The Future of Urban Living in the Post-pandemic Era

Dynamic designs for new needs: rooftop agriculture, movable walls and putting communal building areas to greater use ■ ‘Things won’t go back to they way they were,’ says architect Avner Yashar

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The twin towers of the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) residential buildings rise above Milan, Italy, on August 3, 2017
The twin towers of the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) residential buildings rise above Milan, Italy, on August 3, 2017Credit: Luca Bruno / AP
Gili Melnitcki
Gili Melnitcki
Gili Melnitcki
Gili Melnitcki

Uncertainty is all the rage in the coronavirus age and it works from home too. Speculation about housing prices is taking off in all directions, eulogies for the office space market are being written as fast as they’re being erased, and center city hotels are becoming white elephants. Only one thing is clear: Life will not be the same.

“The coronavirus is a traumatic event on a global level, and it’s causing us to rethink everything, even the act of pressing the button in the elevator – which has become life threatening,” says architect Ofer Rossmann of Tel Aviv-based XS Studio.

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“On the other hand, the balcony has become a high-quality space, which is evidence of wellbeing and enables you to remain in contact with the ‘outside world.’ For anyone living in the city with a decent balcony, it’s as though they have found another area in the house, expanding the living room, serving as an office and turning into a dining room.

“The coronavirus has forced us to spend a lot of time at home, with all its advantages and disadvantages. Suddenly, we’ve understood what happens when a dwelling is well planned and provides us with flexibility and privacy … and how difficult it can be when that’s not the case. We’ve seen families fleeing from their homes in the city for the country, and realize that our environment has to be prepared even for a pandemic, in order to… create a sense of wellbeing for four people who live in less than 100 square meters.”

The current paradigm is shifting: Apartments in big cities that were favored for their accessibility to the urban experience now have to prove themselves superior to the rural environment.

“Things won’t go back to they way they were,” says architect Avner Yashar. “We’re at the beginning of the post-pandemic world. That doesn’t mean that we’ll awaken to an apocalyptic reality, but … workplaces will be profoundly affected, and that will also influence our residential environment.”

“Some people who until now worked in a enclosed, air-conditioned office building were traumatized, and that will affect their desire to go back to working in such environments. We’ve experienced a trauma, which must be followed by a change,” he says.

We’ve experienced a trauma, which must be followed by a change

Avner Yashar, Architect

One of the first organizations to design a response was the Israel Planning Administration’s IPLAN research studio, which led a public process to assess the changes that will be required in residential spaces. Building on existing ideas and trends, the exercise led to a position paper, the conclusions of which are discussed here for the first time. The authors hope it will serve as a foundation for legislation and the future of urban planning.

“Even before the pandemic, we were busy thinking about innovation in residential units, because the family unit and life expectancy differ from what we knew in the past,” says architect Erez Ben Eliezer, a senior adviser to the director of the Finance Ministry Planning Administration, who was in charge of the paper in cooperation with Rossmann and Carine Kita.

Architect Erez Ben Eliezer, in Tel Aviv, February 5, 2020.
Architect Erez Ben Eliezer, in Tel Aviv, February 5, 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg

“We realized that the present supply of small residential units, which provide a solution for single-parent families, divorced people, the elderly and young people, is limited. We’re trying to think of an apartment as something that can change, that doesn’t have to remain in the format we’re familiar with,” explains Ben Eliezer. “Among other things … housing standards will have to change to include quality of life criteria based on these changing needs. We want to give developers planning tools that will create a community and wellbeing for everyone – even in a world of pandemics.”

“We realized that when we buy a car we’re willing to pay hundreds of shekels for a test drive,” Rossmann says. “But we buy an apartment without becoming thoroughly familiar with the space and the environment.”

So what will look different? One of the goals defined by the IPA paper was for architects and builders to expand and more fully exploit the shared areas in apartment buildings. Outside space, lobbies and roofs will all undergo substantive change, reversing the trend of the last few decades, during which developers sought to sell as much of a building’s floor space as possible for apartment owners by such practices as appending land to garden apartments and rooftops to luxury penthouses.

“That led to neglect of the ideas for shared activity rooms. Even laundry rooms and fitness rooms were considered spaces that create problems with the land registry, with maintenance and building specifications.”

