It is evident that in the growing interconnectedness of today’s hyper-globalised cities, public health crises rarely fail to leave their mark on a metropolis, and consequently on the lives of its inhabitants. The impact of this mark on our life depends on how prepared we are to accommodate a new lifestyle. Whether the lifting of restrictions have restored your life to normal (or a new normal), or you are still apprehensive as to the extent of whether you should return to normal, it is inevitable that some adjustments need to be made and communities are wondering which of these adjustments will endure beyond the end of the pandemic, and what life might look like on the other side.
Those of us in the business of designing and developing buildings and neighbourhoods should now be thinking about how we can improve people’s lifestyle in the longer term. We need to address these questions now if we want to bring about effective change.
Engage the community and “keep it local”
Supporting local traders may have started from necessity, but it could continue as a lifestyle change, seeking out locally produced and sourced food and beverage, reducing shipping, air freight and packaging, but could go as far as with engaging local artists and artisans. There is obvious connection between supporting local business and improving local social and economic sustainability.
‘Hyperlocalism’ could easily trigger a new wave of creativity in the built environment – more self-sustained, mixed use architecture devised in collaboration with the local community. People will start opting for staycations (vacations within your current environment) which presents a huge opportunity for developers willing to think outside the box. With the increased dependency on technology brought about by home working, schooling, etc, the work-home life balance has become very blurred. People are and will be looking for a change of scenery, possibly also somewhere to digitally detox from it all.
Give people greater control
Building from the previous point, we need to help build newly revitalised communities and networks by listening to what local people want and need from projects in their area. Getting them involved early through local plans through meaningful consultation on developments and the widespread digitisation of the planning process on a macro-level, but also involve them on a micro-level in driving the narrative of the design. This has in part already started, with examples in the local scene of the re-development of the Chalet, Sliema and with the community involvement in the recent sustainable housing projects.
Promote healthy minds and bodies
We all know the benefits of sunlight and fresh air, but these have been particularly reinforced with restrictions on mobility over the last few months. Not all residents are fortunate enough to have their own outdoor space. The increase in smaller apartments by way of including as many units per square metre as possible has been the challenge for most designers whose sole intention was pushing more funds into the developers’ pockets. The repercussions of this is evident in the way people are reacting to the easement of the pandemic restrictions.
Designers should focus more on holistic residential projects that positively affect the mind, body and community. Our own houses should include outdoor spaces that encourage interaction with nature and reverse our focus on prevalent hermetic environments.
This mindset shift should be extended to our streets and general urban landscapes. Commercial signs should not add to the visual pollution of our cities. Signs have a strong psychological impact on our lifestyle, mood and general wellbeing. The design of commercial signage should consider the urban context, especially in historical cities. The relationship of environmental psychology, graphic design, architecture, planning and urban design concepts is tightly knit within this context and the recommended design principles should create commercial streetscapes that are evaluated positively by different users.
Invest in green infrastructure
While 2020 is the year that will be remembered for COVID-19, it will also be defined by the world waking up to climate change. Seeing the great improvements in pollution levels worldwide due to curtailment of transport and industries due to lockdowns, we should come out of this pandemic with a renewed desire to integrate green, sustainable design into our cities. Citizens could press governments worldwide to bring in stricter air pollution measures in the long term.
Positive recent initiatives by the Maltese Government were in funding a “green reform” and in organising urban green competitions. These are steps in the right direction to provide greener spaces in the re-thinking of our cities. Other similar initiatives are welcome and ought to be launched sooner rather than later to promote people’s wellness and social sustainability.
From a lifestyle and inclusivity point of view, the integration of green spaces in the urban fabric will improve access to nature for everyone. We often forget that not everyone’s situation is the same. Not everyone can drive or cycle to get to an outdoor space. Imbuing our towns with areas for truly local social engagement is essential. Designers have an obligation to prioritise people and active mobility, both in terms of play spaces for children and recreational areas for adults.
It is high time that we position ourselves in a situation where, when looking back on 2020 in say 20 years’ time, we will be proud of the advancement in lifestyle improvement and the positive impact on the built environment.