Urbanism & Mobility in the Post-COVID City

We have experienced more rapid change in urbanized settlements and the way we move through them over the past few years than any time in recent history.  Since 2020, our cities have been reconfigured, repurposed, and revitalized in ways we could only imagine before the pandemic.  This inflection point in urbanism and mobility, while uncertain, gives us much cause for hope.  The reason being, our cities in Europe and especially North America were trapped in an ideology for nearly a century that favored modernism and progress over humans and communities.  As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention” and as a result of the pandemic, it was necessary to rethink our cities for the immediate and long term future.

International Modernism and Cities

The 20th century was a period of drastic change and upheaval.  Two world wars and multiple civil wars and revolutions left their mark on urban settlements and the built environment.  But one concept that more than anything else changed the very fabric of our cities on both sides of the Atlantic was International Modernism.  This design philosophy was born from the ashes of the First World War, and conceptualized the idea of “man as machine”, which was in parallel with the overall modernist movement taking hold throughout Europe.  The modernist movement sought to streamline and compartmentalize uses of rooms, homes, buildings, neighborhoods, and entire cities into well functioning systems.  While ideal on paper, this sterile view of society and daily life quickly shows its design weaknesses.  One of the most prominent champions of the modernist movement, and one who influenced the Bauhaus design school in Germany was the Swiss-French architect Le Cobusier.  His plans for Paris in the Radial City, along with other schemes in India and abroad forged an entire generation of architects and planners who shared his mechanical view of cities.  While on an experimental level in European cities, Le Corbusier’s ideas came to full manifestation in North America.

20th Century Urban Paradigm

As initial concepts and ideas rooted in the Bauhaus began to take root, this new cohort of designers began to apply their principles to a range of activities.  The Nazi regime in 1933 cut short the activities of the Bauhaus, and forced many of its students to flee Germany.  One of these was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.  Mies, a German architect more than anyone else, truly embodied Le Cobusier’s typologies and conceptualizations of the modern city.  Upon relocating to the United States in the 1930s, Mies disproportionately influenced American urbanism and architecture through his modernist designs and plans.  These can be seen in his work at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York amongst countless other projects in the years to come.  Robert Moses, chief planner and administrator for over a dozen public works and transportation agencies in New York City and State was directly influenced by and espoused the principles of modernism in urban planning.  As well documented, the physical and social damage wrought by Moses’ auto-oriented and segregationist urban planning projects throughout the New York City region (such as the Cross-Bronx Expressway) speak for itself.  This is in terms of the top down method to implementing urban planning schemes that are dogmatically rooted in a singular design philosophy, modernism.

Car-Dependency and Urban Malaise

As the 20th century marched onwards, cities across North America and Europe began to rapidly apply the principles of modernism.  This is especially true in the post World War Two period.  Due to a combination of factors such as housing shortages, population boom, increased household wealth and a widespread adoption of modernism, North American cities were subsidized to build highways and suburbanized development to accommodate this converging trend.  However, while initially appealing to a broad swath of middle income households, this type of urban development was ultimately rooted in the time honored tradition of real estate land speculation, which has its roots in Thomas Jefferson’s 1783 rectilinear survey of the continent and allowing for rapid transactions.  The singular use and purpose of post World War Two communities and neighborhoods resulted in further racial and economic segregation, as well as over dependency on the automobile for the most basic trips and movement.  All this, compounded by the deindustrialization of American cities such as Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, which saw their populations reduced by over 50% in cases demonstrated that singular purpose urbanism was unsustainable and not built to last.  While there were several movements to prevent the further destruction of cities, such as the “Freeway Revolts” and the activism of Jane Jacobs, the damage had already been done.  On top of that, the North American car centric form of urbanism had a boomerang effect that eventually came back to Europe in cities ranging from Brussels to Rotterdam.

New Urbanism and Traditional Neighborhood Development

While several urban planning movements and organizations during the late 20th century and early 21st century such as the Congress for the New Urbanism in the US and The Prince’s Foundation in the UK sought to ameliorate the damage wrought by the modernist urban design philosophy, this was albeit on a modest and incremental scale.  Developments such as Poundbury in the UK and Seaside, Florida demonstrated how traditional urbanism and neighborhood development principles such as walkability, multiple uses, increased densities, connected street networks, and multi modality could help to swift away from a century of unsustainable urban development patterns.  However, it was still simply too profitable to not continue the horizontal, leapfrog type suburban development that most industry professionals including architects, engineers, planners, surveyors, developers and contractors were vested in.

Urbanism & Mobility in the Post-COVID City

By 2020, several of these traditional urban design interventions were well known to most planners and architects.  However, the 20th century paradigm was still dominant.  The COVID pandemic however was a turning point in how we view the use, form and function of cities and urbanized developments.  The initial waves of lockdowns forced us to rethink how we live, work and move about the city.  During the emergency period and public health mandates including social distancing, planners used the opportunity to promote active mobility and shared modes including cycling, e-scooters and others.  This alongside experimental projects such as pop up bike lanes, pedestrian paths, open streets, al fresco curbside dining, and shared mobility hubs quickly reconfigured our public spaces and built environment.  In addition, work from home schemes and the widespread adoption of digital connectivity facilitated remote work and totally impacted urban commuting patterns and public transit ridership.  After the initial shock and subsequent waves, a new way of thinking began to quickly take hold.  This, along with public policies and investments in shared and active modes and a decarbonization of the transport sector collectively pointed towards a brighter future, and one decoupled from the 20th century modernist, car centric urban paradigm.

Conclusion

While it is now 2024, and we are only a few years away from the start of the pandemic, a new form of urbanism has become normalized.  That is one geared towards localized, human centric communities that seek to combine activities and uses into more quality experiences.  Live work environment takes on new meaning in the Post COVID City, and it is hoped that we will not revert to our car centric ways in the months and years ahead.  Much is still needed to be done to help promote and develop in this manner, such as the 15 Minute City and new initiatives to help people take back control of public spaces from the automobile through tactical urbanism and DIY projects.  However, this unprecedented era we live in is cause for celebration of our cities, and the potential they bring to a better quality of life for all groups and communities.

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