• 08 May 2020

Adapting our Urban Environments to COVID-19

by Philip Jackson, Chair RIAI Urban Design Committee

The RIAI Urban Design Committee recently met via Zoom to celebrate our 10th anniversary. Some of the original Committee members reflected on the first meeting which took place on 24 April 2010. Looking at the minutes of that first meeting, it is interesting to see how the original aims and objectives have been achieved over the years, with various activities, colloquia, conferences, the numerous contributions to RIAI policies, reports and submissions that have informed many areas of Government Policy.

That initial meeting took place at a time of economic crisis and uncertainty, following a global financial and property crash, with sudden massive unemployment and short time working within the profession. However, it was also a time to look forward at opportunities to change and improve the quality of urban living. 

Adapting to COVID-19

We are all now faced with another even more difficult challenge – how we learn and adapt to living with COVID-19. While the priority is about health and well-being there are also social and economic challenges and opportunities.

Members of the RIAI Urban Design Committee have been talking about the impact of COVID-19 on how we live and how we could adapt. We first questioned whether the circumstances have implications for the principles in the RIAI Town and Village Toolkit. However, one of the impacts of the COVID-19 measures has been to allow people to reassess the qualities that we have, as well as the shortcomings that exist. The principles set out in the toolkit are consistent with the measures needed as part of the ‘road-map to recovery’. What is evident is the need to improve the quality of our urban environment for our health and wellbeing, rather than a return to our old, unsustainable way of life which is not good for us or for our planet.

With the movement restrictions, vehicular transport has plummeted. Many people are walking and cycling to get some exercise and relief from being in the one place and shopping locally. Many are enjoying the reduction in noise, listening to the birdsong, breathing the fresh air, and appreciating calmness.

However, not everyone is benefiting – many people have very limited access to these in their neighbourhoods leading to ‘crowds’ gathering. In some places, these has resulted in amenities – parks and beaches, being closed.

There is an urgent need to improve the quality and variety of places and spaces for people in many neighbourhoods in an equitable, balanced way. This requires reusing vacant sites and replanting open spaces as parks, and repurposing streets and other spaces to provide a connected variety of wide circular green ‘trails’ that provide people with the space that is needed. Much of our urban fabric already provides tree-lined streets, river-walks and parks, but these tend to be in localised areas and incidental, rather than as part of an integrated approach – in many parts of Dublin there is simply a lack of any attractive greenery within the immediate local area for people to easily visit.

Adapting the way we live and work

Many people are discovering both the benefits and disadvantages of working from home. Benefits include not having to commute – perhaps, as business reopens, many office-workers with long commutes may prefer to work from home and stay in their local communities.  Disadvantages involve conflicting demands of family and the desire to have a steady routine. Most of our housing is designed around providing a ‘home’ environment, separate to work. Some people can adapt a space – either temporarily at the kitchen table or convert a spare room or garage to work effectively.

Our current apartment design standards and cost models are so tight that they do not provide the flexibility and space needed for this. If not reviewed, this may continue to shift demand from modern apartment living to suburban housing which, for many people is easier, more affordable and may provide some flexibility for long-term living, Adaption of older properties in our towns and villages can be an attractive and more sustainable approach. Fundamental is to offer the quality of space so that people can enjoy living and working from home. This includes designing in the flexibility for activities to expand and contract.  For example, balconies and verandas can provide the social interaction from a distance that is essential for people’s well-being, overcoming the loneliness and isolation that many people have experienced from ‘cocooning’.

Adapting our Public Space

The way we use our public space in town and city centres needs to be revisited. More people queuing outside shops in busy streets and people walking on roads to maintain distance. Dublin City Council is implementing some limited footpath widening and cycle improvements in response to this and Cork city is looking at increasing pedestrian areas in the city centre. These are very welcome measures.

Over the coming weeks more people will be out and about as we try and return to ‘normality’. This will require limiting vehicular movement in town and city centres so that people and business have space to freely go about their normal activities. Instead there will be greater reliance on walking and cycling, with less space available for vehicles. Investment in the quality of public transport will be critical as more people will not be prepared to travel in large numbers in crowded trains. The alternative is that people will return to using private cars, which will prevent social distancing and lead to poor air quality, both of which will increase people’s vulnerability to viruses.

Restaurants, cafes, and even bars will need to be provided with external areas for people to spread out. Low-cost temporary measures can be tried out to see what works best.

Learning from other cities

Other European Cities such as Milan and Vilnius are already implementing plans restricting vehicles to give people the spaces and confidence to feel safe. This is essential to the economic recovery of businesses and well-being of people.

Many of the public realm changes can be tried out and reviewed – learning by doing, at low-cost and low-risk. Taking a ‘tactical urbanism approach’ can help us all.

Achieving all this, and more, are areas that we, the RIAI Urban Design Committee will continue to develop, and we welcome feedback, ideas and engagement. We cannot do this alone and will need to work with other professional organisations. A joined-up approach is required.

If you have ideas for a town or neighbourhood, the RIAI Town and Village Toolkit provides useful advice and pointers.  In developing the RIAI Town and Village Toolkit, we engaged with the Department of Health, who offered to fund pilot projects and studies through their ‘Healthy Ireland’ programme. There are also other funding sources available such as URDF and RRDF programmes which are referred to in the RIAI Town and Village Toolkit, and of course you can contact the RIAI as we continue to look at ways that the Institute can promote the work of Architects in this area.

About the RIAI Urban Design Committee

The first meeting of the RIAI Urban Design Committee took place on 24 April 2010. Over the years we have been discussing how we as a profession can contribute to:

  • changing our patterns of movement and transport,
  • addressing the problems brought about by low density and dispersal,
  • promoting the sustainability and liveability of our towns, villages, suburbs and cities,
  • caring for and re-using our urban heritage,
  • improving the quality and attractiveness of urban living including the public realm, the public/private interface and providing flexible places for people to adapt to meet their needs. 

These are explained with examples and further reading in the RIAI Town and Village Toolkit, which was launched in December 2019. They are also included in the RIAI submission for the new National Policy on Architecture being prepared by the Department of Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht. We have also been invited to give presentations to other Government Departments, including the Department of Health, and Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport on these, focusing on the role and ability that Architects can provide.