Will adapting to COVID-19 change urban life forever?

Will adapting to COVID-19 change urban life forever?
Will adapting to COVID-19 change urban life forever?
Unemployment rates have skyrocketed due to lockdowns and inequalities – between low and high wage earners, young and old workers, and among ethnic minorities – without the functioning of our cities being able to reform, researchers warn.

According to a global review from Johns Hopkins University, politicians are forecasting a long road to recovery as more than 44 million people are infected and the death toll exceeds 1.1 million.

Home or work?

Governments have tried to accommodate an estimated 1.8 billion people who are homeless or in inadequate housing and who are uniquely at risk of contagion.

“The pandemic has shown more than ever how closely housing is linked to health and life,” said Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) in Delhi.

Eviction bans, rental freezes and mortgage vacations should protect renters and homeowners in some cities, but countries like Kenya, India and Brazil continued to evacuate, Chaudhry said.

Officials searched cities for vacant spaces or disused buildings to turn them into shelters and houses.

Mumbai has repurposed places of worship and turned a fancy racetrack into an infirmary, while the rental company Airbnb connected medical professionals in France and Italy with free apartments.

The outbreak sparked a boom in survival retreats, or “bugout” properties – secluded concrete bunkers that are supplied with food for months.

Closer to home, architects are rethinking urban infrastructure to encourage more local life.

In Rotterdam, the architect Harm Timmermans designed a 16-square-meter grid for a marketplace that can be quickly put together in public spaces for local shopping at a safe distance.

From Singapore to Estonia, the company uses technology to help people work and travel. This includes apps, scanners, check-in systems and so-called immunity passes.

For many, home is the new workplace.

Almost four in five senior executives expect the pandemic to consolidate remote working, according to PwC.

This has prompted architects to reconfigure Bijou apartments for a new double life with sliding walls and secret desks.

“If people can work from home much more regularly now, they need to be able to have real workspace and structure at home,” said Greg Vermian of HKS architecture firm in Los Angeles.

Working remotely, however, has raised privacy concerns, particularly when it comes to tracking tools to increase productivity, from keystrokes to web activity.

Andrew Pakes from the UK trade union Prospect sees “growing interest in new technologies and so-called people analytics to control and monitor workers at home”.

Employees need to prepare for “a new data-driven world where conversations about data and privacy are as important as traditional concerns about pay and terms,” ​​said Pakes.

The great outdoors

As the lockdowns eased, overlooked street furniture – the dingy sidewalks, parking lots, and pothole streets – suddenly became urban gems.

“One impact of COVID is that city dwellers need more outdoor space – to commute, eat, socialize, and play sports,” said Michael Berkowitz, founding director of Resilient Cities Catalyst, a nonprofit consulting firm.

“In response, we saw a wave of open roads that are closed to cars or significantly restricting them,” he said.

The Portuguese city of Braga has opened squares, sidewalks, parks, and more to restaurants and businesses looking to serve customers with social distancing.

Aside from the economic revival, cities also see a health benefit in making the most of the green spaces, as residents flood the parks for exercise and space, society and wellbeing.

In June, Bangkok opened a new park built on an elevated railway line that had not been used for decades. He hopes to be able to serve as a model for the greening of abandoned rooms.

Park life amid a pandemic has also revealed hidden inequality in access, with the poorest often being excluded from public spaces.

“In Mexico City, the richest neighborhoods have 35 times better access to public space within 20 minutes than the poorest,” said Dasgupta of WRI.

On road

The urban transport networks were destroyed after millions of commuters and tourists were lost.

“Transit systems are in a very precarious situation in which the number of drivers is falling,” said Dasgupta. “And cities cannot survive in the long term without public transport.”

To lure drivers back, Delhi and Seoul introduced mobile apps, temperature checking kiosks and smart bus stops to make public transportation safer as offices and businesses reopen.

Crowd management is key, with a Transport for London app that shows which stations are crowded, when to move away and what alternatives are available for cycling or walking.

Greener Living also won a COVID-19 boost.

Dozens of cities installed charging points for electric cars or gave cyclists parking spaces in the hopes of saving money and building resilience by fighting the climate and viruses.

“Globally, more people are walking and cycling from Kampala to New York,” said Dasgupta. “In Philadelphia, cycling increased by more than 150[per cent] during the pandemic. ”

After months of getting used to it, the city dwellers have to learn again how to socialize. A German café distributed inflatable hats made from pool noodles to increase the distance. Bangkok offered individual customers toy pandas as companions at dinner.

US retail giant Walmart converted 160 of its parking spaces into summer drive-ins.

Most contacts went virtual, from online quizzes to work drinks to dating via video conferencing platforms, while museums, theaters and concert halls put collections online.

But many venues could not recover without a live audience, experts say, leading the UK to pledge its largest $ 2 billion investment to date in culture.

“I want all of our cultural institutions to go back to normal,” said Oliver Dowden, Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Whatever the next version of normal, many changes remain, said Berkowitz of Resilient Cities Catalyst.

What may have started as emergency measures like open roads or alternative modes of transport will help cities plan for the next shock – “whether it is climate change, civil unrest or an economic shock”.

Reuters

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