“During the lockdown, intermediate spaces, which are jointly owned, assumed greater importance. They served as safe, small areas for social gatherings, and a place of refuge where you could get some air and let off steam,” says Ben Eliezer. “The coronavirus emphasized what developers are always trying to sell in the marketing campaigns: An apartment is not only four walls, it’s much more.”

Now the IPA is considering a mechanism that would give priority to developers who allocate areas in the building as designated work spaces, fitness areas or land for community gardens. They would be rewarded with additional building rights.

A new lifestyle after coronavirus.
A new lifestyle after coronavirus.Credit: denisik11 / iStockphoto via Getty Images

The roof is a particular focus. “If it’s clear to us that on the ground floor there’s a storage space for bicycles, mailboxes and a tenants’ room, why shouldn’t the same be true of the roof? The roof is the fifth façade of the building. It shouldn’t be seen as a leftover or turned into a place for water tanks,” says Ben Eliezer. “During the pandemic we saw very well how in older urban centers [in central Israel, like] Givatayim, Tel Aviv and Ramat Hasharon, the crazy under-exploitation of rooftops gave rise to spontaneous gatherings, which revived them. The water tanks that we’re used to seeing on the roofs of low buildings don’t have to be there. There are other, green technologies that the market can adopt.”

“If we succeed in turning the roof into quality space and overcome problems of safety and construction, [it] could become a direct continuation of the living room or the work room,” says Rossmann. “Another option is to upgrade it as a source for smarter and more economical use of energy and collecting water, which will pay off for people who are at home more.”

Under the new concept, roofs become an integral part of the urban ecosystem, where urban agriculture can take place as part of a broader food security strategy. The IPA paper also recommends amending regulation and economic incentives that would make it possible to create elevated walkways between the roofs with the aim of expanding links between residents of different buildings.

The inspiration for this kind of project comes from architects like Stefano Boeri and his urban forest building, Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest), in Milan. Basing his projects on the United Nations forecast that by the year 2050, 68% of the world’s population will be living in cities, Boeri believes that a good city is one that guarantees high-quality air and living space for its residents.

A visualization of an urban jungle.
A visualization of an urban jungle. Credit: Stefano Boeri Architetti

He aims to facilitate this by the extensive use of greenery in design and planning, and by using building materials that maximize urban air quality and shade. The futuristic green aesthetic of his projects in Italy, China, Egypt and Mexico, has won widespread acclaim.

Visualization of an urban forest structure in Cairo by architect Stefano Boeri.
Visualization of an urban forest structure in Cairo by architect Stefano Boeri.Credit: Stefano Boeri Architetti

A special chapter of the IPA position paper is devoted to balconies. Current regulations make it economically unfeasible to build a balcony bigger than 12 to 14 square meters. To tackle this, the IPA proposes to examine giving additional building rights through tax exemptions for balcony areas, especially in cases that favor urban agriculture. They are also looking at options to allow for larger balconies based on the different topological conditions in places like Haifa, Jerusalem, Harish and Safed instead of the present uniform standard.

“In the future, a balcony will have to include a faucet, not only a drain, and to meet a standard for smoke exhaust and acoustic insulation. All these can be included in the directives of local governments. It will probably cost more, but it will create a far better quality of life,” says Ben Eliezer.

The coronavirus crisis not only emphasized the importance of public spaces and balconies, it also highlighted the need for comfortable work areas throughout the house. When parents are participating in online meetings in the living room, while an adolescent studies math on Zoom in her bedroom and a toddler sings along to his nursery school teacher in a virtual classroom, the need for intelligent modular spaces becomes urgent.

Two interesting insights emerged. “Apartments will have to be able to change quickly and be flexible,” asserts Ben Eliezer. “They have to be an office as well as be suitable for sports and leisure activities. The transition from one kind of use to another has to be simple. It need not require permission to divide an apartments to avoid being in violation of the law.” This capability could also have a positive effect on the mix of residents in buildings and neighborhoods, he adds.

