MySay: How the pandemic affects the design of our built environment

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 18, 2021 - January 24, 2021.
MySay: How the pandemic affects the design of our built environment
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Rapid urbanisation is resulting in a growing number of slum dwellers, inadequate and overburdened infrastructure and services, and worsening air pollution. The Covid-19 pandemic will hit hardest the more than one billion slum dwellers worldwide, who suffer from a lack of adequate housing, no running water at home, shared toilets, little or no waste management systems, overcrowded public transport and limited access to formal healthcare facilities. 

Urgent plans are needed to prepare for and respond to outbreaks in informal settlements and slums. The crisis has triggered companies to rethink their business model with a refreshed sense of perspective, by evaluating positive and negative impacts of the crisis throughout the business value chain. 

Governments and industries will have to take a serious look at how their current governing structure, strategies, investments, operational activities (including products and services) and the needs of various stakeholders are aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Among the most dramatic demographic trends of recent decades is humanity’s emergence as an urban species. Today, the United Nations estimates that 55% of us inhabit cities, a figure that could rise to 67% by mid-century. 

That trend could easily stall if urban settings become, as they were historically, hotbeds of infectious disease. Covid-19, which has targeted crowded cities such as Milan and New York, poses a direct challenge to SDG11, which calls on all nations to make “cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

The Covid-19 pandemic has already significantly altered urban life. The number of people moving around has dropped to unprecedentedly low levels. Work from home is the new normal — for those who can afford it, and for whom it is even a feasible option to begin with. 

The fate of millions of small businesses and workers that make urban centres work is up in the air. These changes have sparked a debate about how cities should be built and, perhaps more importantly, how they can better respond to current and future crises.

In this context, the pandemic increased the requirement for policymakers, planners and architects to think more out of the box, trying to reshape our physical spaces, and reset the existing build environment or develop more ideas to face future virus attacks. These changes give us a glimpse of how our cities could change for the better, and the worse, in the long term. 

However, it is too early to judge how responses to Covid-19 will affect design and urbanism theories. These results call for urgent efforts to further explore our built environment and not wait for another pandemic to serve as a reminder. This approach must be parallel to other sustainable approaches embracing, not impinging on, natural resources and not harming our environment. If we can manage that, our present built environment will continue to serve us well. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused serious consequences that can be an opportunity to review individual and collective choices and priorities. Most of our built environment today shows evidence of how humans have responded to infectious diseases by redesigning our physical spaces. 

Thus, social distancing could change the design and planning process specifically with the increased acceptance of distance learning, online shopping and the cultural connection of online entertainment. The use of media for information sharing, and webinars for sharing knowledge and expertise have seen widespread adoption during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Although new technologies can create additional difficulties, opportunities have emerged to apply innovative solutions to more smart and virtual world applications in the built environment. Many measures adopted during the emergency will become part of daily life, changing habits and behaviours, and they may be a positive or negative intervention in architecture and urban planning approaches.

Although social distancing and quarantine measures are extensively adopted as the first preventive measure, other factors increase the risk of contracting the virus:

Population density: In our current health crisis, certain densely populated cities have proved to be particularly vulnerable to the risk of infection;

Household size: A big household or large or extended family will have a higher chance of bringing the virus home. This will need special consideration in design solutions to prevent infection;

Social distancing level: Working from home might reduce social contact but is available only to some people focused on jobs linked to a higher socioeconomic status. Moreover, stay-at-home regulations would be more than a challenge for those who live in smaller and crowded houses or without outside spaces;

Shared facilities: Shared housing includes a broad range of settings with special considerations. People living and working in this type of building might have challenges with social distancing to prevent the spread of Covid-19; and

Housing characteristics: With a stay-at-home attitude essential to the Covid-19 response, housing characteristics take on added importance in people’s lives. Extended time indoors could raise various challenges in the design of post-pandemic housing. Because we are forced to stay and work from home, post-pandemic house and office spaces will witness a great transformation because we will be more aware of the functionality of our homes and workspaces in an interestingly new approach. 

Hopefully, when the Covid-19 pandemic ends, most healthy architecture and urban design approaches could be applicable to the pandemics to come. We could imagine all housing buildings as self-sufficient, independent and healthy neighbourhoods and making smart use of the available technologies. It is crucial to make urban areas more resilient to emergency response, to face epidemics and other possible future emergencies of every kind. 

Epidemics have transformed our built environment because of the fear of infection. Consequently, built-environments after the Covid-19 pandemic will never be the same. Although the current global pandemic poses a challenge at all levels in the built environment, it will take time to develop enabled paradigms to reduce the potential risks or stop the virus from spreading.

The diagram on Page 41 shows the proposed vision about how nature and advanced technology approaches help in visualising antivirus-built environments to stop the virus from spreading.

In her talk “Achieving the SDGs through the Covid-19 Response and Recovery”, presented at the Malaysia Urban Forum (MUF2020) organised by Urbanice Malaysia last September, Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood, special adviser on public health to the prime minister of Malaysia, clearly stated that the pandemic has exemplified the intimate correlation of health with the built environment. 

She said other critical challenges, including the health impact of climate change, also require people to rethink health systems in the 21st century and embrace the current approaches to planetary health. Managing the pandemic effectively requires humility to learn constantly from other countries’ successes and mistakes as well as our own, and to continually improve. All of us have a role to play in managing and adapting to life in the age of Covid-19. 

Dr Azmizam Abdul Rashid is the deputy CEO of Urbanice Malaysia, a centre of excellence for sustainable cities and community well-being

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