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Whilst we sit and watch the world change before our eyes, we can’t help but scramble, trying to capture just a little bit of our normal lives as we transition to a potential lockdown. Globalisation has opened a barrier to infection, a virus carrier can hop on a flight to any city in the world within 24 hours, allowing contamination to spread further and faster than ever before [1]. Whilst we watch what feels like the immortal equilibrium of our villages, cities and countries crumble – we need to think, how could urban design become more resilient to pandemics?


Incredibly dense cities such as Hong Kong make social distancing almost impossible [2], just walking along a street you are bound to bump into people.

Fig.1 Hong Kong (Author’s Own, 2018)

In Manila, spatial inequality also results in overcrowded slums and informal dwellings spreading infection at worrying rates amongst societies most vulnerable. For example, children living in slums in Manila are nine times more likely to develop Tuberculosis than other children [3].

Fig.2 Slums in Manila (Lang, 2020)


Perhaps, decentralising core services and by focusing on the development of several 20-minute neighbourhoods [4] as opposed to one giant busy metropolis, we can provide smaller urban areas without residents compromising on amenity proximity?

Fig.3 20 Minute Neighbourhood (State Government of Victoria, 2018)

The likelihood for a person leaving home to visit a location is dependent on: 1. the distance between both sites and 2. the draw factor of this site [5]. A walkable neighbourhood with a co-working space, local shops, a park, and public transport is a more sustainable method of keeping people out of large dense urban centres. The walkable aspect also encourages a more active lifestyle, hopefully keeping people healthier and more able to fight off disease in the event of a pandemic.

Smart City Technology

A step further is to track this infection [6], mapping technology is crucial to not only keeping the public up-to date with the latest information but for medical professionals to know where the infection is located. Israel has already started using mass surveillance to alert individuals who have been in contact with infected people, 400 alerts have already been sent [7]. My own auntie received an alert from a lady she was stood next to at the bus stop in Tel Aviv, she is now aware and able to take precautions to prevent further spread.

Fig.3 Tracking Coronavirus (John Hopkins University, 2020)

Triple Threat

It has become clear that highly dense areas require increased monitoring to keep hygiene levels adequate and encourage more people to come into close contact, more frequently. By decentralising the city, we create pockets of amenity-rich walk-able neighbourhoods which are sustainable, healthy, convenient and clean. When combined with smart city technology, we can track infection and intensify our clinical measures where they will be most effective.


[1] Klaus, I., 2020. Pandemics Are Also an Urban Planning Problem. City Lab, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2020].

[2] Palma, R., 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic is also an urban planning issue — especially in Manila. CNN Life, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 20 March 2020].

[3] Fry, S., Cousins, B. and Olivola, K., 2002. Health Of Children Living In Urban Slums In Asia And The Near East: Review Of Existing Literature And Data. [online] Washington, DC: Environmental Health Project, p.80. Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2020].

[4] Planning. 2020. 20-Minute Neighbourhoods. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2020].

[5] Brizuela, N., García-Chan, N., Pulido, H. and Chowell, G., 2019. Understanding the role of urban design in disease spreading. bioRxiv, [online] pp.2-4. Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2020].

[6] University of Oxford, 2020. Quantifying Dynamics Of SARS-Cov-2 Transmission Suggests That Epidemic Control And Avoidance Is Feasible Through Instantaneous Digital Contact Tracing. [online] Oxford: University of Oxford. Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2020].

[7] Gross, J. and Staff, T., 2020. Israel starts surveilling virus carriers, sends 400 who were nearby to isolation. The Times of Israel, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2020].


Figure List

Feature Image BBC, 2020. Coronavirus. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2020].

Fig.1 Landes, N. (2018). Hong Kong. [image].

Fig.2 Lang, B., 2020. Slums In Manila. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2020].

Fig.3 State Government of Victoria, 2018. 20 Minute Neighbourhood. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2020].

Fig.4 John Hopkins University, 2020. Tracking Coronavirus. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2020].


