‘We’ve got a real chance to reimagine our cities’: 20 ways to improve urban life after lockdown

When it emptied our cities, Covid-19 gave us a chance to push reset. It allowed people to really see the space, rather than the people and cars crowding into it

Cities have been hard hit in the pandemic. We’ve discovered that the things that make cities great – the crowds, the bustle, the never-ending litany of distractions and pleasures, of things to do and places to go – are the same things that make them vulnerable. New York City suffered about 215,000 cases of Covid-19 and more than 22,000 deaths – nearly one-fifth of the total so far for the entire US. More than one-fifth of Covid-19 deaths in England and Wales were in London; one-third of deaths in Spain were in Madrid. Ile-de-France, the area of France which includes Paris, saw an 80 per cent increase in its excess death toll up to May, according to the Financial Times.

Here, nearly half the cases in the Republic have been in Dublin, though the regional cities of Cork (6 per cent), Limerick (2 per cent), Galway (2 per cent) and Waterford (0.6 per cent) have been less badly affected than the Border counties of Cavan and Monaghan.

It was in cities, too, that the impact of lockdown was most visible. In the early weeks, footfall in Dublin slumped by two-thirds, data collated by Dublin Town suggested. If you took a stroll through the deserted streets in those early days, that might have struck you as conservative. It wasn’t a coincidence that the word “apocalypse” trended on Google in March. Other than during major weather events, no one had ever seen anything like this. No one wanted to again.

But when it emptied our cities, Covid-19 gave us a chance to push reset. It allowed people to really see the space, rather than the people and cars crowding into it. 

Throughout history, when cities survived epidemics, they responded by improving things such as sanitation and public parks. Now, we’re thinking about the space, and who gets priority over it. “The nature of city centres has been changing anyway: all this does is accelerate it,” says Michael Walsh of Waterford City and County Council, one of the driving forces behind the Waterford Greenway. “It’s about trying to create an experiential space that’s less dependent on retail and is more about people meeting and sharing that experience, and that has culture and coffee attached to it.”

A surge in interest in cycling has been one of the most immediate manifestations of our desire to live differently post-lockdown. Paul Keogh, a former president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland and the man who headed the design team for the proposed College Green plaza, describes a virtuous circle. “If there are more bicycles, then there are fewer cars, if there are fewer cars, there’s more space for pedestrians, for buggies and wheelchairs. So it’s a knock-on thing. Because of social distancing, cafes will need to expand onto streets or pavements. We’ve got a real chance to reimagine our cities.”

At the same time, Walsh “wouldn’t be using any ambiguity in terms of describing [the impact of the pandemic]. It’s life threatening for city centres.”

Here are some of the best ideas from Ireland and abroad for how city life might be reimagined post-lockdown.

Milan’s Bosco Verticale is a spectacular example of how to creatively green a city. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images
Milan’s Bosco Verticale is a spectacular example of how to creatively green a city. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

1. Greening cities. The pandemic opened yet another inequality gap we hadn’t given much thought to before – between those who have gardens and those who don’t. Green space isn’t just nice to have; it’s good for your health. A study carried out in Philadelphia and published this month found that increasing tree coverage there by 30 per cent in all neighbourhoods could prevent between 271 and 400 deaths annually, through encouraging physical activity, and decreasing air pollution, noise and heat. World Health Organisation guidelines recommend that all households should have at least 0.5 hectares of publicly accessible green space within 300 metres.

Dublin is a green city by international standards, but its planting tends to be concentrated in a few large parks and private gardens. The further away from the Spire you go, the less green it gets. Vertical forests such as the Bosco Verticale in Milan – a pair of 111m high residential towers which includes 900 trees and 2,000 plants – are a spectacular example of how to green a city. But it doesn’t have to be that ambitious: the European Green Flag Award for Parks scheme, which accredited 60 Irish public green spaces in 2019, is designed to encourage smaller scale community gardens.

And there’s always scope for more. There are calls for more pop-up parks in cities, while the Bloom-winning landscape gardener Kevin Dennis has suggested that if every apartment dweller in the Irish capital placed five plants on their balcony, the capital would get an additional 350,000 plants.

