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COVID-19: Now Is the Time to Make the City We Imagined Possible

May 18, 2020 | COVID-19, Insights,

“We believe that this moment can be transformed into a unique opportunity, a testbed to analyse the feasibility of the measures that may come to stay. The upcoming weeks may become a turning point in the definition of a new way of understanding cities”

A few days ago, we published the article “COVID-19: Rethinking Our Cities” in which we analyzed the implications of the pandemic in areas such as urban planning, public spaces and urban mobility.

That first reflection was focused on the short term, and how we thought we could adapt our cities in the next few weeks and months. In fact, similar initiatives can already be seen in many cities, which we hope can lead to a debate on the continuity of the measures that are being implemented, and whether they are one-off actions or whether they can become structural elements of our cities.

We believe that this moment can be transformed into a unique opportunity, a testbed to analyse the feasibility of the measures that may come to stay. The upcoming weeks may become a turning point in the definition of a new way of understanding cities, and it is time for a long-term reflection, which will face opinions that could curb this possible optimism.

This reflection must lead us to cities that, at the same time as responding to the specific crisis of COVID-19, become one of the fundamental pillars to deal with the structural emergency that derives from the climate crisis and, perhaps, from future pandemics.

We must think about cities that could:

  • Reduce the public space given to private vehicles and reuse it to support the well-being of citizens, considering the citizens’ social profiles and integrating the gender perspective and generational differences in a real and definitive way. Photographs of empty cities have highlighted the excessive space that we currently allocate to private cars, which, in the case of Barcelona, only account for 15% of internal journeys and 25% of the total. Therefore, we allocate between 60-70% of our public space to a mobility system that accounts for only 25% of the journeys.
  • Decisively and definitively develop a true green and blue infrastructure that incorporates public space and private roofs and building facades. Nowadays, studies are being carried out on how the availability of green spaces and nature in or near buildings may contribute to greater well-being during these days of confinement. Good green infrastructure becomes a directly related part of the environmental improvement of cities, the increase and improvement of their biodiversity, and the improvement of the well-being and health of citizens.
  • Encourage relationship spaces at the community and neighbourhood level: One of the direct consequences of the confinement period has been the reduction of physical social relations, which is especially problematic in certain more vulnerable groups. For this reason, it is necessary to rethink the way we design our cities and residential spaces to improve them at the community level and to create shared spaces between neighbours.
  • Rethink the housing model. It has recently become clear that housing is a basic necessity and must be treated accordingly, with the primary focus on the wellbeing needs and the habitability of all citizens and considering elements such as teleworking and outdoor space. This makes it necessary to rethink the way we design and distribute our homes. This should not only focus on private spaces but should instead enhance all spaces that join neighbourhoods, to increase the community value, a vital value at present. Likewise, we have rediscovered spaces, such as building roofs, which can play an active role in the life of cities as spaces for environmental improvement (green roofs, photovoltaic energy, etc.) and as living and welcoming spaces for community use, and maybe even in the near future, for socio-economic diversification activities.
  • Commit to the development of local businesses and adapt the possible upsurge of e-commerce, the collaborative economy, and models of neighbourhood cooperation. One of the effects we are currently experiencing is the increase in proximity shopping – due to the difficulty of making long journeys – but in contrast, we are also seeing the increase in online shopping and the emergence of home delivery systems, many times self-managed from local businesses. Therefore, we must take this opportunity to promote and consolidate local businesses as recent times have shown that having a local business network is a key element of the vitality of a neighbourhood. Likewise, as e-commerce has also become an alternative used by many people, following a trend that was already developing before the COVID-19 crisis, it is necessary to develop strategies to ensure that environmental efficiency criteria are integrated into each phase (production, packaging, logistics and distribution) to minimise the impact on urban environments. It should also be considered that models have proliferated to digitize local commerce, and at the same time facilitate its distribution to the general public, including groups with greater digital exclusion. The link between these two elements (local business and home delivery) forces us to rethink models to make them complementary, and not antagonistic systems.
  • Adapt to new production and job access models. This crisis has also highlighted issues related to production activities and access to jobs. These elements can have an impact on urban life, based on the need to analyze in detail the changes that may occur in the coming years in the way we work and produce. For example, things like how teleworking (key during these days of confinement) can change our workplace access habits and the way we design and use corporate headquarters and offices. It is certainly a great opportunity to untie the direct correlation between economic growth and increased mobility.

We are convinced that the concept of a healthy city, in which we believe and with which we work, becomes an integrative framework of all of these criteria. Therefore, we must take advantage of the learning that we have developed over this time to strengthen the need to design more humane cities which put the health of citizens at the centre and prioritise their well-being and the promotion of healthy habits. In the coming months, we will see how people want to enjoy public space more, and it will be necessary to consider whether the way we have designed it supports this use.

In summary, the process of the humanization of cities must be deepened and accelerated, increasing spaces for citizens and promoting the proximity to nature. The concept of a healthy city should come out of this process reinforced, so it can be used to promote the measures and solutions which can improve the cities’ public space. It must be remembered that, in recent months, this has already been an area of discussion in construction and urban design, and the current crisis must serve to enrich and reformulate this concept.

It is time to incorporate these new elements that this crisis has demonstrated as having the potential to improve the quality of life and well-being of citizens, to strengthen the role of cities in facing the challenge of the climate emergency, and to increase the resilience and contingency for hypothetical future situations similar to the one we are experiencing now.


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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