. Instead, he is looking out for more “human-centred” urban planning in the future.

Aerts has concluded that public transport in urban centres cannot be retrofitted to the necessary physical distancing rules set out by the World Health Organization, stipulating 1.5 metres distance between individuals during the Covid-19 pandemic.

He is recommending maps be redrawn to increase cycling and walking in cities and offer a complete picture of an entire area.

Aerts is also wondering if people will want "more and larger balconies, more collective spaces” after our experience with physical distancing.


Bill Fulton, director of Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research, and a former mayor of Ventura, California, tells The National Covid-19 will accelerate trends we were already seeing in the way we work and how we get there. But he warns it may also expand socioeconomic divides.

“If you’re a knowledge worker, then you can work from home or from a co-working space in a high-amenity neighbourhood that you can afford,” Fulton says.

Uptake in remote work and flexible office spaces will be on the rise after Covid-19, spurred by our experiences of keeping productive from home. Co-working spaces, once the remit of millennial urban dwellers in high-rent districts, will shift to become less central and more suburban, catering to older people with children, Fulton adds.

“But workers who cannot do their job remotely - grocery workers, hospital workers, bus drivers, the guy who comes by and installs your internet - all those people have to go somewhere and generally speaking they are not as well paid.”

This may create a nasty split: urban-suburban neighbourhoods for the more affluent, with plenty of choice for restaurants, boutique gyms and salons that knowledge workers occupy, and “lower amenity neighbourhoods where people who have to go to work” live.

“We saw that pattern before and it is entirely possible that trend is accelerated.”

A trend driving urbanisation is the very human preference of seeking convenient social interactions.

“Urban street life in the future will look something like this: More multifamily housing on old retail sites, more bars and restaurants, more coffee shops, more ground-floor personal care businesses (hair and nail salons, gyms, yoga studios) — and much more carefully managed kerbside parking, to accommodate the vast increase in delivery trucks,” he recently wrote.

Decentralisation of government

For some, this future feels distant - if not outright wrong.

“We are still firefighting,” says Reuben Abraham, chief executive at IDFC Institute, a city-planning think tank in Mumbai that has been providing expertise to the Indian government for the last month to address the Covid-19 crisis.

If New York were able to manage its own response, it would have been much faster and more competent.

The country is home to the world’s biggest national Covid-19 containment effort, with 1.3 billion people on lockdown. “I hope to god the legacy of this is decentralisation of government. Cities, especially megacities, are bigger than countries. To suggest that the needs of Mumbai can somehow be mandated out of Delhi, or the needs of New York can be mandated out of Washington is just crazy,” Abraham says. “If New York were able to manage its own response, it would have been much faster and more competent.

“Whether [Covid-19] changes the way we commute, the way we work, we do not yet know. But what we can very clearly see is proximal government is very helpful in an environment like this.”

Taken together, what then, does this future existence look like? This independently run metropolis, that blends the best of city proximity with the sylvan and tight-knit community of a suburb; where public parks and beaches are adjacent to affordable homes and accessible through a bike-sharing app; and e-commerce and remote work uptake is on the rise?

Honestly, it sounds a bit like parts of Abu Dhabi or Dubai. But the transient nature of the UAE's population - where roughly 80 per cent are immigrants - means "a feeling of belonging" can sometimes be lacking, Shaka says. That has an impact on critical, informal social networks that allow communities to thrive, especially in times of crises.

The collective response to Covid-19 may change this. The vast majority of my own fellow countrymen elected to stay in the UAE through the pandemic, the US ambassador to the UAE said last week.

Nationwide initiatives for volunteering and community services, and the "red line" of guaranteeing food and healthcare to every resident amid the pandemic will help promote a feeling of belonging, Shaka says. That may persist well past the current crisis.

“It’s very easy to get sucked into what physical changes may take place," she says. Something more fundamental and essential may happen here in the UAE.