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How the pandemic will affect our cities

Has the coronavirus outbreak put paid to urbanisation? Probably not, but one thing is clear – the pandemic has certainly changed how we look at our cities and what they need to contain for a good life.

Consider a small town in southern Europe; the houses close together, the church at its centre, the square with its cafés and small shops.

– “Even a small town like this has obvious urban qualities, in as much as it has shared public spaces in which its residents can gather and meet and live together,” says Charlie Gullström, senior researcher in urban development at RISE and KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

A lack of focus on the communal

In Swedish urban development, the close and common for the local community, has not been particularly emphasised over recent decades. Instead, the focus has been on the major conurbations, with housing estates and suburbs spreading further and further from the city centre. Today, it is hardly uncommon for the inhabitants of, for example, Skåne or Mälardalen to commute for an hour to work, while the regions and the towns they live in are often organised to facilitate commuting rather than socialising and a sense of community.

Then, with the arrival of the pandemic, the Public Health Agency of Sweden encouraged us to work from home.

– “Not everyone was able to do so but enough people did to seriously unsettle our view of the city and its needs.”

If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is how dependent we are on each other

A new perspective on normal working life

Because, if every Stockholmer is to commute to work at exactly the same time each morning and then return home at exactly the same time in the evening, well, then our focus will clearly be on clogged motorways, junctions and commuter services, even if they are only packed for a brief time each day.

– “Now, however, our focus is on other issues: should we continue working at home and, if so, to what extent and what demands does this place on our workplaces? And if we work from home, how should our neighbourhoods be designed to give us the social interaction and the motion we otherwise obtained from commuting to and from work? We don’t know the answer but what we do know is that we have been offered a new vision of what a normal working life might look like and how it might change both what we need and what we want from the city.”

Far from a mature digital working method

Charlie Gullström is at pains to point out that, even if large swathes of the middle class can now work from home, we remain far from a mature digital working method and digital aids that completely replaces the functions of the traditional office. If we do move in the direction of this kind of working method, however, it may have a knock-on effect on urbanisation.

– “Small towns located far from regional centres, say three hours, may once again be attractive to home buyers who no longer need to commute every day. Still, whether we live in small towns or large cities, we must be better at creating common spaces where we can meet and help one another existentially because, if the pandemic has shown us anything, it is how dependent we are on each other.”

Charlie Gullström

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Charlie Gullström

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