Editorial: How Covid-19 Changes the Way We Live

About this issue

Issue number
Volume 47 – Number 3


As we move from emergency ‘fixes’ to longer term accommodation of ‘living with Covid’, the time seemed ripe to take stock of how Covid-19 is changing the way we live. We asked authors, including guest editors of recent issues of the journal, to write think pieces on themes that have particular lessons for urbanism during the pandemic period. Our brief to them was to focus on experiences in their respective domains and to look towards future directions and impacts on the built environment. The range is consciously eclectic and wide ranging and while it cannot attempt to be comprehensive it hopes to capture definite insights and lessons.

The interconnectedness of the human community around the world has perhaps never been more clearly sensed than during the Covid-19 pandemic. Just as the Apollo astronauts’ novel perspective of ‘planet’ Earth changed the way we perceived the finite, fragile singularity of our global home, the Covid-19 pandemic has in its own way emphasized the inter-dependent unity of the world; but this time as a shared experience of ordinary earth-dwellers, bringing home that what we all do matters, and affects others, so that we are ‘all in it together’.

Indeed the Covid pandemic is a more pressing, effective lesson in the global consequences of local actions than an earlier popular trope, of the supposed flap of a butterfly in Brazil leading to a tornado in Texas.1 That was perhaps always too far-fetched as an insight into global cause and effect that could influence individuals’ behaviour, as the theory it derived from was too abstract, and the cause and consequences too remote and unpredictable to gain any practical traction. But a pandemic’s direct sense of cause and effect could be all too easily reckoned, through the spreading of unseen malicious biological agents, as the arteries of global travel pumped the virus ensconced in its human hosts across continents, spreading through packed commuter trains and mingling in heaving nightclubs, concerts, and sports events – the virus has impacted so many aspects of so many people’s lives that the scale of disruption could represent ‘an unprecedented modification of human interactions with the Earth System’ (Diffenbaugh et al., 2020).

Normally, individual disruptive phenomena where cause and effect could be construed have tended to remain relatively contained within specific domains – say, public hygiene and the spread of infection would be one domain; the relation between online shopping and the demise of the high street another; and the effects of isolation and loneliness on mental health quite another. But for Covid, all these domains have collided together in a perfect global storm of intermingled actions and consequences, all happening at once. 

At the individual level, where we live, where we work, where we shop, how we travel and who we meet become mixed up with what kind of dwelling we live in, what home technology we have access to, where and how our children are schooled, where and how we exercise; while at the macro level, land use and transport interactions interact in a massive experiment in travel choice, location theory, household composition, property and rental markets, all against the backdrop of the sombre lottery of an unheeding virus that strikes some but spares others. 

Unlike the inscrutable workings of butterfly wings, with Covid-19 we could directly experience, in government updates and popular media, the awesome power of our collective actions: the dramatic fall-off in travel, the rattling of empty trains and silence of the runways, the desertion of city centres, the cleansing of city air, alive with insects and birdsong, clear city waters once more teeming with fish, and bands of deer and boars and goats roaming our suburbs and rewilding our streets, as if somehow healing an age-old rupture with a sagacious nature. 

And despite some stories of species’ urban excursions turning out to have been ‘faked’ or at least exaggerated (Daly, 2020) – or perhaps even because of this – a vital point is that these were stories people wanted to believe in. So the pandemic animals became almost like a parable – so timely in an age of climate emergency – nature’s whisper of possibility that if we really wanted to change the world, we could.

The ‘we’ of this parable could mean ourselves as individual citizens, but more particularly we could mean those of us concerned with the domain of the built environment. 

Of course, there are a few degrees of separation, professionally, between ‘us’ and the virus. The virus itself is the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2; while the human disease resulting is Covid-19 (WHO, 2021). If we consider the disease and its effects on human health and morbidity as a first order effect, then we can regard human intervention in the form of medical treatment and care as a second order effect. The provision of hospitals and other healthcare facilities can then be seen as a further effect, where the built environment enters the story, in the form of hospital design and building services engineering. 

Then, moving from cure to prevention, we have the raft of measures that governments introduced to combat the transmission of the disease: from personal hygiene to staying at home – including home working, home shopping and home schooling – and social distancing, assisted in both public and private spheres by redesign of building interiors and streetscapes, and greater provision and use of outdoor facilities.

