Re-imagining cities in the COVID-19 era

By Robert Muggah, Principal, SecDev Group & Co-founder, Igarape Institute


This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.


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Empty streets in Lima, Peru, during the Coronavirus outbreak, March 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic is quietly and radically reconfiguring cities around the world. It has already brought several of the world’s global cities to their knees. In addition to the billions of people forced to work remotely are another billion living in slums who depend on the informal economy, have few safety nets and are seeing their incomes and livelihoods upended. With the COVID-19 pandemic now rapidly intensifying in lower- and middle-income cities and neighbourhoods, it is overwhelming under-resourced hospitals, demolishing commerce, shredding remittances, straining digital infrastructure, increasing vulnerability to cyberattacks and intensifying mental health illnesses. Many cities were already facing massive liabilities and revenue shortfalls before the outbreak of the pandemic – yet these are set to intensify dramatically around the world.

COVID-19 is also revealing the weaknesses of many national governments and the state of our social contracts. In some countries, the failure of national leaders to respond quickly has reinforced the influence of governors and mayors. In others, it is both highlighting and hardening how legal and political power is distributed in the system. COVID-19 is likewise exposing multiple inequalities – both between and within cities. Where there is leadership, coordination and stringent responses across different layers of government, the virus is more rapidly contained and economies are more likely to be re-opened safely. Where there is competition and dysfunction, fatality rates soar and multiple lockdowns are inevitable. The pandemic is a reminder that cities are the front and last line of defence against this infectious disease outbreak and future ones.

While reinforcing the influence of the state, the COVID-19 pandemic has profound implications for governance. Some governments are dramatically expanding invasive surveillance and pivoting crime-fighting technologies such as facial recognition in the name of population health. These and related measures have intensified a global debate about the role of new technologies to trace the disease and enforce lockdown measures and the implications for data protection, privacy and civil liberties. The pandemic is also affecting elections in some countries and giving rise to demonstrations and crackdowns with implications for the integrity of democracy as well as human rights. There are real concerns about how to ensure that digital elections are free, fair and secure.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 is accelerating deeper and longer-term trends in cities.

The first and most obvious shift is the acceleration of digitised and remote working. COVID-19 squeezed the equivalent of ten years of digital onboarding into a few months. Many large technology, banking and consultancy firms have already shifted large numbers of their employees off-site, some of them on a permanent basis. Thousands of smaller and medium sized businesses are moving in a similar direction with enormous implications for everything from the future of work to the demand for office space in downtown cores. In lower-income cities, however, the shift to remote work will be considerably more challenging. The risk of COVID-19 intensifying the digital divide is real. A related transformation involves the move to online retail and the cashless economy. The move to remote working may also push the development of secondary cities while intensifying strains on broadband.

Second, COVID-19 is also hastening the automation of many aspects of society. The outbreak of infectious disease in manufacturing and production plants in some cities and their suburbs has underlined their vulnerability. For example, in Singapore, a spike in infections was attributed to overcrowded migrant housing. While there was hand-ringing about the poor design of their quarters, the incident launched a debate on how robots should replace foreign workers. The move to mass automation, already well underway, will have negative implications for lower-skilled workers at a time of unprecedented unemployment.

A third issue relates to rethinking how cities are physically built to avoid overcrowding. Some city leaders are re-imagining their cities as more sustainable, resilient and pedestrianised urban spaces. For some mayors and urban planners, the goal is to build “15-minute cities” that feature less compactness and more breathing space including larger sidewalks and multi-purpose, more spacious and greener buildings. Enlightened city leaders will retain density and avoid sprawl in such a way that the potential for rapid transmission of disease is reduced. Ensuring greater access to basic services in informal settlements, including slums, will be critical to overall city health.

Fourth, COVID-19 is raising fundamental questions about the future of transit, including public transportation, automobiles and micro-mobility. Planes, trains and buses – including ride-sharing – will struggle to retain ridership without appropriate social distancing adjustments. Car use could increase if people feel that public alternatives are not safe. In addition to supporting adequate public transportation, the smartest cities will incentivize sustainable mass transit and pedestrianisation. Temporary moves in cities like Budapest, Milan, Melbourne and Mexico to create emergency bike lanes and open-up cities could endure. If planned right, cities will be more walkable and cyclable ones, improving health and reducing congestion, pollution, and crime in the process.

Fifth, the way societies consume and produce food in cities will also be rethought. Global food supply chains were strained by the first wave of COVID-19, and could suffer badly in subsequent outbreaks. Infectious outbreaks in meat-processing plants drew attention to the inherent risks of just-in-time processes. Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, cities dependent on food imports were leading debates on more localised and sustainable production. The smartest cities will support the expansion of vertical, rooftop and urban gardening as well as the redesign of public spaces to accommodate local food production in a way that also mitigates flood, storm and drought risks.

Seventh, the climate dividend is already revealing itself as fewer people fly, drive and pollute. Global carbon emissions dropped by more than 17 percent in the first quarter of 2020. Residents of some northern Indian cities can see the Himalayas and locals are breathing cleaner air in Beijing. Indeed, PM2.5 concentrations plummeted around major cities affected by COVID-19. But the fall in emissions is proving short-lived and there are also environmental risks associated with the pandemic, such as distracting governments from achieving their Paris Climate Agreement commitments. Some governments may be tempted to lift environmental regulations and stimulate carbon-intensive activities to jump-start their economies. Networks such as C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group will become more important than ever in helping cities make smart pro-climate investments and not return to business as usual.

Eighth, the pandemic has strengthened social cohesion and efficacy in some cities. In the first few months of the outbreak, many forms of criminal violence and property crime declined (while others, including sexual violence and domestic abuse, went up). At the same time, neighbourhood groups spontaneously came together online to help the elderly, homeless, disabled and migrants. There was also growing awareness about the risks associated with loneliness and deteriorating mental health. These hyper-local – or cellular – structures are critical to building collective action. If empowered and given more voice, they will play a crucial role in city renewal and local governance.

Each of these trends is reinforcing not just the role of cities, but also the central place of digital connectivity (and attendant cyber-security risks) in areas where people work and live. They also underline the ways in which some cities are using the pandemic as an opportunity to “reset” their overall vision and planning. This will not be easy. Yet there is a chance that COVID-19 could give rise to urban design standards that combine crisis response with longer-term and equitable benefits for society and the environment. Fortunately, cities have always shown a remarkable resolve to evolve after crises. For thousands of years, disasters – including plagues and disease – provided valuable lessons to city leaders on how to build back stronger and better. In a connected world, we have even more potential to do so again.

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