Post-pandemic new town: a retrospective view
Lately, there is a lot of discussion about the future of working. Mainly because of the possibility of working from home for almost two years now, many workers are not willing to come back to the office doing the usual 9–5 working arrangement (leading to “the Great Resignation” in the US or the rethinking of the “996” culture in China for example). One of the main arguments is that working remotely could generate similar results in comparison to working physically in the office. This was possible mainly because of the advancement in technology of working collaboratively and remotely which came first as a mere necessity. This necessary technology advancement makes me wonder, if working – which might take up more than one-third of our life – is changing rapidly, is our way of using a city, in general, will change rapidly too? Reacting to that, looking from my lenses as an urbanist, should we change the way we design our city too?
Lots have been discussed concerning this issue of rethinking the way we design and plan our city post-COVID. For example, the relevance of a CBD, which became ghost towns during lockdowns in many major cities since no one was coming to the office and not many people are living in a CBD. Another example is the relevance of a city/development centred around an airport (or the so-called aerotropolis), which became pretty much obsolete since commercial flight travels were very limited. Or the major role of inclusive public open space (or lack thereof) as an open-air and therefore safe recreation place for people. The last example is the major role of the online delivery system in keeping both businesses and consumers alive – quite literally – by providing daily necessities without much physical contact. With all these examples though, not much has been discussed about the relevance of new and old satellite towns. Or at least the one that I know of apart from this article about the 15-minute city concept for the suburb and this old article from 2015 in the Guardian about ‘handy step-by-step DIY guide’ of building a city from scratch that for some reasons in the top 10 articles in the Guardian at the time I am writing this article (November 2021).
Having focused on this topic for more than eight years now, I think the topic of new town hasn’t progressed that much. Although it is one of the staple project typologies for many design firms around the world and despite its huge impact on the world socially, economically and environmentally, this topic is rarely being deeply discussed in an academic setting or for the general public. Sure whatever topics that were “trending” at the time has always been affecting the design of a new town like the “Sponge City” topic in China, “Smart City ” in India or “Sustainable New Capital City” in Indonesia (I wrote an article about it in 2019) or just to name a view. And now, with the idea of living with COVID-19, surely the topic will become a hot commodity (or maybe already is) in the business of creating new towns around the world. What is the post-COVID new town like? What would be the major difference with the pre-COVID new town?
The answer to these questions might not be straightforward, and of course, being a consultant myself that would be like answering a million-dollar question. So, I will avoid answering it altogether. Instead, in the spirit of retrospective thinking, I asked myself,
“If I was given a chance to redo a project that I did before the COVID-19 pandemic – having the experience of living through the pandemic – what would I have done differently?”
One project comes to mind immediately as I was closely involved in this project for more than four years: Ecopark New Town, one of Hanoi’s satellite towns. I was working as an urban designer back in 2014–2016 in a design firm that was involved in amending the master plan of about 100 hectares. The master plan was finished in 2015 and the area has been constructed in two years, almost 99% following the proposed master plan. As an urban designer, seeing what you helped design to be fully built (not to mention following almost 99% of the master plan) early in your professional life is quite a rare occasion. Hence, this is a very important project to my career as an urban designer in general.
I then continued to deepen my understanding of Ecopark New Town from a different angle: an academic point of view. I took Ecopark as my case study for my Master’s graduation project in TU Delft, the Netherlands back in 2018. There, I investigated Ecopark not only from the point of view of the design product i.e., the master plan but also from the point of view of the design (and development) process. Lastly, after finishing my graduation project, I got the rare chance to implement (some of) my proposal into an actual project with Ecopark. In short, this project will have a lot of aspects that could be rethought in retrospect to the ongoing pandemic.
Here are some factors that I think might have played a role in the residence of Ecopark’s livelihood during the pandemic:
1. Made for people to live in
Ecopark’s positioning to attract young families as first-home buyers have helped them to mitigate becoming investment-only homes that in most cases lead to a “ghost town” situation in the context of Hanoi new towns. This decision has helped promote more people to live in the neighbourhood. Some of the evidence of life is in the personalisation of the buildings, roofs variations, ground floor shops flourishing, laundry hung around the houses and all the other mundane stuff that you won’t get in a “ghost town”. With people living there, the issue of travelling less for daily necessity could be achieved especially with a mixed-use community. Apart from that, with real people living there, a self-organised community organisation is possible to be formed. This is critical especially in bridging the gap between grassroots and government’s initiatives in dealing with the pandemic.
