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Rethinking Our Cities Following COVID-19

May 4, 2020 | COVID-19, Insights,

“Diseases configure cities. Some of the most representative urban management and planning developments – like the Metropolitan Board of Works in London or the wastewater treatment systems from the mid-19th century – have been established as a response to public health crisis like cholera”

Ian Klaus, Citylab

There is a high level of uncertainty around the future of the COVID-19 crisis, due to psychological and social factors that are difficult to foresee.

But surely the crisis will change many aspects of the way we think and do things, and when thinking specifically of urbanism, the way we design, manage and use urban spaces.

It is undeniable that this period will activate debate and reflections on how we have designed our cities (both in the public sphere and private spaces) and the direct influence on our health and wellbeing, both in periods of stability and during a pandemic, like the one we are currently experiencing.

For this reason, we need to take advantage of this moment to reflect on how we can make our cities and towns an active element in how we respond to this crisis, and others that are likely to come, whilst taking into account the current climate emergency context.

This response must be articulated in the short term, in the coming months, as urban spaces will have to adapt to social distancing requirements. Yet we must also think in the medium and long term, delving into those elements that have long been debated, and those where the current situation has demonstrated the potential to create healthier and more resilient cities.

In the short term, we need to start the process of adapting our urban spaces and facilities to guarantee that citizens can use public spaces freely, whilst adhering to the necessary social distancing measures for these first months. In this sense, cities all over the world (see reference here) are taking action, such as reallocating road space to extend existing footpaths and cycleways, guaranteeing the comfort and safety of cyclists and pedestrians, or extending the perimeters of public parks.

In addition, the potentially significant decrease in the use of public transport, derived from public fears of crowding, is beginning to be analysed. This decrease may have repercussions such as a shift to more active modes of transportation in urban areas, but on intercity trips, it could result in an increase in the use of private vehicles.

On the other hand, we can now find plenty of examples where cities that previously had high pollution levels are now reporting record improvements in air quality. This has an important benefit in citizen’s health: a study revealed that in China the reduction in air pollution over the last two months has likely saved the lives of 4,000 children under 5, and 73,000 people over the age of 70 years old, a higher number than the deaths caused by COVID-19. In addition, recent studies create a link between high COVID-19 mortality levels and regions where pollution problems previously existed.

Therefore, it is necessary to establish strategies to promote low or zero emissions as a basic pillar of urban mobility after the COVID-19 pandemic, as considered by other countries, and strategies to adapt public transport to the security needs that will be necessary for these next weeks.

For the short term, we have outlined some of the measures which could be adopted in the coming weeks:

In Urban Spaces

  • Reallocate traffic lanes to segregated active mobility. Implement a network that connects all urban areas.
  • Provide temporary bicycle access routes to industrial areas and mobility hotspots located between 10 and 15 km from urban areas.
  • Establish a one-way traffic system on sidewalks (one sidewalk in each direction).
  • Reserve and signal spaces to wait around shopping establishments, facilities or public transport stops.
  • Extend the perimeters of parks and gardens and provide temporary play and meeting areas in the road space to minimise travel needs.

Public Transport

  • Increase cleaning and guarantee the availability of personal protection and hygiene systems for public transport users.
  • Create systems to minimise crossing and crowds for users.
  • Encourage the implementation of staggered schedules at peak times to minimise congestion.
  • Adapt supply to meet peaks in demand, minimising crowding at busy times.
  • Create signage on instructions for users.
  • In certain routes and services, implement reservation systems to guarantee the proper occupancy of vehicles.

But in crisis, there can also be an opportunity, so it is important to use this as both a chance to develop a response to the current need, but also to test measures which could be part of the solution to the necessary changes that populations must carry out to respond to the climate emergency and the need to build healthy cities.

This article was first published on the Anthesis Lavola website, written by Nacho Guilera, Green City and Biodiversity Manager, based on contributions from the City and Biodiversity team.

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