The Post-Crisis City: Rethinking Sustainable Vertical Urbanism

At the dawn of a new decade, cities around the world are in a state of crisis greater than has been seen in living peacetime memory. In early 2020, the world experienced a pandemic of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on a larger scale than any seen since the influenza pandemic of 1918, radically altering, practically overnight, most of the precepts that make high density and urban life desirable, and pushing the global economy into a recession. In an effort to stem the spread of this deadly virus, much of the global population was placed under movement restrictions of some kind, shuttering mass gatherings and altering vehicular and pedestrian density in major cities around the world. The entire social proposition of cities seems to have been upended and left in a state of suspended animation, including the very premise of commercial real estate, given the broadly successful transition to home working for many. Until a widely available vaccine is developed, there is no way of predicting when or whether urban life can return to “normal,” or what the “new normal” looks like. Meanwhile, the crises already afflicting cities: including overpopulation, inequality, and climate change, have not abated.

Against this backdrop, now is the time to engage in serious thought on how cities and tall buildings can be optimized to support the best health, social, and economic outcomes, even as protocols for how we occupy public space and conduct daily interactions are likely to change. City-makers have long recognized that minor improvements to building performance do not by themselves constitute an urban sustainability or resilience strategy; what is needed is a comprehensive vision for merging a new branch of “resilience,” rapidly being developed to combat contagion, into the wider sustainability plans of our cities. What has been missing is both the political and financial impetus to make bold, broad changes. The present crisis, in addition to reminding us of the fragile interdependence of our urban planet, provides greater access to these levers of power than has been available in generations. The question is, how can we best seize the moment?

Just as the events of 11 September 2001 led to premature obituaries for the tall building, only to be followed by the greatest boom in tall building history, the crisis of the pandemic has already provided fertile ground for declaring that “the office is history” or “the city as we know it is dead.” But it must be remembered that many of the greatest improvements to city life, from indoor plumbing and sewers, to mechanical ventilation, to urban parks and zoning controls, came about because of great crises, many of which were health-related just as the one we face today. We therefore invite you to a great conversation, one that will seek solutions and strategies that will fulfill the promise of healthier, more sustainable cities for the future generations.