Change in the built environment is recognised as taking place at different rates – from the rapid, continuous fluctuations in traffic, through medium term economic, social and technological changes, to the enduring buildings and infrastructure (Wegener et al., 1986). Of course, during the present pandemic, these changes of whatever scale are all triggered at once, as we have in effect been collectively scared into behaviour change. We have witnessed government regulations introduced practically overnight. Shops and businesses could introduce their own rules about how many customers could enter their premises at once. People duly started queuing outside; and hence the rearrangement of streetspace, with more space given over to pedestrians. Urban authorities leapt at the chance to implement schemes that might otherwise have faced too much public opposition, at a stroke removing traffic lanes to hand over to slower, greener modes, and to remove ‘movement space’ to create more ‘place space’ as pop-up dining tables and parklets came into being almost overnight. 

We can then conceive of third or fourth order effects, on location of homes and workplaces, household decisions on commuting, concomitant effects on property markets, that we are still living through. And we can add in the claustrophobic effects of ‘lockdown’ on mental and physical health, and the consequent public reactions seeking space and solace in gardens, parks and wilder green spaces.

In so many ways the built environment professionals – architects, engineers, planners, urban designers, and landscape architects – have a role to play. Urban professionals can be considered as part of the public health drive, with urban design seen as preventative medicine – ‘spatial medicine’ or ‘medicine+’ (Rice, 2020). The remedial treatment has also been likened to creating a defensive ‘anti-virus’ built environment (Megahed and Ghoneim, 2020); or, more positively, the possibility of realizing a kind of ‘hedonistic urbanism’ (Martin, 2020). Across the board, the treatments typically include design of buildings (with particular emphases on circulation and ventilation); provision of public open space (and hence links to density); the urban streetscape (with extra space for social distancing); transport (design and management of vehicles, stations, interchanges and shifting of modes); and provision for local amenities and the short-distance city (Bereitschaft and Scheller, 2020; Cheshmehzangi, 2021; Frumkin, 2021). 

At broader spatial and temporal scales, there are all the decisions on where people live and work and shop (hence commuting, and telecommuting and teleshopping), and their implications for economic geography, such as the uncertain future of downtowns (Florida et al., 2021) and the potential shift from cities to exurbs and rural areas (Frumkin, 2021), that could amount to an ‘anti-urban turn’ (Ganesh, 2020); and concomitant social and political questions of who is being affected, where (Von Seidlein et al., 2020; Sethi and Creutzig, 2021). 

In fighting back on all these fronts, the pandemic has turned our urban areas into ‘living laboratories’ (Rice, 2020). Indeed, in evolutionary terms, we can interpret the pandemic as a catastrophic disruption or shock to the system, almost like an ‘extinction event’ that could kill off less competitive urban formats and practices, while simultaneously leading to rapid adaptation to what has become the ‘new normal’, and a ‘Cambrian explosion’2 of experimentation, trial and error of new forms and formats (Marshall, 2009). 

In the case of the pandemic, this means new ways of home working and schooling, adoption of new kinds of software and online etiquette, new ways of working, the rapid spread and acceptance of new kinds of streetspace intervention – pop-up cafés and parklets – with the selection, reproduction and adaptation of those that work; all leading to the co-evolution of new living and working practices, with innovations in the built environment types and formats, all happening at once, in unpredictable combinations and throwing up unprecedented opportunities.

As we turn from an emergency mindset of quick pandemic ‘fixes’ to longer term accommodation of ‘living with Covid’, the time seems ripe, some eighteen months into the pandemic, to take stock of Covid-19 and how it is changing the way we live, in relation to the built environment: hence this issue of Built Environment.

For this issue, exceptionally, we present papers that can serve as think-pieces – generally shorter than usual – that feature or combine topical empirical research or current reviews with longer term perspectives and an eye on the future. Authors include guest editors of recent issues of Built Environment, on themes that have particular lessons for urbanism during the pandemic period. Our brief to authors was to focus on recent experiences in their respective domains and to look towards future directions and impacts on the built environment. The scope is consciously eclectic and wide ranging; while it cannot attempt to be comprehensive it hopes to capture definite insights and lessons, building on several of the key themes outlined earlier.

Broadly speaking, we start with cities in general, and especially, their enduring centripetal raisons d’être. First up, Yasser Elsheshtawy opens with the question of ‘Build Back Better’ versus ‘Business as Usual’, first providing a brief overview of changes that have taken place in urbanism worldwide, and to what extent cities are taking the opportunity to re-configure in radical ways to be more humane and responsive. The author turns to look at two cases in detail – Cairo and Riyadh – to understand to what extent the pandemic response may simply constitute a continuation of conventional practices.