3 responses to “Could COVID-19 Change the way we design our cities?”

  1. Thank you, Nadine, for sharing your opinions on the current pandemic whilst relating it to urban design! Now already months into COVID-19, we see changes and plans being made as a response which further proves that urban design can be utilised in such a crisis.

    As mentioned in my blog, ‘Post COVID-19 Grey Street’, we see plans being made in response to Grey Street. In response to the current pandemic, Holland (2020) writes that the new plans are put in to maintain social distancing as lockdown is slowly being eased as shops and restaurants are ready to reopen. Many cities around the UK and the globe like Newcastle upon Tyne has shifted its focus with urban design to focus on how people can safely move around, as has Nick Forbes (Council Leader) said within an interview (BBC, 2020).

    Additionally, to further the social distancing measures commuters are avoiding public transport, as explained by De Vos (2020), these will last for a significant amount of time. Therefore, bicycles may be the future mode of transport, like Newcastle there will be additional cycle lanes and as Laker (2020) writes, there will be more walking and cycling demands especially during the time of social distancing. However, why has it taken a pandemic to change the way of living towards a more sustainable future, it seems like cities are now just striving towards the standards a place like Copenhagen or Amsterdam has set (Beatley, 2003) or will this only last the during the pandemic?

    BBC, (2020). Coronavirus: Newcastle city centre to allow for social distancing. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 20 May 2020].

    Beatley, T. (2003). “Planning for Sustainability in European Cities: A Review of Practice in Leading Cities”. In: R. LeGates and F. Stout, ed., The City Reader, 5th ed. New York: Routledge, pp.448 – 457.

    De Vos, J. (2020). The effect of COVID-19 and subsequent social distancing on travel behaviour. Available at: <> [Accessed on: 20 May 2020].

    Holland, D. (2020). Dramatic changes to Grey Street unveiled which will give people more space to walk and cycle. Chronicle Live, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 20 May 2020].

    Laker, L. (2020). Calls For More Space For Walking And Cycling In UK During Lockdown. [online] The Guardian. Available at: <> [Accessed 21 May 2020].

  2. Nadine, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and in an age of increasing urbanisation, I agree that more could and should be done regarding designing urban areas for resilience to such events. Additionally, I think urban design can be utilised as a tool for responding to pandemics.

    Wuhan, the originating point of Covid-19, implemented modern methods of construction (MMC) as a means of responding to the demand that the virus was putting on the city’s medical facilities [1]. Based on Beijing’s SARS virus response set up [1], a hospital was built in just nine days to treat up to 1,000 patients [2]. The 600,000-square-foot hospital [3] was constructed using concrete building bases to act as the foundations for modular prefabricated units [2]. These units were manufactured off-site, simultaneously to the foundations being built, significantly speeding up the construction process [4]. 

    In the event of a pandemic, it is vital that action can be taken quickly in response to the increasing rate of infection and required treatment. Using MMC, simultaneous in-factory and on-site work can speed up construction by 50%, compared to traditional construction [5]. The significantly quicker construction time could make the difference between life and death for thousands, therefore highlighting the importance of strategic urban design in pandemic response.


    [1] Williams, S. (2020) Coronavirus: How can China build a hospital so quickly? Available at: [Accessed on 30/03/20].

    [2] Block, I. (2020) Coronavirus quarantine hospital in Wuhan completes in just nine days, Available at: [Accessed on 30/03/20].

    [3] Gagne, Y. (2020) How Chinese officials built a hospital in 10 days to treat coronavirus victims, Available at: [Accessed on 30/03/20].

    [4] Ankel, S. (2020) A construction expert broke down how China built an emergency hospital to treat Wuhan coronavirus patients in just 10 days, Available at: [Accessed on 30/03/20].

    [5] Bertram, N., Fuchs, S., Mischke, J., Palter, R., Strube, G. & Woetzel, J. (2019) Modular Construction: From projects to products, McKinsey & Company. 

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