The post-pandemic city: China bets on the new normal

Urban Development: China is building a ‘Covid-proof’ city from the ground up outside Beijing.

Has the pandemic killed the city as we know it? In the Chinese “new area” of Xiong’an the state is backing an ambitious plan for a more self-contained way of living. Will others follow?

Three years ago, Xiong’an was billed as “the city of the future”. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, that future looks less certain.

Guallart Architects, from Barcelona, have drawn up a scheme for the new technology and education hub. It is a picture of post-pandemic living that might disrupt the idea of the city itself.

China is investing trillions of yuan to build apartment blocks with locked-down living in mind. The focus is on green space, 5G connectivity and self-sufficiency. Communal greenhouses will provide extra food, and 3D printers will compensate for breakdowns in the supply chain.

With its eco-futurist, timber-and-glass design, the project looks more like a hi-tech village than a towering cityscape of yore.

Some argue that the forces that give cities their gravitational pull – offices, street-commerce and nightlife – are waning in a world where fewer workers will see the inside of an office, and where dancing can be dangerous. If, as some argue, more pandemics are coming, cities have to change.

Could they become more like villages? Around the world, urbanists have started calling for a “15-minute city”, where all the trips citizens need to make can be completed on foot or by bike within that time, avoiding risky public transport.

Those who see change on the horizon point to previous revolutions in urban design, many occasioned by disease. The wide boulevards of Paris, for example, are the legacy of cholera epidemics; they were intended to stop the spread of miasma through narrow streets.

In the UK, more people are leaving inner London in search of space. Those who once wanted a choice of tapas bars nearby, apparently now want gardens. Cities, some argue, must redesign themselves to fit new needs and new priorities.

Some, however, are less sanguine about the new possibilities for urban life. Cheerleaders for cities often praise them for promoting public gatherings and chance encounters. From Athens to Florence, Manchester to Mumbai, cities have been hubs for free-thinking and innovation. Will this be possible in self-contained 15-minute units?

Others are sceptical about a revolution in urban design for different reasons. After all, cholera was not in fact spread by miasma. Paris’s boulevards were as helpful for the quick deployment of troops as for disease prevention. More contained urban areas may benefit state control, as well as public health.

Lockdown, and the threat of it, creates needs that current cities struggle to meet. Urban planners are racing to satisfy these conditions without cutting cities off from what made them attractive to so many.

So, has the pandemic killed the city as we know it?

Key to the City

The city is dead, say some. If remote work and remote learning become standard, the city centre will not attract people’s attention. If it remains hard to congregate in large groups or in small spaces, or to take public transport, the conventional charms of urban living will disappear. Many people who can work from home will leave cities, or leave them unrecognisable.

Long live the city, say others. People have predicted their decline before. The telegram and telephone were once thought to eliminate the need for offices, yet here we are. Workers in many industries will still have to live near workplaces and people will still want things to do together and places to gather. The 15-minute city is a welcome addition, and will help ensure the city lasts forever.

You Decide

  1. The tower blocks in Xiong’an will include swimming pools and greenhouses, but what other attractions would you want in your block?
  2. UK planning law makes new large-scale developments like Xiong’an much harder to build. Should we try to make them easier to build?

Activities

  1. Design a city block that you think would be a pleasant and exciting place to live, even if another lockdown was implemented. Try to make it as self-sufficient as possible.
  2. One interesting recent experiment in building a new town in the UK was Poundbury. Compare Poundbury to the plans for Xiong’an and write about which town you find more appealing, and why.

Some People Say...

“There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

Jane Jacobs, (1916–2006) American urbanist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the Covid-19 pandemic has drastically changed the way people use urban space. There has been a stark decline in the number of workers going into offices and an increase in people moving out of large cities. The daily commute may be becoming obsolete; compared to 2019 there were only 37% as many passengers on British trains this August. Urban planners have been advocating a major overhaul of how cities are laid out to make them easier to live in.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is whether cities will be able to adapt to the post-pandemic world. While China may be investing in huge new cities, it may be hard, especially if the global recession worsens, to retool cities for a world of pandemics. Some think that remote working could kill cities, while others think that, ultimately, they will become better places for living. Whether we have the capacity to “build back better” and for whom, remains to be seen.

Word Watch

Yuan
The yuan is the basic unit (like the dollar) of the Chinese currency, which is actually called the renminbi. The Chinese government is expected to spend $500 billion on developing Xiong’an.
Eco-futurist
A style that seems at once modern and environmentally friendly. Futurism began as an Italian art movement in the early twentieth century. The futurists were obsessed with machinery and speed, but the term has since come to refer to attempts to imagine new styles of art and architecture.
Yore
Old-fashioned. It is in fact an old-fashioned way of saying “old-fashioned” that tends to allow for extra emphasis.
Waning
Growing smaller or weaker. The term comes from the phases of the moon, which also waxes as it grows larger.
Urbanists
People who study towns and cities from a variety of theoretical perspectives.
Miasma
An unhealthy air or vapour. Until the 1880s, most scientists in the West believed that diseases were spread by bad air. This theory was replaced by the germ theory of disease, but belief in the discredited idea actually drove a great number of improvements to public sanitation and sewage systems.
Sanguine
Optimistic. The term comes from an old medical theory, when the body’s workings were thought to be governed by “humours”. These were four fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. A person’s temperament was determined by which humour was dominant; so having more blood than bile apparently put you in a better mood.

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