03: Rethinking Wellbeing for a Post-Covid City

The pandemic has given rise to some unforeseen changes. On the one hand, we have witnessed the humanity behind breakthroughs in medical science, governments working together to provide emergency relief, and citizens changing their social behaviours, all in the collective effort to protect one another. On the other, we have been living simultaneously with a health crisis, a social crisis, and an economic crisis. Cities around the globe have been greatly impacted, not only in terms of public health but also the economy and the social fabric.

Story Diana Cruz

Now that we have officially opened up in Norway and are looking forward, I believe it is a critical time to make positive changes in how we think about cities and imagine their futures. We addressed this last month during a panel discussion at Oslo Urban Week, asking participants: How can a city make you happy? In addition to myself, we had speakers from Norconsult, TØI, Oslo Met, BIG and DOGA. At Nordic – Office of Architecture, our experience shows that for our cities to thrive, it is important to encourage collaboration across organisations and understand how different experiences can add value when we shape complex organisms such as cities. We believe in working with experts from other fields and that we, as architects and urban designers, are just one actor within this broader network and should learn more from each other by fostering discussion, collaborating and sharing knowledge. Cities must be treated as ecosystems that foster interaction.

Here are some of the ways we prioritise wellbeing in the post-Covid city:

Social connectedness

The value of social connectedness is a central theme in Charles Montgomery’s book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. He says, “the city challenges us not just to live together but to thrive together, by understanding that our fate is a shared one”. This is not a new concept, but the pandemic has raised new questions and given us the opportunity to rethink the relationship between urban design and social connectedness. People have been affected differently by the pandemic, and we see the rise of loneliness and social isolation as two of the main key challenges, which can also lead to increased health problems.

A well-designed environment can facilitate interaction and spontaneity as well as arranged meetings. Establishing communal gardens, public parks and other urban spaces provides further opportunities for social contact. We can create neighbourhoods where residents share and meet each other naturally through everyday pursuits or offering varied housing types for different needs and stages of life. During the last two years, we have seen that our clients look for solutions that can help foster a sense of community, and we started developing a concept called “sharing neighbourhoods”.

For Nordic’s Ultsteinvik Masterplan project, we have been exploring new housing typologies tailored to the user’s needs, how the households are changing and the role of the outdoor areas in shaping better neighbourhoods. For example, introducing shared outdoor facilities, such as communal houses for larger events, sharing of toys, tools and garden equipment, safe playgrounds for the children, local energy production and inviting street fronts, to name a few. Our idea is based on establishing a community of benefits through sharing to improve social interaction as well as the local economy. For example, courtyards can be used as shared gardens for growing produce that can be sold locally.

The role of active participation

It is more important than ever to design inclusive cities and we think the best way to do this is by actively including people from all walks of life in the planning, design and others decision-making processes. At Nordic, we have found it particularly beneficial to work with older members of communities. This group often has extensive knowledge of the places they live, and their perspective can help us to answer important questions. It also provides the older generations an opportunity to have a sense of belonging and is a way to ensure that the urban environment remains responsive to their needs.

Back in 2020, we worked with the Ulstein municipality to further develop our sharing neighbourhood concept mentioned above. Our task was to reimagine the town centre, creating sustainable design strategies that could be implemented in the new masterplan for the municipality. Even though our project kicked off at the start of the pandemic, we had an impressive participation turnout of all age groups, ready to engage and help us to understand the context of their community and different needs.

People in the community should have an active role, and we need to take the time to understand them and listen to them. Active participation and the empowerment of local people helped us to develop a successful framework for all. In other words, we have designed with the people and for the people. In general, we agreed that all housing development in the town centre should be created to focus on diversity and foster social sustainability. To cope with this, the homes must, to a greater extent, also be adaptable to personal preferences. Understanding the people we design for and developing smart tools for engagement was key in this process.

Integration of nature

Perhaps the most consistent approach in Nordic’s design methodology, regardless of project type, is the integration of nature. Besides the proven benefits that nature has for human wellbeing, it is a huge part of our DNA here in Norway. For our urbanism projects, we must always keep in mind that our cities and urban areas are habitats for a variety of species, not just humans, and that planning for blue-green areas also need to be climate friendly. Beyond Norway, spending time in nature and green spaces was an essential way for many across the globe to cope with the pandemic.

