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How are Cities Being Designed for the Post-COVID World?

As the world is well into year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, many things have changed. Masks have become the norm for many, while people are still adjusting to life after years spent at home and social distancing. In addition to these new normals, life continues to move on. This includes urban planning and development, particularly surrounding cities. Let's take a look at how urban areas are being designed today.

Apr 28, 2022
  • Education
How are Cities Being Designed for the Post-COVID World?

York University professor Roger Keil, who specializes in these fields, says that post-COVID “The world of work will change. People will reassess what they do, how they do it, and how often. Will they go in three or five days a week? Will offices change the internal design of work spaces? Will we lose the plexiglass? Probably not anytime soon, not in public environments like universities or banks. People will learn to live with masks. the cities in the west will experience what we’ve known in cities of the east. When you're sick you put on the mask, it won't be stared at anymore, and people will think it's a reasonable decision to make.”

With all the changes that happened due to the pandemic, it’s not unexpected there are significant changes taking place in the design of cities.

COVID changed urban planning

The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light many of the issues facing cities, such as susceptibility to the climate change crisis, higher risks of infection, and increasing rates of poverty. According to the World Bank, in some places “urbanization has been accompanied by lower poverty, job creation and growth, distribution of such urban gains has been uneven, often marked by striking spatial, social and economic inequalities. [...] That is why cities’ plans to recover and rebuild from COVID-19 must strive to address long-standing vulnerabilities and go beyond addressing the health impacts of COVID-19 to tackle the persistent inequalities that the poor and vulnerable contend.”

Early in the pandemic, York University planning researchers pointed out that “Returning to the status quo should not, must not, be an option after Covid-19. Planning needs to be tuned to the demands of a changing reality with opportunities beyond the inequalities, polarizations and fragmentations we have built into our cities in past generations.” Keil told The Guardian, “There is no one path for all great cities to follow. This is a negotiated process. It’s one we have some agency in.”

It should work for everyone

Perhaps most importantly, urban development changes will need to work for everyone, with a focus on managing the most pressing issues. For example, currently over one billion people worldwide live in slums, which makes social distancing and access to good hygiene practices difficult. Therefore, cities have been the highest epicenter for infection from the COVID-19 virus.

As people begin to flee from their homes due to the ongoing pandemic, political unrest, and climate crises, cities become host to up to 60% of the world’s refugees. As a result, any changes made will need to work at accommodating greater volumes of people, but also doing it in a way that keeps them safe, healthy, and comfortable.

Global Director for the World Bank's Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience and Land Global Practice, Sameh Wahb, addressed these concerns, saying “If urban areas are where COVID-19 impacts have been the most severe, it also means that interventions in cities and towns can have the biggest impact. [...] Cities are vulnerable to climate shocks and produce an outsized share of carbon emissions. But that also means they are the key to climate sustainability and where green investments will have the biggest outcomes.”

Professor Keil has spent his career studying crises and how cities are impacted. He explains, “We learned a lot about the weaknesses in our cities. Stats show that poverty and disease are linked, overcrowded living conditions, and precarious work environments are tied to disease vulnerability. This will change one way or another, the way we look at cities as spaces.”


One of the major issues brought to light by the pandemic was how quickly key services and supports could be brought to a halt by disease. In Italy, “Severe disruption to supplies of personal protective equipment put shocking numbers of staff at risk in Italy’s hospitals.” As a result, decentralizing services and supply chains can help improve overall outcomes by keeping those services functioning. Rather than maintaining governmental control of essential services such as healthcare or waste management, privatization and decentralisation can improve outcomes. Having services outsourced or managed by a variety of different organizations can help keep one broken cog from jamming the entire system. As reported by Arup, “During a crisis, decentralisation delivers another strength: resilience. It reduces the single points of failure that make centralised systems so vulnerable.”

Needs to be sustainable

However, any design changes being made to cities needs to be sustainable and work for the long term. A huge contributing factor to the issues faced by cities while managing the pandemic has been solutions that are designed for the short-term, as opposed to the long term. According to RTPI,”A growing number of people and organisations are calling on governments around the world to plan for a recovery from Covid-19 that meets long-term economic, social and environmental objectives in ways that are fair and inclusive across wealthier and poorer communities and countries.”

Using the catchphrase “build back better,” these organizations hope to encourage policy makers and developers to focus on three key areas: inclusivity and fairness, sustainability and restoration, and resilience and adaptation. Under sustainability and restoration, the work would be geared towards creating more climate-neutral cities, urban upgrades, and “investing in reliable and smart energy grids and low-cost renewable energy and supporting resource substitution and ecologically restorative land use management.” Of restructuring, Keil said “What we need to strive for as urban planners is to also get to some of the root causes of some of the vulnerabilities people live with. There are terrible inequities in cities. Many people have ended up in positions of precarious work. Delivery services had an enormous boost to their business, and hired tens of thousands of people across North America. Those are largely not good jobs. Many have people working shoulder to shoulder, times done without masks, and the sanitary environments are not good. Many of those kinds of workplaces have been created on the outskirts of cities, and don’t get as much attention because attention tends to be in the core of cities.”

Influence on tourism

As many cities rely heavily on the tourism industry, which has been deeply impacted by the ramifications of the virus. In order to make travel achievable and safe, many cities are going to have to develop plans in order to help attract tourists back to their cities.

