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Edward McIntosh1

Redesigning cities after a global pandemic

Cityscape Intelligence speaks to Edward McIntosh, Regional Design Director, Atkins-MEA on what it means to re-design cities after a global pandemic

​​​​​​What has been the greater impact of the current pandemic on the field as a whole?

Across the field we are seeing architects use this time to revaluate their strategy and approach; for us specifically we are focussing on delivering current work to the highest level of excellence, prioritising gold standard service. We are concentrating on delivery and how we can double our efforts in post Covid-19 priorities such as interior design.

We have seen a lot of projects being delayed but not necessarily canceled, but overall the firms that seem to be facing the biggest challenge are the medium-sized firms. Small firms are showing how nibble and flexible they are in regard to tackling other projects, such as smaller interventions or designing marketing campaigns. Big practices have a much greater pipeline and much longer-term projects. But those firms in the middle are struggling to adapt to the current pandemic. 

What impact do you predict the current pandemic will have on how we work and design office space?

We cannot replace human interaction, however, the last few months have demonstrated how quickly we can adapt and how our industry is leveraging and embracing technology in order to keep projects moving forward.

We have seen rapid adaption from our teams as they have become succinct and concise through managing virtual meetings in order to be efficient and productive. We will never cut out face to face interaction completely, however even when things return to normal, I imagine we will see a considerable cut down in travel and greater acceptance of online business and decision making.

Remote changes and flexibility will be here to stay long-term. As such this will have a big impact on office buildings as they explore more innovative options to reduce space and functioning. This will have a knock-on effect as more people opt to work from home, residential designs will also change and become more dynamic, instead of being built and designed just for residential we will see hybrid designs as a part office, part house, part playroom.

Do you see any long-term changes on city design?

The pandemic has accelerated the production of many existing ideas we had previously developed, focussed around sustainable and flexible designs. We will see the adaption of cities where you can live your life in a 15-minute walking radius and consequently see a decrease in motor vehicle dependence.

We will see the rise of the homogenous distribution of heterogeneous uses. Currently, we see many cities have been designed for over specialisation with whole areas and districts populated exclusively for offices or residential. This design forces dependence on vehicles. But more than that, it has a dramatic impact on our quality of life when responding to a pandemic, as people were unable to fulfill their daily necessities.

Following this there will be a transformation in urban socio-spatial design. District designs will need to change in order to become much more efficient. There will be a demand for 15-minute walkable communities and cities. Where the design concept of essential cities that are completely self-reliant will become the norm. This design will not only create greater wellbeing in catering to all essential needs of the community, it will also serve to better protect populations for future pandemics. For example, if there are a lot of cases in one community, it would be far more feasible to shut that community down and for them to still live their lives.

For this to become a reality we will also need to rethink urban farming in city designs. With effective urban farming food production, supply chains and supermarkets would be able to stay efficient and be unaffected. There will be a strong push towards urban farming and personal health, people demanding access to fully organic, pesticide-free produce, less use of water, less traffic caused by transportation of produce which of course will lead to a great reduction in carbon footprint.

The idea of the homogenous distribution of heterogeneous uses had been explored even before the pandemic, with architects developing innovative district designs where people will have access to everything in one place, education, restaurants, offices, commercial offer.

Although we all love our cars, we can see from looking at the world’s most liveable cities such as; Vienna, Melbourne, San Francisco that they are all designed for walkability with great sidewalks that encourage the flow of people moving around the cities with ease.

Do have any advice for architects or firms struggling with the situation?

We as architects are all striving to make green buildings, reduce energy and reuse water. Nevertheless, one of the biggest contributors of pollution in our industry is actually the building of the structures themselves. The biggest offense we can commit as architects is to design a building that is not flexible. Architects need to design structures that can last 100 years or more and have the capacity to be reused in different ways.

Today we should look at the balance between the short-term benefits of strict typology-specific efficiency and long-term futureproofing through flexibility

Always keeping in mind that the greatest focus should be designing for wellbeing and creating flexible spaces where people are happy and healthy.  

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