Reimagining urban environments post-pandemic

As COVID-19’s effect on the world’s cities becomes clearer, so are the possible responses of urban planners — including those at YSA’s Urban Design Workshop.
A child playing on an urban street


As COVID-19’s effects on the world’s pandemic-battered cities are becoming clearer, so are the possible responses of architects and urban planners.

In the spring, COVID-19 upended cities around the world, turning them into virtual ghost towns. In New York City, social distancing and quarantining became rules to live by, as public health experts have urged nationwide. Businesses shuttered, subways ceased to run, and the streets lost their customary hustle and bustle.

Amid this, the most disadvantaged urban residents have experienced the effects of the virus with extra force.

This pandemic presents us with an opportunity to look back at centuries of discrimination in this country having to do with race and space, and to reassert the connection between urban space and public health,” said Elihu Rubin, associate professor of architecture and urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture and a professor of American studies. “Poor people are disproportionately impacted by this crisis because they live in conditions that over decades have seen these public health risks intensify.”

With colleagues in the Yale Urban Design Workshop (YUDW), Rubin is considering how urban architecture could adapt post-pandemic to improve public health.

Rubin recently taught a webinar called “Coronavirus and the New American Ghost Town.” Hosted by the Yale Alumni Academy — a new initiative of the Yale Alumni Association that offers lifelong learning and travel programs — the seminar tells the story of American ghost towns, from the “Wild West” to the heart of the contemporary “post-industrial” city including a look at how the pandemic turned the world’s cities into virtual ghost towns with millions of people sheltering in place. 

Based at the Yale School of Architecture, the YUDW works with communities across Connecticut and around the world to provide planning and design assistance on projects ranging from comprehensive plans, economic development strategies, and community visions to the design of public spaces, streetscapes, and individual community facilities. Recently YUDW has focused on developing and deploying strategies to increase coastal and urban resilience in response to disasters such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012. 

The pandemic has highlighted the need for greater collaboration between urban planners and public health leaders, and has underscored the necessity for more interdisciplinary thinking generally, said Alan Plattus, professor of architecture and YUDW’s executive director. In light of COVID-19, the leaders of YUDW are thinking about how to address public health livability in disadvantaged urban communities in cities around the country and the world. 

Plattus emphasized that the disparities in housing and the need for affordable housing includes having enough decent space to work at home and quarantine if necessary. “Large extended families in too little space have been right up there with nursing homes in spreading the virus among vulnerable populations,” he added.

During the pandemic, city dwellers looking to escape the confines of their apartments found a saving grace in urban open spaces — chiefly parks, for instance. But even these spaces have brought to light issues of inequality, said Andrei Harwell, who directs the YUDW and Center for Design Research in New Haven and is a senior critic at the Yale School of Architecture. New parks are often developed with private funds, and they tend to be located adjacent to new development sites, and thus are not equally distributed throughout cities. 

This means if you are poor, a park may be a subway ride away from you,” explained Harwell. “We have to start thinking in much more integrated ways about systems of parks. I hope that there will be more interest and emphasis on the development of those kinds of spaces within cities. That is the kind of innovation that I would like to see come out of this pandemic.” 

If the pandemic has demonstrated the need for more evenly distributed open spaces within the city, life under quarantine has also shown the importance of balconies and porches for residents in urban buildings.

People interacted through those balconies,” said Plattus. “These spaces provided fresh air, camaraderie — a place to see others and be seen. They were also used in celebration to show support for frontline workers fighting to save lives in New York, Italy, and Spain. 

I will encourage all of the clients we partner with to develop affordable housing to include porches and balconies going forward,” continued Plattus. “They are now crucial.”

The history of American architecture and urbanism has always been the history of inequality, said Rubin. “It is vital to understand those patterns and processes because they are indicative of what we are observing today,” he added.

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