Dr. Steffen Lehmann is an internationally recognized educator, scholar, author, urban designer, and strategic leader. He is Director of the UNLV School of Architecture and tenured full Professor of Architecture. He is also Co-Director of the interdisciplinary Urban Futures Lab, and CEO of the Future Cities Leadership Lab (see www.city-leadership.com). He was the inaugural Chair holder of the UNESCO Chair for Sustainable Urban Development for the Asia-Pacific Region, and has held senior positions in several universities across Europe, Asia and America. Before establishing his own practice Steffen Lehmann Architekten & Staedtebau GmbH in 1993 in Berlin, he worked with Pritzker-Prize winners James Stirling in London and Arata Isozaki in Tokyo.
A public health crisis can leave its mark on cities and architecture. History shows that pandemics can radically alter the way we think about, move around and work in cities. For example, following the global cholera and tuberculosis outbreaks in the nineteenth century, pandemics have reshaped our cities, and some of these consequences included the introduction of new urban systems; for instance, in 1850, European cities introduced modern drinking supply and sewerage systems as a direct result from the devastating cholera pandemic. This is particularly relevant for public space.
Generally, I think that all urban planning decisions should be firmly based on criteria for public health and well-being. If the city doesn’t make us happy and keep us healthy, it’s not a place we want to live.
For centuries, the promise of social interaction has always shaped our public spaces. People are now asking: What will be the lasting impact from the COVID-19 pandemic on our public space, such as the famous Las Vegas Strip? During the 2020 health crisis, people everywhere have self-isolated, stayed at home and avoided contact with others. It is still unclear how exactly this pandemic will alter urban life and what exactly will be the impact from this crisis on cities and their public spaces. But we can speculate and make some urban predictions of this post-COVID-19 future. I expect that having a garden will become again more popular, because when there is a stay-home order, life is simply so much easier if you can spend time outdoor in a garden. This could also be roof gardens.
Firstly, I believe that there is a lack of leadership and expertise, especially at the local government level, where people are too focused on the short-term election cycles. The design solutions and technologies for urban regeneration and green cities are widely available, and there is usually enough funding available. However, still the transition to an age of the sustainable city is not happening fast enough due to the lack of leadership.
Architects have always been leaders in society, leading during crisis and developing a positive vision of our future. Some architects have already started to develop post-coronavirus design principles, envisaging how the design of workplaces, mobility and public spaces will change. Post-pandemic, it is likely that our future homes will accommodate home offices and specific working-from-home areas, while the open-plan office layout seems to be passé. In terms of mobility, walkable compact neighbourhoods that are mixed use have clearly an advantage, as these do not require to travel closely with others in a subway carriage or in a bus. There is now also a revival of the bicycle in cities around the world.
An obvious question is in regard to density and mobility: How might our built environments—our cities, streets, squares and landscapes–transform to accommodate our conflicting desire for connection and mandate to social-distance during a pandemic? Urban planners will face the apparent tension between densification – the push towards cities becoming more concentrated, which is seen as essential to improving environmental sustainability – and disaggregation, the separating out of populations, which is one of the key tools being used to hold back infection transmission.
However, de-densification will not resolve the public health challenges. Our car-dependent suburbs have just created a large number of other problems. In general, density is not bad for our health, as it enables walkable cities, an active public space network and bustling commercial corridors, which fosters health, makes communities more resilient and allows us to curb climate emissions. In all the discussion about the health risks of density, it is important to remember that urban density provides for health, resilience and space for informal activities that are integral to our society. We will now need to rebuild trust in public space and density, and to rethink the types of public space and their role as spaces of shared values. There are so many good public spaces that I love. Just to name a few, good examples for such recently created spaces are:
Maitland Riverlink in New South Wales, Australia
Granary Square at Kings Cross in London, UK
Karen Blixens Plads Square in Copenhagen, Denmark
Plaza at the San Franciso Federal Building in the US
Ishigami’s Biotop Water Garden in Nasu, Japan
All these are very different and I like them for various reasons.
In times of social distancing, it’s important to remember that architecture is a discipline that can bring people together. The public space of the future will need to better balance the contradicting requirements between communal and individual: how can we provide opportunities to congregate and celebrate together and, at the same time, to provide space for individual reflection and enjoyment? Once the pandemic is over and life goes back to a “new normal”, we will be able to enjoy again our public spaces for gathering and shared outdoor activities.
My recent book on urban regeneration is a bold manifesto for transforming UK Cities in the age of climate change. The book offers guidance to planners, architects and decision makers on the complex process of how to transform cities. It is a 21st-century manifesto of urban principles, focusing on the characteristics of a ‘good place’ and the strategies of sustainable urbanism. It asks readers to consider how we can best transform the derelict, abandoned and run-down parts of our cities back into places where people want to live, work and play. The book also frames an architecture of re-use that translates and combines the complex science of cities and the art of urban and architectural design into actionable and practical guidance on how to regenerate cities.
Urban Regeneration (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019)
Fascinated by the typology and value of the compact European city model, I introduce three urban concepts. Over the last twenty five years, I have developed three key urban concepts that are essential for my work, as these provide a clear framework for all my urban design and advisory roles, and these are further detailed in the book:
The concepts provide solutions that will make our cities compact, walkable, mixed-use and vibrant again. In detail, the book presents a ten-point strategy for urban regeneration exemplified with 13 cases of UK cities. I believe that under the current context, the relevance, strategic thinking and adapation potential of these ten points has become even more important: for instance, strategies such as ‘Public space as a catalyst for a better city’, or ‘A public space network for a compact, mixed-use and walkable city’, or ‘Thinking long-term and making the most of what we have’ – these are all timeless valid strategies that will always be relevant for us.
This has been a very challenging time for many of us, including for the School of Architecture at UNLV in Las Vegas. Promoting the health and safety of our students, faculty and community, we made the early decision in March 2020 to enact online teaching for all courses and programs, to avoid the gathering of people on campus. All our teaching and learning activities have been transitioned to online delivery mode (more information on the UNLV School of Architecture can be found here: www.unlv.edu/architecture ).
However, I also believe that we can turn this into a time for personal growth and rich learning. It is important to inspire and communicate a positive future of our profession to our young graduates, and show that there is a meaningful place for them to contribute in their own way to the future of America’s architecture and its urbanization process. The pandemic scenario has unfolded so rapidly that we still have to fully grasp the reality of the situation and its consequences.
New perspectives and outlooks may well be transformative for the school, its faculty and students. It is much more than working remotely and adapting to the online teaching and learning environment. Like during the Great Depression and World War II, the COVID-19 pandemic (along with the climate change crisis) has altered how we think about the future economy, globalization, travel, tourism, the workplace and public space in the everyday situation.。