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‘We are at a crossroad between two parallel urban futures'

Article-‘We are at a crossroad between two parallel urban futures'

Paolo Testolini
Speaking to Cityscape Intelligence, Paolo Testolini, Principal at Woods Baggot, cautions that the post-COVID-19 era represents a time of greater promise or potential peril. For the architect, the world finds itself at the crossroads between two parallel urban futures; a future that is bland and antiseptic, or a future that is populated and vibrant

How has your Woods Bagot been impacted by the current climate?

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down and we are beginning to comprehend the profound impact that this crisis represents. We have noticed a slowdown in the market; however, China and Southeast Asia are beginning to bounce back. Woods Bagot is a 150-year-old practice, which has survived previous downturns and is well placed to the challenges of remote working, we have moved from a studio culture to a lockdown culture almost seamlessly.


As a global company, we are used to operating globally and remotely dealing with 16 studios across all regions. We are not worried about delivery; the DNA of Woods Bagot ironically is built for this.


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

Every crisis represents opportunities and we are focusing on exploring new ways to collaborate. Our global team of sector leaders have been looking at possible future scenarios, solutions, creative ideas on how we can positively influence, react, and adapt to future design of places and spaces. With the current pandemic there has been a switch in mindset to better understand the past and how cities have changed and evolved over time.


What do you view as being the long-term impact on cities, particularly those with high density?

COVID-19 has steered back the debate of high-density living and that perhaps it is time to reverse the agenda to utopian suburbia. Cities are not perfect; however high-density living has bought a lot of positive aspects to communities, a city that is compact is cheaper to manage, stimulates innovation, creates jobs and entrepreneurship.


Although the contrast between the number of COVID- 19 cases in less dense areas compared to crowded cities like London or New York is unsettling. It is oversimplistic to credit these statistics purely to density.


In fact, data reveals the real issues lie within challenges global cities have faced for decades such as; inequality, globalisation, supply chains, food management, transport strategies and the overall impact that society has on natural ecosystems. All these issues are currently structured to be the perfect breathing ground for future pandemics.


What do you see as being the right approach for designers during this time?

COVID-19 has shaken the foundations of modern society, but it represents a unique opportunity to reset cities without leaving people behind, this is the time to accelerate circular economies, eliminating the concept of waste, move away from transport ownership and enhance transport accessibility.


We as designers have the opportunity to elevate cities and communities beyond anything that has existed previously. It is a chance to grow through adversity and design and reshape cities that focus on people. This is the time to bring people back to the streets without cars. By focusing on the streets and open space that we might find the answers we have been looking for. Creating cities where everything is within walking distance and reconsidering mass public transport. If we get walkability right the rest will follow; land use, security, traffic and wellbeing.


What is the potential long-term negative impact on cities and communities if designers take the wrong approach?

Cities will continue changing with patterns of development that can be irregular and difficult to predict. If designers and policymakers get it wrong, the effects could suppress economic, health benefits and sustainable urban environments.


Obsessing over designs that put social distancing and mandating cleaning is not the answer. We have always lived with viruses and although the new pandemic and its impact on the future of cities seems unprecedented, the reality is that diseases have been shaping the built environment for centuries. If we react too quickly, we are in danger of undoing the progress we have achieved in the urban fabric of modern cities. Post-COVID-19 era represents a time of greater promise or potential peril. We are living at a crossroad between two parallel urban futures; a future that is bland and antiseptic, or a future that is populated and vibrant.


If we step back and take a human centric approach, it allows us to consider the best elements of a city for an individual in order to enhance wellbeing, human connection and happiness. If you put individuals at the centre to the whole design you get workability right, traffic, land use, pollution. You will create compact environment that have all the amenities required to function, work and play.


Can you predict the area where we might see a radical transformation coming out of this?

Milan recently announced an ambitious scheme in response to the coronavirus crisis, reallocating more than 35km of street space from cars to cycling and walking. Under the nationwide lockdown, motor traffic congestion has dropped by 30-75%, and air pollution with it. I predict that local governments will embrace this citywide expansion and shift investment from road networks and carparks to open spaces and pedestrianisation of streets.


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

The key for cities to win the battle against current and future pandemics is by drawing nature closer to people, bringing rural values into the urban fabric in order to boost immune systems. Designers need to look back to natural ecosystems and learn from nature. Architectural practices have the unique opportunity to accelerate the sustainable agenda. A human-centric approach must be the centre of the urban discussion.


This pandemic could be a blessing to accelerate solutions to challenges that have existed all along. If we as individuals and designers become positive agents of change and work together as a collaborative society where psychologist, designers, biologists, policymakers all work together, we have the chance to create places that take cities and the human spirit to the highest levels.

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