Building the ‘Next Normal’: Designing the Right Infrastructure for a Post-COVID World

Roberto Mezzalama Member Name

Principal and Project Director

The global COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed our lives in a very short time. We talk about the ‘new normal’ but, for many of us, there’s an expectation that once we have a vaccine, life will go back to how it was. But do we really want that version of ‘normal’ again, particularly when it comes to our urban infrastructure?

In radical times such as these, we have an opportunity to take a leap, to see the world differently and to imagine a ‘next normal’ that doesn’t simply replicate the past or present. For the community of practice involved in infrastructure planning, this is the ideal time to reflect on the implications of the pandemic for post-COVID living, anticipate the potential for ongoing change, and imagine new possibilities for transformation.

When we think about sustainability in infrastructure, we often talk about the need to ‘do the right project’ as well as to ‘do the project right’. What are the right projects today? And, thinking further afield than projects in our existing cities, we also need to apply new thinking as we conceptualise new cities, particularly in Asia where increasing urbanisation is creating enormous demand. How should these cities be planned?

Of course, we are still at the stage of unknowns, uncertainties, and speculation – even in terms of how to manage the pandemic itself, let alone how to manage its consequences. One thing that is clear:  the infrastructure demand in Europe has plummeted during COVID peaks. At this stage we can’t predict whether these changes in demand will revert back to previous levels, or whether there’ll be much longer term or lasting implications for the way we live, work, travel, exercise, socialise and more.

Effects of the pandemic on transport, internet, and electricity

One of the most immediately apparent effects of the pandemic in our cities has been the dramatic reduction in traffic – both on our roads and in our skies. Cargo freight remains busy, but passenger transport of all types is down. It will be interesting to see whether the usual congestion grows again at the same pace as the reopening of borders and easing of restrictions, or whether it will no longer reach the same peaks.

While transport traffic has declined, internet traffic has skyrocketed as people have worked and studied from home and accessed more online services including videoconferencing and entertainment. The consequences of this surge in demand have not been uniform. In countries where the network is weaker, internet speed has been under strain.

Electricity demand is another interesting aspect of COVID-related change. Italy saw a decrease in overall demand but not all operators have experienced this in the same way. The mix of electricity sources has shifted – including a rise in renewable energy.

How long will these changes last – and for how long will we benefit?

How long-lasting will these changes be? A year? Five years? Indefinite? Few people believe that things will snap back to ‘normal’ in a single year, but it is difficult to predict which changes may be permanent. Already some big corporations are suggesting that working from home will see the end of the ‘big city office’ model. It’s certainly likely that business travel will decrease now that people have become more accustomed to communicating via videoconferencing.

At least at the local level, we can see that the changes in traffic, particularly, have affected our environment. There have been demonstrable improvements in air quality in large cities – even to the extent that people have reported seeing views they hadn’t seen in their lifetimes, or at least in a generation. We’ve also seen nature ‘taking back’ urban locations, such as animals and fish returning to areas in which they haven’t been seen for a long time. It’s much harder to ascertain whether any local environmental benefits will have a measurable impact on the environment at the global scale or in the longer term. A few months is almost nothing in the timeframe of biology and habitats and climate change.

We can hope that even as our cities reopen, there will be a lasting shift in awareness and behaviour at both the individual and corporate levels, with greater awareness of the impact of our lifestyles on our local and global environments. When people have felt what it is to live in a city with cleaner air, they are more likely to consider how to make such changes last.

A tale of two cities: Milan and Turin

With Italy having been the first European country to be hit hard by COVID-19, we can gain some useful insights from taking a closer look at how Milan and Turin have responded to the pandemic’s implications for infrastructure and the way we live.

Milan has for a long time suffered from traffic congestion and air pollution. However, when the pandemic hit, Milan had already developed a resilience and adaptation plan. The city was well prepared to consider the conditions needed for recovery, as well as to consider what the city could become after the virus, the degree of appetite for change, how fast that change could or should occur, and what goals might be reasonable to achieve given the limitations.

The city administration took the opportunity to implement some aspects of changes that had already been considered or planned. Some of the aspects considered in Milan’s plan were the need to maximise flexibility of the rhythm and timing of movement into and out of the city (such as by staggering working days or school hours), the need to reduce overall movement around the city, the desire to reconquer space for leisure and wellbeing, as well as the need for services, cultural experiences and economic activities to be spread out to reduce congestion and enable easier access from neighbourhoods (within 15 minutes of walking). The plan also had a strong focus on social inclusion, community, collaboration, and assistance – such as ensuring adequate housing and equity and ease of access to digital services and internet, especially to enable ‘smart learning’.

Mobility will remain a challenge in Milan, which has a strong car culture, and where the pandemic has created fear of using public transport. Prior to the pandemic, investment in public transport in Milan was increasing 10% per year, with a goal of being fully electric by 2030. This investment and the encouragement of the community to change their attitudes and approaches to mobility around the city is continuing, despite the current circumstances.

Another consideration in Milan is that there may now be more abandoned assets or buildings that can no longer expect as much office or retail occupancy. This presents a rich array of opportunities for imaginative redevelopment. Could empty ground floors become parking space or, better yet, public green spaces, or opportunities for community farming or food production?

In Turin, rather than relying solely on public policy and administration, the city’s response to the pandemic was supported by the university sector, which played a crucial role in reshaping the local infrastructure agenda. This is an example of how universities can be more than factories of work-ready graduates, but can act as partners in research and innovation, playing an important role in the civic structure and contributing to the development of society as whole. The universities focused immediately on social impact, but also took an active role in promoting change, relaunching of the economy, and creating multi-actor partnerships (such as with government and industry) through its insights and connections.

The universities were involved in revising the city’s masterplan – for which some of the key challenges were rethinking and redeveloping abandoned industrial areas to incorporate sustainable ways of living that generate greater environmental and social benefits. The focus on the social fabric was particularly important, and guidelines were added to consider ‘social infrastructure’ that strengthens the social cohesion and solidarity of the city.

These examples of Milan and Turin are inspiring in their ambition to envision and create liveable, sustainable cities. With agility and flexibility, they have used the sudden change in our lifestyles during the pandemic to motivate improvements in the way we live, both for now and into the future.

In a pandemic, the concept of ‘healthy cities’ takes on a new meaning and increased urgency. We must bring together our current pandemic paradigm of recovery, adaptation, and transformation with our existing goals of resilience and sustainability. There is strong potential that the current reduction in demand for greenfield infrastructure in some COVID-affected regions will not rebound rapidly, so repurposing existing infrastructure may comprise most of what we see on the ground over the next decade.

We will need to draw on the methods we use to rate or assess new infrastructure in terms of sustainable development goals and apply those approaches to the transformation of our existing infrastructure, both at the level of the building and of the city. And we will need creativity and boldness to embrace this most unexpected opportunity to take a leap towards genuinely healthier cities.

Roberto Mezzalama Member Name

Principal and Project Director

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