2. People before cars. Cities from Brussels to Bogotá and Minneapolis to Milan have been looking at ways to adjust the pecking order of city life, so that cars don’t get priority over walkers or cyclists. Here, cities and towns of are making plans to close more streets to cars and generally slow things down. Dublin may get a temporary speed limit of 30km/h; Limerick has proposed an “advisory speed limit” of 25km/h.

3. Widen footpaths. One of the lessons of the pandemic was that the 2:1 ratio of typical Irish streets – two-thirds of the space to cars; one-third to people – just doesn’t work. Our footpaths are too narrow. We need more space for safer queuing, social distancing and outdoor dining.

4. Micromarkets. Farmers’ markets allow people to shop local, shop well, and to do it in the relative safety of the open air – as Darina Allen has pointed out, it’s a wonder they were closed in the first place. Dutch architect Harm Timmermans has come up with a clever way to create markets where there are none, and also to mitigate the risk of too many people congregating at once. While shopping during the Dutch lockdown, he realised how hard it is to remain socially distant in a supermarket. So he created a plan for hyperlocal micromarkets: a grid design for a tiny marketplace that can pop up on demand. Each micromarket would have as few as three stalls. Why can’t we do the same here?

5. Al fresco dining. Bring your coat, because when restaurants reopen, we’re all going to get used to the promise of a little rainwater with our steak and chips. Vilnius in Lithuania is ahead of the game, having completely reinvented itself during lockdown, turning 18 public spaces into giant outdoor restaurants. Here, Waterford City and County Council is offering grants of €2,000 to cafes and restaurants to invest in furniture and make use of the city’s extensive pedestrianised streets and squares. Limerick’s draft mobility plan looks at ways to allow more restaurant tables onto streets. Cork City Council is proposing to waive fees for on-street furniture outside restaurants and cafes across the city and suburbs for the rest of the year, while a dozen food businesses on Princes’ Street have asked for part of the street to be closed to cars so it can be converted into a shared outdoor dining area. In Dublin, there are proposals to ease restrictions on outside tables and chairs. One note of warning: any move to change streetscapes or sacrifice footpaths presents particular challenges for people with disabilities.

People sit in cafes during an event mimicking the Italian holiday experience in Vilnius, Lithuania. Photograph: Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images
People sit in cafes during an event mimicking the Italian holiday experience in Vilnius, Lithuania. Photograph: Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images

6. New ways into cities. Two in three people use public transport to access Dublin in normal times, according to business group Dublin Town. With physical distancing, about 150,000 people will have to find another way. Remote working and staggered business opening times can go some way to ease peak time pressure. But, says the organisation, more accommodation needs to be made for alternative ways to get in and out.

7. Bikes, bikes, bikes. All over the world, the pandemic has given people an opportunity to rediscover the joy of biking through previously choked city streets. “When people were in lockdown they rediscovered the bike as a nice way to get out. Will that be a permanent thing?” wonders architect Paul Keogh, who points out that only three per cent of journeys nationally are by bike.

During lockdown, Paris added 50km of cycle lanes, dubbed “coronapistes”; Milan added 35km; New York 64km. Tirana in Albania has transformed on-street parking into cycle lanes. Closer to home, there are moves to add cycleways to the Liffey quays in Dublin; Limerick is extending cycle paths into the city and adding bike parking. And over the next two years, there are plans to extend Waterford Greenway so that it runs right through the heart of the city centre, crossing a new sustainable footbridge, and connecting with a planned New Ross Greenway. If you don’t have a bike already, bad luck – there are long waiting lists with bike shops and bike repair businesses all over the country.

High Street in Kilkenny City. Photograph: Walter Bibikow/Getty Images
High Street in Kilkenny City. Photograph: Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

8. Live over the shop. Every town in Ireland has streets full of empty spaces over shops, sometimes in beautiful period buildings. With a little imagination, these can be repurposed as family homes right in the centre of the town or city, suggests Keogh.

9. Transform office space into living space. If employers decide that they no longer need to rent what the University of Limerick economist Stephen Kinsella has called a “giant, expensive shiny box” in the city, what will happen to all that disused space? Swathes of it could be repurposed for residential living.

