Who’d have guessed that a microscopic virus, invisible to the naked eye, could vanquish the daily routines we so easily took for granted? Mundane mall dashes to grab the Sunday paper or a bottle of bubbly; breakfasts at the local cafe without a side of sanitiser; the mask-free magic of shared popcorn in a hushed cinema — all now unimaginable luxuries in our “new normal”. Forbidden fruits of a distant civilisation.
The enclosed, air-conditioned convenience offered by suburban shopping centres, gyms, open-plan offices (privatised, pseudo-public spaces). The previously desirable domains of safe, suburban privilege, subverted almost overnight into perilous minefields of viral danger. As the pandemic envelops us, nostalgia abounds for the carefree lives we left behind. Hope for a return to our former status quo seems increasingly misplaced. The new normal seems, well, so abnormal. This unsolicited paradigm shift does, however, provide the opportunity for fresh exploration of the ways we live, interact, and connect. How will the virus reshape our futures? What will our new (sub)urban landscapes look like once it leaves? If it leaves!
Let’s hope the resilience of the 24-hour pyjamas, 2020’s biggest look, eventually fades like the viral traces on day-old shopping bags. Other trends promise more sustained longevity. The workspace shift from centralised office nodes to private homes is already reducing our reliance on motorised transport. Sure, a home office means the end of checking out at 5pm, but it also means skipping the morning traffic. Shifting those gruelling client meetings to the virtual universe not only reduces pollution but also frees up extra leisure or production time.
The virtual-office vogue has been around a while; 2020 only accelerated the inevitable. Moves in shopping and entertainment reflect a similar swing to cyberspace. The “dead mall” phenomenon, nothing new in the US, is gaining traction across Europe and further afield, as retailers abandon traditional physical infrastructure in favour of more flexible, cost-effective, and germ-free digital platforms.
In South Africa, the pandemic has spurred a renaissance of public appreciation for our excellent climate and abundant open spaces. Suburban mall-rats, cocooned in commercially controlled comas for decades, are rediscovering their cities, parks, and sidewalks. Durban, Cape Town and Umhlanga already boast impressive promenades — connected community amenities linking fitness fanatics, leisure seekers, pavement vendors and, on occasion, even our president taking his morning constitutional. Joburg, however, lacks a grand outdoor space. The city may ooze gritty, can-do character, but is missing an urban heart — an anchor — like New York’s Central Park or Paris’ Jardin des Tuileries.
Surely, successful city neighbourhoods should connect via open-air malls, parks and pedestrian-friendly pavements rather than giant motorways? As trends shift away from large chain stores, giant corporate-office nodes, and acres of boxed-in mall space to online retail, bespoke local eateries, and neighbourhood-centred mixed-use high streets, perhaps it’s time to remove motorcars from the centre of society too?
Carefully selected carless streetscapes could provide perfect open-space amenities for al-fresco dining, community activity or even outdoor markets — a mini High-Line opportunity at the centre of each suburb. Imagine green public arteries in Linden, Rondebosch, Menlyn, Berea. At the very least, imagine progress towards well-tended pavements, pedestrian paths, and public parks with pop-ups for coffee and pastries. The move would promote not only appealing, open-air, virus-free, green experiences, but also a desperately needed step onto the economic ladder for small and informal business owners.
A glimpse at US architect Harvey Wiley Corbett’s City of the Future, with its crazy, layered activity, or the homogeneous order proffered in Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse suggests that urban ideals almost always miss the mark. City tectonic transformation is organic, as unpredictable as the cough from a mask-free jogger as he brushes past. However, the pandemic paradigm shift provides the perfect opportunity to move our cities in a direction that’s greener, healthier, more democratic, equitable, connected, and accessible to all who live in them. I’ll take one flat white, with a side of uninterrupted blue sky and a sparkling vista across Emmarentia dam please. I hope city bureaucrats are listening.
• From the August edition of Wanted, 2020.