For Ulsteinvik town centre we proposed revitalising the river to create continuous, green connections from the fjord to the mountains. A network of green arteries that stretch through the city can be used as a framework for the future structure of the centre, offering recreational opportunities and proximity to biodiversity. The idea of health and healing landscapes are explored along Saunes River, where we have proposed a park that merges health facilities and the surrounding landscapes of the city.

We also proposed a greener city centre to accommodate wellbeing in more urban areas. At the same time, we believe that the transformation of the waterfront is a necessary measure for a better urban life with a maritime culture. This involves softening the water edge to rebuild maritime landscapes and habitats. By collaborating closely with landscapers and biologists, we wanted to understand how we can work better with the urban landscapes, both above and below the water along the waterfront. Climate adaptation and the idea of play are found throughout the landscape plan, which we believe will create a city that expects the unexpected and is fun for inhabitants and visitors of all ages.

Urban development and housing can become more climate-friendly through increased sharing of functions and reduced living spaces. These qualities have traditionally been given little priority. All apartments in a block often have similar layouts, with few common areas and functions. The modules we developed for our Ulsteinvik vision can be put together in various ways, giving different constellations, depending on the user’s age and needs. The system was also adapted for new housing concepts and future household needs, for example intergenerational concepts, sharing concepts and new alternative housing forms.

Proximity and accessibility

At Nordic, we believe that an age-independent framework could be the key to unlock how we create our future healthy and inclusive cities. This means that the physical environment must be adapted so that everyone can travel around safely and efficiently, including the elderly. Fewer moving and parked cars in the city centre makes it more attractive to walk and cycle, which is positive on many levels. The streets become an arena for activity and unplanned meetings whilst less noise and air pollution make the street more inviting for recreation and other activities.

Here in Norway, cities are smaller in scale than in many other parts of the world. Being a small city is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Smaller places means shorter distances and for example for Ulsteinvik, with a relatively concentrated centre, there are low traffic volumes compared to large cities. At the same time, smaller places often have fewer resources. We have proposed a 300-metre city—a concept meant to improve the quality of life by providing everything a resident might need within 300 metres (or 5 minutes) by foot or bike. So how do we get there? An important step is to develop a holistic approach with a green mobility strategy and clearly defined goals for how inhabitants can travel within the municipality. A network of high-quality urban spaces promotes walking and cycling. Our vision is supported by a system for smart mobility which makes it attractive to opt out of using cars. The roads will still be an important part of the city's infrastructure, with high priority for pedestrians and cyclists.

There are many exciting examples around the world where cities prioritise green mobility to improve people’s quality of life, for example in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Paris, Bogota and Melbourne. Similar to the concept of the 300-metre city, Parisians discovered the resources available in their local neighbourhoods during lockdowns and adopted an urban planning model to create stronger local communities with the ‘15-minute city’. Although this concept was born prior to 2020, it really took off during the pandemic. More and more cities around the world are seeing the positive benefits from such strategies and looking for alternatives to cars in order to tackle traffic and pollution and improve wellbeing. Other concepts like micromobility and autonomous and zero emissions vehicles are becoming more mainstream, giving us future-focused options that are low-cost, efficient, and have the capability of integrating with other smart mobility solutions. We are currently working with Zeabuz on using zero-emissions autonomous passenger ferries for the Laksevåg District Plan in Bergen, Norway and look forward to seeing the impacts of our current projects in shaping future cities.

We believe that wellbeing in our cities needs to be prioritised now more than ever. The pandemic has forced us to step back, think, understand, and appreciate what it means to live together in cities and has taught us that by creating and fostering healthier communities we serve as catalysts for our future generations.

About Diana Cruz

Diana is a partner and urban designer at Nordic – Office of Architecture. She is originally from Portugal but has lived abroad for 15 years and picked up several cultures and languages along the way. She has a passion for cities and exploring how they affect our behaviour. This curiosity has brought her around the world to understand how cultures and cities shape how we develop as a person. This includes living in seven different cities in the past few years, gaining knowledge from each of them and meeting people that have shaped how she sees and understands city life. Although many of her colleagues are focused on buildings, infrastructure or nature, for her, cities are all about people.