City of London Photo: Tristan Surtel/Wikipedia

More parks, fewer offices? How the coronavirus will change city centers

By Rina Chandran

The coronavirus has upended many aspects of life in cities worldwide, particularly as large numbers of white-collar workers choose to work from home and shun public transit - shifts that are likely to last, according to urban experts.

This will have an enormous impact on city centers and central business districts (CBD) that have typically been the economic hubs and main generators of income for cities.

What is the future of city centers and CBDs, and how will cities adapt? Here are some views.


The South Korean government has said it will buy empty hotels and offices and convert them into residences, while Singapore is encouraging redevelopment of old offices and parking spaces in its CBD.

The UK government has also loosened planning regulations to permit easier conversion of shops to residential uses.

"CBDs are essentially non-resilient because they are mono use. They were designed for a massive inflow of people in the morning and leaving in the evening," said Chintan Raveshia, cities planning and design leader at consultancy Arup.

A push for more mixed-use developments in CBDs is the way forward, he said, including with high-tech manufacturing and urban farms, as well as luxury and affordable housing.

"CBDs can then lure a mix of residents including families, who can help build a community and an identity that CBDs generally lack now," he said.


With an increased focus on health and hygiene, cities will push for WELL certification, a global set of building standards for wellbeing through improved air quality, water, light and more comfort, said Matthew Tribe, executive director at architecture firm CallisonRTKL in Dubai.

"In the Middle East, for example, many buildings have been over-designed, and there is now an opportunity for ... smart tech and nano-tech to improve the materials and performance of the building, and in turn, creating a better quality of life," he said.


Public transport use worldwide fell as people worked from home and avoided enclosed spaces. In the City of London, public transport use was down 71% from pre-COVID levels, according to Google Mobility Report's data as of mid-December.

In Sydney, public transport use was down by about a third, while in New Delhi it was down 43%, the data showed.

"Enthusiasm for public transport may not fully recover," said Tony Mathews, a senior lecturer in urban and environmental planning at Australia's Griffith University.

"There may be fewer workers in cities because some will continue to work from home, further reducing public transport demand," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As residents took to biking, walking and personal mobility vehicles, authorities from Jakarta to Bogota added bicycle lanes, closed off streets to cars, and converted parking spaces.

"The downside is that several people have opted for personal modes of transport," said Jaya Dhindaw, director of integrated urban planning at World Resources Institute in India.

"The upside is that a significant number of that personal transport mode includes cycles and other active mobility solutions," she said.


Public spaces and parks in or near CBDs are seeing a revival, as these spaces became islands of relief for residents wanting to venture out for exercise and fresh air.

"City authorities and citizens alike have gained new-found appreciation for parks and public spaces, and the importance of improving the quality and quantity of open spaces, and improving access to them," said Dhindaw.

"This makes me optimistic that civic authorities will pay more attention to provisioning more such spaces in cities."


With high streets and CBDs emptied out from San Francisco to Sydney, so-called doughnut cities have emerged, with abandoned city centers and flourishing suburbs.

"We were already seeing the trend of suburbanization and the rise in satellite CDBs in peripheral areas before COVID-19, as more jobs moved to the suburbs," said WRI's Dhindaw.

"This might just be the opportunity for policies and practices that lead to a new imagination of the CBD," she said.

Mini-CBDs will emerge in different areas of the city, said Arup's Raveshia, with an uptick in remote working hubs in the suburbs, as well as more co-working spaces and informal community spaces where people can gather.

Authorities will also need to consider where new urban populations might come from if large numbers of workers leave cities, said Matthews.

"Building new urban communities may happen through improved urban design, rent deals, reduced business rates," he said.


Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo is aiming for the "quarter-hour city", where most daily needs are within a 15-minute walk, bike ride or public transport commute, to reduce congestion and pollution, and improve quality of life.

The concept will be adopted more widely as residents prefer to stay local, with planners needing to reconfigure streets to focus on the needs of pedestrians, and seeing pavements as vital spaces for walkability and mobility, said CallisonRTKL's Tribe.

"It will result in a changed cityscape that is not only more resilient to future crises, but that is also more inclusive, designed around those that live in it," he said.

© Thomson Reuters Foundation

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

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I don't think Tokyo can survive as a doughnut.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

It seems that the exception is Japan where the lack of free public spaces is apparent!

11 ( +11 / -0 )

And our houses will be like the Jetsons.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

I thought the vaccine was going to bring everything back to normal.

Seeing as how cities are being totally restructured, it seems that the corona-normal is the new normal.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

“doughnut” cities have been around for about 40 years, ever since shopping malls were built outside the city and businesses moved to the malls, people moved to the suburbs for the cheaper land/mortgage, and schools, especially universities, were moved into the country side.

It would be nice to live in a 15-minute city, though. Except, I do now because I don’t live in a megalopolis like Tokyo or Shanghai.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

I find urban planning a very interesting topic, the way in which people's environments shape how they live.

Coronavirus has been accelerating some existing trends, toward walkability and cycling, but the social distancing aspect also encourages more driving to avoid public transport. In Japan, the number of people learning to drive increased in 2020 after falling for many years. For countries with hard lockdowns, access to green spaces will have affected individual experiences of the measures.

The classic donut city was Detroit after the so-called "white flight". There are some great documentaries about it, including the Julian Temple one.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

while in New Delhi it was down 43%

But still at 500% capacity? Lol. Unless parks pay property taxes I doubt this will happen. More likely commercial rents will fall dramatically and different companies will trickle back because it is easier to find qualified workers in urban areas.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Tokyo couldn't even build an Olympic Park (the city could have used the land freed up by the old fish market, but apparently another conference centre is more important), so I doubt they'll be shifting to building any new parks any time soon.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Reckless- I suspect you are right, either the vaccine makes life like it was (doubtful) or people will leave cities that have closed restaurants, bars and gyms. For a price, everything will be rented, just not the price that was charged. BC and AC economics (before and after Covid)

Don't know about getting a bunch of buyers for skyscraper apartments to replace businesses when all those things are limited, and living (and riding elevators) up close and personal with others.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

The death of inner cities has been grossly exaggerated. Businesses will come back, restaurants will re open and life will start again. After the pandemic people will be desperate to get back to normal and people will be more keen on working away from home, travelling, eating out etc. I know I will be.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

More parka would be very welcome.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

How public transport moves forward is dependent on the extent to which people retain the social distancing of the pandemic or revert to normal. Concerns over global warming and the environmental heath impact of vehicles (more than just exhaust) will again start to reduce driving in cities.

Whether green areas increase in a city will depend on the culture and responsiveness of local politicians to public pressure/demands. Some cities are already quite green while others are a concrete nightmare.

In the long run, cities will evolve to meet what people require of them or cease to exist. Darwinian forces are applicable to cities as well as living organisms.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

People are the most social of creatures. We ain't designed to be alone. Watching football (or other sport) on TV is acceptable but can never compete with being in a stadium watching a game.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

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