The Post-Covid City
Published 5 juli, 2020
Professor Emeritus of the Ecoles Nationales Supérieures d'Architecture
When lockdown ends, will we return to the status quo ante? More likely, our uses of space will change. Here and there, steps have already been taken: a good opportunity to reflect on the city in this new context. Francis Nordemann, architect and urban planner living in Paris is reflecting on the post-Covid city from a French point of view.
First of all, telecommuting has become widespread. The office has suddenly moved out of open plan office spaces and into people’s homes. After two months of learning to navigate this new constraint, it is hard to imagine a straightforward return to our previous ways of working; we cannot simply go back to the office as we would have done after a period of leave. We may need to develop a new relationship with workspace, since being present without physical presence is the new practice. At a distance, or in a hybrid state between presence and distance, we occupy spaces at once here and ”not there”, work is changing before our eyes.
A new urban balance?
More generally, the physical isolation of workstations is becoming a major trend in companies. Redefining shift work – instead of 10 people working 8 hours, you have 5 working 16 hours – changes our working relationships. Meeting conditions are no longer the same. Companies are reflecting on employee presence ratios, on the rhythm of their movements and on the space required for their operations. These are all issues of concern for a real estate industry already alarmed by the uncertain economic and social outlook.
The question of the future of central business districts – like La Defense in Paris – is therefore being raised in a new way. Hosting hundreds of thousands of workers, these have given rise to vast ecosystems bringing together public transport, restaurants, services and shops.
With entire floors deserted, the raison d’être of office blocks is now under threat. The symbolic value of symbolic locations – like the penthouse conference room with panoramic city views – is no longer guaranteed. We now Zoom in our bedroom, with our own choice of backdrop.
The return of the individual
Throughout the city, the ordeal of the virus has brought about significant changes in the use of space. Museums are marking out single circuits, schools are organising occupancy ratios, and universities are deserted as traditional teaching is pushed aside by videoconferencing. School and university real estate will not come out unscathed, whether by progressive abandonment, restriction, expansion, or redistribution.
It is perhaps all shared spaces that are being tested by the rise of the individual. In shops and in stations, a flow management logic organises queues, distances and marked-out circuits, coupled with individualised hygiene measures (masks, glass bubbles and screens). In cafés and brasseries, the subtle hierarchal arrangement of public to private spaces — from sidewalk to terrace, terrace to bar, bar to back room — are being actively re-organiesd. The finer points of traditional conviviality are severely affected.
No doubt, then, attention must be given to other practices, still emerging and not yet well understood. What about home delivery services, offering inventive food parcels that could redefine the uses of a kitchen that is both familial and collective? And let’s not forget that while theatres and cinemas are closed, the drive-in cinema abandoned fifty years ago is reappearing in Cannes and in the Palm Beach car park, inviting Hollywood into the intimate space of the car.
Housing is no exception. Increasing regulation around accessibility has made our bathrooms and kitchens bigger, our living rooms and bedrooms smaller. Our shared spaces are smaller; making it harder to find a corner for oneself.
However, it is not a question of simply advocating for a generous increase in surface floor area. The lessons of the moment we are living through should encourage us to rediscover the meaning of living and to invent spaces in the home that are conducive to an evolving mix of telecommuting, family life and social life. Beyond the need for a shared threshold, everyone should have access to a space of their own with their phone or in front of their terminal, and storage facilities. Cross-ventilated dwellings and kitchens with natural light will allow for ventilation and air renewal, and an outside extension – a terrace or balcony – will allow people to step outside, to look to the distance and to encounter their neighbours. A shared private courtyard and a reserved garden will extend and protect each person’s inhabited domain.
In terms of individual suburban housing, perhaps this is the moment to reconsider its development. These kinds of ”horizontal housing estates” waste agricultural land to create overcrowded roads, roundabouts and parking spaces in an environment built around use of a car. Along with the suburban housing estate goes the colossal shopping centre, the rush and congestion, which in fact encourages and perpetuates confinement and social distance as the rule for living together. This strange coupling of opposites – isolated dwellings and concentrated social spaces — confuses the values of privacy and the counter-values of meeting and urban conviviality.
Confinement measures, imposing limits on how far we can travel from home, have for many revealed the richness of local areas, the flavour of exploring one’s neighbourhood on foot. In other words, some of the very principles of urban life.
After three months at home, the world will certainly not be the same. We will not come out of this moment as we entered it; various ecosystems are deeply affected, perhaps permanently. Emerging reflections anticipate the post-crisis period; they begin to envisage collective and concerted responses to regional planning issues. It is now a matter of getting down to work to reconcile the home and the city, the collective and the private, the office and the home, the shop and the street, while integrating density and enriching the proximity of centres.
About the author
Francis Nordemann is an architect and urban planner who has been practising in Paris since 1980. Professor Emeritus of the Ecoles Nationales Supérieures d’Architecture, he has taught in various schools in France and abroad, and was appointed Head of the Ecole d’Architecture de Normandie (1997-2003). At the Ecole de Paris Belleville (2004-2019), he directed the post-master degree ’architecture and territories’.
As a consulting architect (Architecte-conseil de l’Etat), he has worked with the authorities of several French departments (2005-2019), and led the national working group ’Centres Bourgs (2019)’. Chargé de mission in the office of Mrs Fleur Pellerin, Minister of Culture (2015), he worked on the ’National Strategy for Architecture’.
His professional practice has been illustrated in urban projects and the urban responsibility of the architect; he has built a number of apartment buildings in Paris and in the regions, as well as public facilities.
As a researcher, he has published different articles, and a book La Fabrique du lieu. Installations urbaines (2004, with J.N.Blanc)
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