By Michala Lander, technical director and author of this New Civil Engineer article proposes Cities are in need to be reimagined to reflect Covid impact and need for resilience. Here it is:

Cities need to be reimagined to reflect Covid impact and need for resilience

Engineers must consider how we make the next decade count to underpin resilient, adaptable communities.

Post-Covid, we will have a window of time to capitalise on changing settlement patterns and behaviours to plan smarter central business districts, satellite centres, peri-urban areas and suburban neighbourhoods that are both population-responsive and climate-adaptive.

Carbon considerations are shifting in our communities. Covid-19 has normalised remote working, with many workers choosing to relocate to low-density areas. In contrast to the long-term trend of suburbanisation, this decade a new focus on making our suburbs “smaller and smarter” will emerge.

Early signs suggest that peri-urban areas are growing in popularity, as some turn their back on living in densely populated city centres in favour of “living local”. Less sprawl means a reduced carbon footprint, but we’ll have to work hard to preserve key considerations, such as housing choice and equity, if we are to deliver low-carbon communities this decade.

Future resilience for our cities lies in managing balanced change on multiple fronts simultaneously. New planning approaches to more climate-adaptive land uses will need to recalibrate car-centred living environments to be more pedestrian-friendly. There must also be a greater focus on providing public amenity at our doorstep, to reduce the need to travel by car. Housing design will change and respond to offer more energy-efficient, lower-carbon floorplans. Even providing access to reasonably priced, healthy and culturally relevant food will require a revisit of system design, to curb food insecurity in communities experiencing “food deserts”. All are examples of building community resilience by tailoring solutions at the district or neighbourhood level.

The car has dominated city planning for decades, perpetuating the demand for passenger vehicles – it’s time to flip that paradigm and incentivise change. The pendulum is swinging back to returning streets to people, car parking to green spaces and to substitute motorised transport for walking or cycling. Reimaging how our streets are used will be a positive move for city workers and residents alike. Quality public open space in close proximity to homes will be highly prized post-Covid.

In cities too, the conversion or refurbishment of existing buildings will be preferred over building new; with a growing realisation that the greenest possible building is the one that isn’t built. We’re already seeing the clever adaptive reuse of less-relevant assets, such as multi-storey carparks into recreation facilities, or suburban shopping malls into community centres and business incubators. It will take creative thinking, applied through the lens of climate adaptation, to keep pushing the envelope of what’s possible as we reimagine our urban places.

Creating adaptation plans to reprioritise how people live and move will have far-reaching effects on carbon footprints. For communities to flourish, our populations need access to infrastructure including transport, energy and waste systems, water and communications. Sophisticated, collaborative digital systems that enable real-time monitoring and optimisation will help reduce fragmentation and speed up design choices, delivering better operational efficiency to reduce climate risk.

One of the primary challenges for urban design decisionmakers this decade is reframing unsustainable behaviours to raise awareness and accountability for every decision – individual and collective. Local government resource management, neighbourhood-level health and safety, through to our personal environmental consciousness; all are interrelated and important in creating climate-resilient communities.

Making people aware of the impact of their choices and embedded carbon in our communities matters. Rethinking our commute, doing more outdoor recreation activities and supporting local are the sorts of Covid-induced habits that will need to continue, to help us adopt low-carbon lifestyles. Collective action and political consensus, now, will help reduce the need for drastic measures later. Our cities and suburbs can be the engine rooms of change. Corporates, governments, architects, engineers and planners all need to play their part in building a climate adaptive future.

Michala Lande

Michala Lander is technical director for New Zealand planning with GHD