We’re talking about creating dynamic tools for dividing the space by means of moveable walls on tracks, for example

Erez Ben Eliezer, Architect

“We’re talking about creating dynamic tools for dividing the space by means of moveable walls on tracks, for example, which would make it possible to create niches and immediate changes in the space,” says Rossmann. “We started talking about ‘diyuriot,’ namely large spaces that are built and sold without a predetermined division, enabling us to do away with the classical categories of living room, dining area and three bedrooms.” Rossmann argues that owners could then choose to change their homes’ use, benefiting from a streamlined permit system, as is the case today in industrial buildings, where the same building can host anything from a carpentry shop to an ice cream plant.

Tel Aviv seen from the sky, February 18, 2020.
Tel Aviv seen from the sky, February 18, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The second insight is that there is an urgent need to accelerate the deployment of high-speed communications infrastructure in order to enable high-quality remote work without glitches and delays, and networks that can handle large video conferences with many users.

The IPA paper notes that deployment of high-quality optic fiber in Israel is currently limited to some neighborhoods in only 46 cities, while elsewhere in the country existing infrastructure is outdated and unreliable. Representatives of the IPA met with Israel’s Communications Ministry in August in order to spur the deployment of high-speed networks in new neighborhoods and to create planning coordination.

Two planning ideas that pre-date the coronavirus outbreak are also expected to have a major impact on the residential environment: the shared economy and community as a consumer item, and the world of e-commerce and home delivery.

One initiative that is already underway, which the IPA paper encourages, is TULU, which offers on-demand rentals of household items that are kept in shared spaces inside apartment buildings.

Today, TULU is used mainly in New York. In the Sky tower, in the heart of Manhattan, the TULU warehouse is actually a sophisticated space located on the 10th floor of a 65-story building with over 1,200 apartments. Tenants enter using a smart card and then are directed to the item they want to rent on a short-term basis. These include things that not everyone wants to keep in their house, but which they want to have available when they need them, anything from vacuum cleaners, to folding chairs, board games or virtual-reality glasses. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, users can also get cleaning equipment, toilet paper and masks by using a dedicated app.

“The idea is to create a service for middle-class tenants who live in the city and don’t have room to store a sleeping bag, a robot for cleaning windows or a saw, but want them to be accessible,” explains Yael Shemer, founder of TULU. “Management firms invest tens of thousands of dollars in fitness rooms and lounges that aren’t used and don’t create added value for their tenants. Now they understand that it’s a good idea to devote these spaces to uses that will improve the tenants’ quality of life. That’s why they’re allocating important spaces in the building to us.”

Renting items by the hour... suits Generation Y, which is looking for access rather than ownership

Yael Shemer, Founder, TULU
Yael Shemer, founder of TULU.
Yael Shemer, founder of TULU.Credit: TULU

“The coronavirus illustrated what happens when the city is under lockdown and the usual consumer channels are restricted. Even Amazon doesn’t arrive easily,” says Shemer. “Our storage spaces provide access to the outside and gave the building an advantage. We’re data based and we monitor the uses and needs of the tenants and have learned how to respond quickly. In the past quarter we experienced growth because there’s greater consumption from home. At present the items are rented by the hour for a cost of only a few dollars, and the agenda suits Generation Y, which is looking for access rather than ownership.”

Another issue is the attitude towards the delivery companies and their place in the apartment house. They have become an important player, especially recently. “Before the coronavirus we were aware of the burden on the elevators in office buildings when delivery people arrived en masse in the afternoon hours, and already then we heard talk about another elevator and storage areas for deliveries,” explains Ben Eliezer.

“The coronavirus introduced those questions into the lives of people in residential neighborhoods in Gush Dan [the Tel Aviv metropolitan area] and elsewhere, and caused us to ask whether we should offer storage rooms inside buildings and rethink mailboxes, whether there should be a place in the building for storing a food delivery in a shared refrigerator, and whether the neighborhood should plan lockers for receiving deliveries.”

“We should think about roofs,” Ben Eliezer adds, highlighting the need to prepare for the future, “and about landing areas for drones, which in a few years will start making deliveries” 

A nearly empty Times Square in New York City during the coronavirus outbreak, March 23, 2020.
A nearly empty Times Square in New York City during the coronavirus outbreak, March 23, 2020.Credit: AFP

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