Three expert insights into how we might best design our future urban spaces

Sweco architect Bas Horsting, urban planner Lisette van der Kolk and Dr Martin Stransky, Assistant Clinical Professor, Department. of Neurology, Yale University School of Medicine

The coronavirus is going to affect our way of planning. "Insights in the field of hygiene and public health have always had a major impact on urban planning and architecture", say architect Bas Horsting and urban planner Lisette van der Kolk. So, are we going to continue compacting urban areas, mixing functions and striving for maximum (international) accessibility? Or are we taking a different path?

"Infectious diseases have more often been a driving force to drastically break with building principles of the past," says Bas Horsting. Major cities were shut down in the 19th century. Sucked in by the Industrial Revolution that promised prosperity and economic prosperity, residents in the inner cities lived close together in homes that were bad for health. Large families lived in basement homes without daylight, they were damp and small, often without sanitation. In many cities throughout Europe there were streets and smelly canals resembling open sewers. The conditions were a breeding ground for infectious diseases such as smallpox, dysentery, flu, typhoid, tuberculosis and cholera.

In the Netherlands, the housing law in 1901 put an end to the poor conditions in the Dutch slums. Municipalities were given power and resources to drastically tackle neighbourhoods. Building regulations and expansion plans were the tools by which politicians, urban planners and planners could get to work. "With these means of control under their arm, the Dutch urban planning gained steam. Planners, architects and urban planners increasingly determined how the city took shape" – says Lisette van der Kolk.

"Insights and developments in the field of the spread of diseases, hygiene and public health have had more influence on the spatial views of architects, urban planners and planners than we often realize" says Bas Horsting. Take the garden city model (Ebenezer Howard, 1898) with a balance between nature and buildings in response to the increasingly polluted industrial city that was ravaged by contagious diseases. In Paris, architect Le Corbusier wanted to offer the inhabitants of the Le Marais district, which was ravaged by impoverishment and tuberculosis, a healthy, green and light urban environment by demolishing it almost completely. A clean slate: eighteen cross-shaped skyscrapers of sixty floors, placed in a city park. Plan Voisin (1925) was never realized, but has inspired many architects and urban planners to this day.


For the time being, the return of a highly contagious disease to our cities raises many questions. Should we recalibrate these existing principles for area development, as we did before? Or can we do enough with digital innovations and continue where we left off when this crisis is contained?

Dr Martin Stransky, Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Neurology, Yale University School of Medicine: “We must keep both our social links and our connection with the natural world as strong as possible.” He believes that there are a number of key factors to keep in mind as we look to the future. “First we must design as much as possible to interact with ecology and nature, encourage as many green spaces and try to ‘keep things open’, we must ensure we do not replace the connection with our natural surrounds with that of a technological ‘virtual fish tank’.”

As an architect, Bas Horsting sees it as follows: "From a historical perspective, I predict a reaction in thinking about our urban environment and possibly a recalibration of the principles of urban planning. There's one certainty, we need to think again”.

From a planning perspective, Lisette van der Kolk states: "As a planner, I always focus on making the most of the (public) space. In my opinion, resilience and adaptability should be prominent in this as necessary functions. In response to unpredictable changes, now in the light of the health crisis but also, of course, when it comes to the climate crisis. This can be translated into green and blue structures, maintaining open space and creating sufficient light and airiness in spatial plans. This creates freedom of movement and creates a balance between efficiency and flexibility in the city.”

We don't have definitive answers. But let us use this time to think again about new concepts and models of the city of the future.

Read Urban Insight report ‘Neighbourhoods of Tomorrow Mastering densification and climate resilience’ for further information about how to best design urban spaces of the future to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

Explore the Urban Insight website for more solutions and insights into sustainable urban design.