10. Improve suburbia. For cities to improve, suburbs must too. If every suburb and regional town had a thriving main street, with places to shop for essentials and – someday, we hope – congregate, the need, and the desire, to commute into cities would be reduced.

11. Community life. Sociological analysis of the deadly Chicago heat wave of 1995, which killed more than 700 people, brought down power systems and caused roads to melt, found that social isolation was the common denominator in the neighbourhoods with the highest death toll. “Places with active commercial corridors, a variety of public spaces, local institutions, decent sidewalks, and community organisations fared well,” Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University, who studied the disaster, wrote in Wired.

Community saves lives. One of the positive phenomena unleashed by the pandemic were socially distant neighbourhood movie nights and outdoor exercise classes, and children popping notes into the doors of older neighbours. Psychologist Maureen Gaffney suggests that if we could harness that community spirit, we could stave off social isolation and even keep older people living at home for longer. “People in their 70s and 80s are awash with offers of help.” She suggests a taskforce could be set up to look at ways to tap into that goodwill beyond the crisis.

12. Co-working spaces. Keogh believes we have now begun to move on “from the 2,500sq m floorplate with people crammed into air conditioned offices with no daylight”, but confesses to mixed feelings about remote working. “I think people don’t need to be in the office five days a week from 9 to 5, but I do think you need the vitality and the creativity and the innovation which comes from people working together. Co-working spaces are a win-win solution, especially if it can be done by repurposing disused retail space in towns and cities, so that there is living space overhead and enough space to allow for socially distant working on the ground floor.

13. Get rid of traffic light buttons. Perth, Auckland and Boston are among the global cities that have taken this simple but safe hack to cut down on potential exposure to Covid-19.

A man making use of the Dublin Bikes scheme in along the docklands. Photograph: Getty Images
A man making use of the Dublin Bikes scheme in along the docklands. Photograph: Getty Images

14. Make bike-share schemes free. Many cities have done this temporarily during the pandemic, including Brussels, and a number of UK cities including Norwich. In other cities such as London, free bike rides for up to 30 minutes have been offered to frontline health workers.

15. Spiral parks. What would happen if parks were designed with social distancing as a guiding principle? The answer hit on by an Austrian design firm, Precht, is Parc de la Distance, a beautiful urban park inspired by a human fingerprint. The spiral shape is designed to take people on a meandering 20-minute walk in a beautiful green space without getting on top of one another, and the parks can be designed on urban wasteland.

16. Support independent businesses. A city comprised of rows of boarded-up shops is not a city. And yet, according to Dublin Town, “without an integrated and cohesive plan, up to one-third of city businesses may be lost in 2020”. It’s calling for supports including grants and interest-only loans to help keep businesses afloat. You can do your bit too by thinking before you shop. Here’s a thought to get you started: Amazon owner Jeff Bezos became more than €30 billion richer during the pandemic.

17. Art outdoors. With museums and galleries still closed in many places, art is moving outdoors too. The Glucksman gallery in Cork commissioned eight artists to bring safe distance artworks to the city via billboard sites, as part of a project called New Light. Meanwhile, The Positive Space, an initiative which runs until July 12th, sees photographers’ work exhibited on some 450 billboards all around Dublin city.

18. Play and performances. Limerick’s draft mobility plan suggests it can become a “pop-up urban playground for citizens” this summer, with outdoor performances, drive-in gigs, food trails, 3D street art, giant games and pop-up street spectacle events.

19. Temperature checks. Waterford is installing thermal imaging readers at locations around the city that will allow employees, shoppers and night-time revellers to print off a ticket showing they’ve had their temperature checked, though Walsh stresses it’s a voluntary initiative. “It’s another little layer of mitigation,” he says. “We’re not looking to be Big Brother.”

20. Beach vibe in the city. Residents of Paris were worried that social distancing meant that the much loved Paris-Plages, the sand-free urban beaches that run alongside the Seine each summer, would be vanquished this year. But the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has reassured Parisians that the parks are coming back, albeit in an adapted fashion. Among the plans being looked at in Limerick are plans to use giant deck chairs to produce a riverside “beach” feel. Who needs the Paris-Plages when you’ve got the Trá Luimneach?