Energy, Urban and Sustainable Affairs Analyst
How the Covid-19 Pandemic is affecting and reshaping our cities
Cities are the heart of exchanges, as the centres of commercial and political relations. It is not surprising that viruses can easily be transmitted in these urban areas where people live closer together and meet one another. Cities have historically been the transmission hubs of pandemics (see for example, the Black Plague or the Spanish Flu).
Facing those issues, cities have often restructured their infrastructures to improve hygiene conditions and limit virus transmissions. For example, lying at the heart of London, the Victoria Embankment was built in the middle of the 19th century during a cholera epidemic to carry wastewater out of the city down the Thames. It successfully managed to flow away wastewater from water pumping sites and avoided any mix of potentially infected water with drinkable one. From another perspective, New York’s Central Park was designed on the premise that it would improve human health conditions during a cholera pandemic in the 1850s.
As many previous epidemics, Covid-19 has had an impact on cities, both directly and indirectly. The first impact is the most direct one, as Covid-19 underlined or revealed already existing issues in cities: “COVID-19 has laid bare existing fault lines in cities that are impossible to ignore,” (Ani Dasgupta, director of the WRI Ross Centre For Sustainable Cities). One of these issues is air pollution, researchers showed a strong correlation between highly air-polluted cities and mortality with Covid-19. In the Netherlands for example, the Institute of Labour Economics found that a small increase of air pollution was associated with a 21.4% increase in death rates.
Other issues are also seen in housing conditions. Neighbourhoods with unhygienic housing conditions are environments in which it is easier for viruses to be spread because social distancing cannot be efficiently applied. For example, in New York, in August 2020, the Bronx saw up to 33% of tests coming back positive, while Manhattan “only” suffered 19% of positive tests. This is mainly explained by the fact that poorer neighbourhoods feature more unhygienic housing conditions than richer ones do, making it easier for the virus to be spread.
Regarding hygienic issues underlined by Covid, it appears necessary for these cities to act, for the health and life quality of their inhabitants. A 2020 UN Policy brief warned that “there is an urgent need to rethink and transform cities to respond to the reality of COVID-19 and potential future pandemics”. To tackle health issues caused by unequal housing, some have decided to be more socially inclusive to allow people to live in good housing conditions. Bristol has for example developed a “One City Economic Recovery” plan. The plan has for objective to reduce inequalities, increase the city’s resilience and the environment by offering loans or IT support to charities, organizations and associations taking care of minorities in order to reduce inequalities by better integrating habitants in the city, which would lead to easier accessibility of healthier housings. Concerning air regulation, initiatives of new environmental directives have been brought to the European Commission to be debated throughout 2021.
A second effect that Covid-19 had is more undirect. To tackle the virus, many states have set up lockdowns: in early April 2020, more than half of the world population was under lockdown restrictions. By staying at home, citizens were not using anymore public infrastructures, which opened an opportunity for mayors to use this period to make profound changes into the city structure to be more “resilient, inclusive and sustainable” (UN directive). With the digitalization of working, the need for cities to reinvent themselves to avoid losing their population has become a need and this pandemic is a perfect moment to do so. As Ernesto Ottone (UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture) declared: “Cities should seize the moment and focus on the new possibilities triggered by the crisis towards transforming themselves into resilient, socially inclusive and green communities”.
Tendencies following this line have been seen across the globe to modify urban planning and designs: there has been a notable emphasis on plans to make city more eco-responsible.
An important focus is made on the development of bicycle tracks to promote green transportations into the city. Cities such as Bogota or Paris have added tens of kilometres of new paths to promote this mean of transportation. The crisis has also underlined the importance of green spaces, with cities such as Dallas seeing an increase after lockdowns of 135% of use of public parks. To answer this demand, Montreal presented new plans of developing and building new green spaces in the city. Finally, some cities have opted to develop “15-min cities”, in which habitants should be able to be offered “services and quality of life within the space of 15 minutes on foot from home” (Milan’s Mayor, Giuseppe Sala), such as Milan or Paris.
As many previous pandemics and epidemics, Covid-19 will lead to major changes in city planification, both indirectly and directly linked to the pandemic. These will probably affect the way we move into urban spaces by improving clean transports and developing green spaces but also our houses, by improving housing conditions, as well as our health, by regulating air pollution for example. But one thing is sure, the pandemic will certainly affect for on a very long term our way of living.