Next, Ian Wray addresses ‘Creativity, the City, and the Future’, considering the potential threat to conventional cities by the widespread adoption of online technologies during the pandemic, that substitute for human contact, and asking how cities might evolve in response to these new impulses. The paper first turns to London’s urban history, and then moves forward to the fall and rise of both London and New York in the 1970s and 1980s, considering theories of innovation and the creative process, which suggests that although cities may be restructured to combat the impacts of Covid-19, they will not be abandoned.

Also responding to the centripetal impulse, Jonathan Reades and Martin Crookston, in ‘Face-to-Face and Central Place’ look at how the working life and business of ‘great’ cities are increasingly oriented towards the activities in high-added-value trades and ‘opaque’ markets, where face-to-face interactions are still a vital part of what they offer. The authors conclude that world cities look set for continued dominance; centrality and scale will still be vital for the smaller conurbations, while the prospects for more peripheral locations may not be as positive as proponents of ex-urban flight may anticipate.

We then take a centrifugal turn, with three papers looking into the respective issues of commuting, suburban flight, and home working. Kiron Chatterjee and Fiona Crawford examine ‘Changing Work and Work-Related Travel and the Impact of Covid-19’ in the case of the UK. They explore how both working practices and travel have been altered by Covid-19, finding that the pandemic has accelerated pre-pandemic trends and led to a shift in how work is performed for almost all sectors of the economy, and conclude that policy interventions will need to be carefully directed to realize environmental, equity and health outcomes. 

Next, Murat Üçoğlu, Roger Keil and Seyfi Tomar consider the question of ‘Contagion in the Markets’ by presenting some preliminary research on the impact of Covid-19 on the housing sector in the Greater Toronto Area. They find that as working from home has become a new normal for certain economic groups, a new wave of suburbanization has accelerated; and the Covid-19 pandemic and the governmental policies to minimize its impact have exacerbated the affordability crisis in the Toronto Region

Of all the impacts of Covid-19, perhaps none has been more substantive than the shift to home working. In her paper on ‘Working from Home’, Frances Holliss considers how the Covid pandemic triggered an ‘experiment’ in home-working which has major consequences for urban areas. This can be interpreted as a paradigm shift in planning, from an assumption of separate residential and commercial areas, to a more mixed picture, seen not only in the provision of more – and different kinds of – space in people’s homes, but in the impacts on local residential neighbourhoods, their functions and amenities, and on central business districts. The paper also draws attention to social and spatial inequalities resulting from the pandemic, with the poor and the young disproportionately impacted; and suggests priorities for researchers and policy-makers.

The last four papers then provide snapshots of specific issues affecting particular aspects of the built environment and its management and use: the ‘sharing city’; public space design; public toilet access; and ‘festivalization’. 

In ‘“Wither” the Sharing City?’, Jeffrey Chan and Ye Zhang ask how the Covid pandemic has impacted sharing activities and practices in urban areas, considering aspects such as the urban commons, the uneven adaptation of sharing practices, the rise of digital surveillance, and the civic delight of sharing. They conclude that, despite everything, there is no better time to rediscover and redefine sharing systems in cities.

Sharing the physical domain of public spaces is then the topic of Tali Hatuka’s paper on ‘Laissez-Faire Public Spaces’. This paper considers what Covid-19 teaches us about public space, its use and future design, and asks if planners and designers should address the ‘unexpected’ when designing public spaces, discussing the social value and design of public space during both ‘calm’ and ‘stressful’ times. 

The specific issue of access to public toilets is then the theme of Jo-Anne Bichard and Gail Ramster’s paper ‘A Mighty Inconvenience’. This paper reflects on how the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns impacted the ability of people to access both public toilets and toilets found in private premises such as shops and cafés. This draws attention to how essential ‘public conveniences’ are, not only for their direct sanitary function but to enable full and equitable participation in the built environment.

Finally, in ‘The World turned Upside Down?’, John Gold and Margaret Gold address the impact of the pandemic on the ‘festivalization’ of cities. In their paper, they address the proliferation of festivals and mega-events hosted by cities round the world in recent decades, that was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Drawing on examples such as the Venice Biennale, Edinburgh festivals, and the Tokyo Olympics, the authors argue for the continuing importance of physical congregation in designated places, while noting that this spatial concentration of activity is enhanced rather than disadvantaged by the rise of digital alternatives.

Overall, we can discern three key cross-cutting themes in this collection, that can be taken as framing the challenges ahead of us: the spatial, the temporal and the socio-political.