In an effort to help revitalize the travel industry, Liverpool City Region Growth Company developed a two-year Visitor Economy Recovery Strategy, which “ proposes a raft of urgent interventions as well as longer term measures to help the £5 billion-a-year industry return to full health.”

Like many cities, Liverpool felt the economic pain of losing a bustling tourism industry during the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, Liverpool had been the fifth most visited city in the UK by international visitors and Mayor Steve Rotheram isn’t ready to give up. Of the long-term recovery efforts, Rotherham says, “I want us to economically recover from Covid quickly so we can get back to where we were pre-pandemic as the fastest growing city region in the country.”

What’s next?

In order to meet the demands of changing the direction of urban planning and how cities are designed post-COVID, students will need to be prepared to take up the challenges ahead. There is going to be a call for individuals with the skills, education, and experience necessary to make the changes needed. This begins with a top-notch education. One school leading the way in many fields that contribute to the design of cities is York University in Toronto, Canada. Degrees at York University include social sciences, environmental and urban studies, planning and geography, all of which can start one on the course towards helping make significant change in the world.

While previously careers focusing on environmental studies were considered ‘niche’, that is rapidly changing. Now, there is “an emerging job market for professionals with experience in corporate social responsibility and sustainability has pushed this training to the mainstream.”

In order to meet this demand, York University responded by creating the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change (EUC). The EUC merges together the “the former Faculty of Environmental Studies and geography department” to “provide a suite of new undergraduate and advanced degree programs in 2021, including environmental and arts justice, global geography, and sustainable environmental management.”

Professor Keil says, “York University is a unique place in the sense that it has an emphasis on social science and humanities. It has growing facilities in engineering and health and sciences, but traditionally was a liberal arts university. York is very multidisciplinary. Students are encouraged to look in the program and take courses outside to make use of the full array of opportunities. This is replicated by the faculty of environmental and urban change. The tradition of environmental studies has always been multidisciplinary, to look beyond the pale, to not be tunnel visioned in their own discipline, but encourage them to be inspired by other things. Students are challenged to step out of their normal ideal of what an urban planner does.”

Students work on a curriculum that is interdisciplinary, as well as has a strong focus on hands-on learning. This allows students to explore various career pathways, such as “wildlife biology, natural resource conservation, waste management, and economic development,” according to EUC Dean Alice Hovorka. Situated in Toronto, the EUC allows students to work directly with the populations they would be working with after graduation, and to gain real-world experience tackling life in a city in a post-pandemic world.

Students can explore a variety of programs, including the globally renowned Masters in Environmental Studies (MES) program. This program is a two year, fully accredited degree that equips “students with the knowledge and competencies necessary to work on complex and interrelated social and environmental problems linked to land use in an era of profound transformation in climate, urbanization, governance, technology and nature.”

Graduates of this program have a deep, intrinsic understanding of the challenges facing city dwellers and their communities, as well as “an in-depth understanding of pressing issues of social and environmental justice, the role that planning plays in redressing these critical problems, and the necessary skillset to effect change.”

Student Tanishka Mehta relocated to Toronto from Dubai to attend York University. As a fourth year student in the Cities, Regions, Planning Program, she has felt as though York University has been her “home away from home for the past four years,” and she has “enjoyed every moment.” She says, “It’s very supportive, because the faculty is really incredible, and there’s always professors or teaching assistants who I can go back to. I don’t hesitate to reach out to them, and the courses are designed in such a way that they build onto each other. It feels like you’re slowly building your foundation for the topics that you’re studying for.”

As a rapidly growing university, York employs internally known professors who are knowledgeable in the critical problems facing urban environments. Professor Keil, has been with York University for thirty years, and is responsible for pioneering teaching and research on urban environments and related fields. “York University is a fantastic place. It’s a very strong institution with a bright future,” he says.

In the Cities, Regions, Planning program, students focus on three thematic concentrations: urban worlds, urban planning and politics, and urban political economy. Through this program, students “Acquire the foundational knowledge, critical thinking and technical skills to create tangible change in urban, suburban and regional environments.”

Dewayne Chambers, Project coordinator and graduate of the Environmental Studies BSc program at York University, says, “The years I studied were fundamental to my knowledge and awareness of sustainability development theories and the process to make these policies practical while striving for a utilitarian society.” One of his most memorable experiences during his program included working closely with Professor Nyssa Van Vierssen Trip on “Landscape ecology programs that simulated the urban and farming activities on the natural landscape. The simulation provides the user the limit of urban and agricultural activities.”

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the course of the future for many, particularly those living in cities or urban areas. However, these changes are something that can be shifted towards something positive, with the help of individuals who are willing to work hard, and make those necessary changes. York University is a great place to get started, and is ready for those who are willing to embrace the future.

Article written in association with York University - Faculty of Urban and Environmental Change.

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Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change | YORK UNIVERSITY
Chelsea Castonguay


Chelsea is a Student Affairs expatriate, who now works as a freelance writer and editor. She homesteads in a small town in rural Maine, USA. She enjoys hiking, fishing, cooking, reading, all things Laura Ingalls Wilder, spending time with her family, and chasing her black lab puppy, Cash.