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Covid-19 will change cities but high rises are here to stay

The disruption of Covid-19 may not be enough to affect existing "mega-trends", writes Benoit Dupont, co-founder and CEO of WeMaintain.

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When the New York Journal contacted Mark Twain to ask him whether he was seriously ill or dead, he responded: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” For those of us whose work is intimately tied up with cities and buildings, this anecdote readily comes to mind. Because, despite the ongoing challenges presented by Covid-19 and a supposed exodus to the countryside, reports of the death of high-rise buildings are exaggerations as well. Buildings aren’t getting any shorter simply because they’ve recently been less occupied. Have a look at New York City, where the newly built 1,401-foot One Vanderbilt towers over much of the city’s sky-piercing skyline.


But pandemics undoubtedly do change the look of cities. Londoners have an 1830s cholera outbreak to thank for their sewage system, for example. Despite proposals to modernise the city’s sewage system in the early 1700s, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century, when the water supply was identified as the means by which cholera was spreading, that a modern system was built. But high-rises are here to stay because in urban areas, space is in demand and therefore expensive; building upward remains the best alternative in many cities to building outward. Other aspects of cities will have to evolve, however. And some of the most noticeable changes will take place not outside buildings but within them.

 

Some of these interior changes will relate to the growing role that technology is playing in our everyday life. We may see technology that can rapidly gather and distribute health information around a building emerge; some businesses have already installed simple temperature-testing technology to make sure that the people entering aren’t positive for Covid-19. Tech that can count the number of people who are in a building at any one time will also likely be used. And technology that can be used hands-free will become more and more desirable.

Cities will have to evolve and some of the most noticeable changes will take place not outside buildings but within them

Offices might undergo a rapid reshaping. Designers will have to figure out ways to allow for people to come in and out and to work close by but also at a distance. And ventilation systems might be rethought or installed: Angela Merkel has said that ventilation may be one of the cheapest and most effective ways to contain Covid-19 since 90 per cent of patients pick up the virus indoors. Train operators in the UK have already said that windows will be left open and ventilation will be maximised.

 

And sanitisers—now a regular sight in every office, restaurant, pub and shop—are probably here to stay. One of the more humbling realisations the pandemic has forced us to confront is that we have neglected the importance of hygiene and hand-washing to the prevention of the spread of infectious illness. Even if we had a clear idea of when the Covid-19 crisis might end, it is likely we would still consider it prudent to stock up on sanitiser.

 

People are right to say that adoption of tech and increasing environmental concern are two major outcomes of the pandemic. But really these “mega-trends” were underway long before the outbreak. All organisations with one eye on the future have invested steadily in digitalisation in recent years, and those that haven’t have found themselves on the back foot. Likewise, corporate social responsibility has evolved, and brands have increasingly been scrutinised for their environmental practices, including those whose practices have not extended to their suppliers. Consumers have increasingly voted with their wallets, punishing those organisations seen to be disregarding the planet.

 

The virus has only accelerated these mega-trends and made them obvious to see. And insofar as something as devastating as a global pandemic can have victors, they will be the organisations and individuals who have embraced both these trends and made changes. But I don’t have a crystal ball.. We may see innovation that we can’t imagine at this point in time. We can at least be relatively certain that cities and the buildings within them, which are naturally evolving, will endure through and past the pandemic.

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