The spatial dimension is a key meta pattern, already alluded to, manifested in the contrast between the centripetal – those papers highlighting the value of urban concentration, for larger settlements and cities, for creativity, face-to-face contact (Wray, Reades and Crookston, this issue) – and the centrifugal, in the sense of the potential for home working to bring quality of life improvements to home workers, the benefits of smaller towns and suburbs, and polycentric structures (Üçoğlu et al., Holliss, this issue).  This combination of issues also raises questions about centripetality at the smaller scale, in terms of what could happen to local, suburban and/or commuter town centres and high streets; and to what extent they might benefit from new kinds of creative agglomeration at the local scale.

A related sub-theme is to do with the division of labour spatially, and how work/home life is divided up spatially and temporally, and how this could be leading to de facto mixed-use suburbs, and implications for assumptions about land-use planning and monofunctional zoning (Holliss, this issue). This relates to the history of town planning based on separation of home and work, and also oriented to hygiene, recreation, and so on. Perhaps we could be moving into a phase of hybridity in space and time – where people work both at home and ‘at work’; with not only ‘residential’ areas becoming multifunctional, but with new kinds of ‘mixed use’ homes and buildings – unités d’habitation for the twenty-first century, perhaps.

Secondly, we have the temporal dimension: another general, recurring meta theme in the question of whether Covid has radically altered urbanism forever, or has simply exposed and accelerated what was happening already. We see emerging practices flourish and their uptake accelerate, while declining ones accelerate in their decline (e.g. Chatterjee and Crawford, Holliss, this issue); to some extent the pandemic is a temporary interruption to ‘business as usual’ (Elshashtawy, this issue) and we can also weigh up benefits of providing temporary solutions for exceptional circumstances, or solutions aiming for longer-term adaptation and resilience (Hatuka, this issue). A related theme is the evolutionary scenario of a multiplicity of innovations (e.g. online teaching or festival formats) – or existing unconventional cases that could find expanded niches and so go mainstream (e.g. pop-up cafés, parklets or e-scooters) – and the possibility for rapid experimentation in situ, and learning from successes and adapting them to other locations. Evolution teaches us lessons of both continuity and change: that we can expect some enduring human behaviours to prevail – such as desires for convenience and conviviality – while learning that assumptions about neighbourhoods and town centres are contingent, and no format is sacrosanct, whether shop-lined high street or shopping mall. 

Finally, we have the socio-political dimension: this relates to the familiar question of what (and who) public policy is ‘for’, and who is benefiting or being disadvantaged? Clearly, this is partly to do with issues of the sharing and ‘commons’ (Chan and Zhang, this issue) and public versus private provision, as seen with public toilet access (Bichard and Ramster, this issue); but it properly cuts across any of the themes herein. While home working may suit some kinds of work – such as creative and office work – there is a need also to consider those whose work cannot be shifted, or whose homes are not suited for home working (Holliss, this issue). The provision of transport relates to access to employment (Chatterjee and Crawford, this issue). That said, as Gold and Gold show (this issue) the digital alternative to place-based events actually allowed a wider reach to a more diverse attendance at some of the events featured.

In each case, we need to be alert to the potentially adverse consequences of leaving things to their own devices. For the spatial dimension, this implies policy seeking to protect and enhance places that might otherwise be endangered in a free-for-all. For the temporal dimension it means taking the tough decisions now that will avert longer term pain for generations to come. For the socio-political dimension, it means being vigilant lest the pandemic crisis allows the strong to prosper at the expense of the weaker; while responding to the most urgent public health needs, it may take more conscious action to avoid the potential exacerbation of inequalities. In effect, these are lessons as much for macro issues such as climate change – affecting ‘other’ people, somewhere else, at some future time – as they are for everyday urbanism. 

Whether the lessons of Covid-19 will be sufficiently heeded on a sustained basis remains to be seen. But perhaps the most positive message to take away for now is that where there is a will to grasp the opportunity to fix our urban areas for the better, there is a way. After all, the Covid-19 experience has shown us that we can take collective action to change our behaviour if we want to – or are scared into it. We can think the previously unthinkable – and make it happen – and see, and live and breathe, the benefits. Perhaps that is the single biggest lesson, of the parable of the pandemic, so far. The task then becomes how to make behaviour change stick, and rekindle the collective will, for the challenges to come. 


  1. Known as ‘the butterfly effect’ from the title Edward Lorenz’s paper to American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in 1972: ‘Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?’.
  2. The Cambrian explosion or radiation: the period  of rapid, wide-ranging biological diversification, between 541 million and approximately 530 million years ago, when practically all the major animal phyla started appearing in the fossil record.


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