2. For the love of trees
Contrary to constructing a typical building which might take one to two years, developing a mature town could take twenty to thirty years. One of the reasons behind the success of Ecopark is I think in how they develop and manage the new town. Ecopark is by all means far from being a mature town. To this date, less than half of its area of 500 hectares has been developed. But whenever they are developing a new area, it always feels like a mature town from the first day the resident moved in. The reason? Lots and lots of mature trees. It started firstly because of the chairman of Ecopark’s fondness of greeneries which leads to them creating tree nurseries on the land banks that they have inside the 500 hectares of land. So whenever they are developing a new area, they will source the trees from these nurseries which have been grown years in advance (I guess the balance between the benefit of having mature enough trees and the cost of moving the already too mature trees). It might not be a major advantage pre-pandemic as people only enjoy the greeneries at the weekend because of commuting to Hanoi on the weekdays. However, in the pandemic time, where people are forced to be staying around their house, having mature greeneries around your house would benefit the living quality (mentally and physically).
3. Working (closer) from home
Many Hanoi new towns including Ecopark are envisioned to be self-sustained towns. What it means is that the citizen of this new town can pretty much do all their daily activities inside the new town: living, working and playing. However, in most cases, while living and playing are quite easily fulfilled inside the new town (by providing residential and commercial uses), working inside the new town has always been a big issue. People are still required to commute to their working place which is usually close to Hanoi’s city centre. Now more than ever, when the concept of working remotely is already becoming a reality for many people, fulfilling the concept of working in this self-sustained town is supposedly closely followed. The main question is, do these new towns have the necessary working spaces?
Specifically for Ecopark, a CBD has been planned in the master plan but is yet to be realised. Learning from what happened to CBDs around the world during the pandemic, this mono-functional urban typology might not be the suitable answer in providing working spaces for the resident. The currently available commercial uses nearby their residential uses are ground floor retails, whether in the form of a shophouse or a residential podium. However, these type of spaces was not designed for a working space as the spaces are quite limited. Hence, the answer might lie in between the two: flexible working space that is not as dense and mono-function as a CBD but have larger working space and have more common facilities than a ground floor retail. Working spaces that are flexible enough where an individual worker can still have a working space closer from home and small to a mid-size company can still move in and have a permanent office.
4. Designing a healthier community
There is no denying that our living environment is closely affecting our physical and mental health. We learnt that the hard way through this pandemic. Being isolated inside our home more than we have ever been, we appreciate more the simple things like good air circulation, passive cooling and heating or adequate natural light. The same goes for living in a city. Healthier cities tend to promote a more active lifestyle, more walking and cycling for example. Learning from a lot of cities that are promoting more active mobility and fewer cars in their city centres during the pandemic, we know that a healthier city is possible by design and by choice. In the case of Ecopark, some of the principles of a healthy city were there during the design process. However, some improvements could be made.
For example, cycling infrastructure was planned in the original master plan although not a very comprehensive one. Improvement like a dedicated and protected bike lane, more bike parking infrastructures, and integration with the public shuttle bus could be made to promote more people in using a bike to move around the new town. Moreover, integration with the larger public transportation system especially in pushing the future plan for an LRT system running through Ecopark could also help promote more active mobility immensely.
I know these are just the tip of the iceberg of how the post-pandemic new town could be different. A lot of aspects that were brought to light because of the pandemic like social segregation, economic disparity and environmental impact are not being thoroughly discussed in this article. Especially when Ecopark themselves had faced quite a controversial allegation of land conflict. However, to the very least, answering this question pushes me to continue pursuing to create a better new town of the future. It is important to note that some of the aspects are not unique to Ecopark. I think the changes might be applied to a lot of new towns out there in a similar satellite city context like Jakarta, Bangkok, and Shanghai. Hence, I am truly excited about how this pandemic will change the way we design new towns.
On a separate note, I asked the question of how the pandemic will or has changed their works to some of my friends. The answers are quite diverse and interesting! A friend from the tech industry said that the pandemic made his team focus more on automation and individual tasks rather than teamwork. In essence, limiting collaboration which is tricky in this pandemic time. Another friend from the lighting industry said that the topic of circadian rhythm became a spotlight (pun intended) during the pandemic. Essentially to create the artificial light to be as close as possible with the natural skylight, substituting our time spent indoors most of the day. Lastly, my friend in the field of corporate interior design said that a lot of office workers want to continue working remotely, but not from home. Instead, “third places” that are close to homes like a cafe or a public library will be the preferred place (she mentioned specifically not a co-working space since it is essentially still an office).