The UN-Habitat’s Report on Cities and Pandemics: Towards a More Just, Green and Healthy Future presents an analysis of the situation of the COVID-19 in cities and urban areas after one year since the declaration of pandemic and outlines a range of bold measures that could deliver a lasting and sustainable recovery from the current crisis.
From the early days of the pandemic, cities have been on the frontline of COVID-19. The spread of the virus globally through travel, trade and mobility meant that a large number of the first detected infections appeared in urban areas, prompting many to question their future. These concerns only deepened as restrictions to contain transmission, such as lockdowns and curfews, brought local economies to a standstill. Yet in the months that followed, as the challenges of the pandemic have evolved, so too has our understanding of the disease and its complex relationship with cities.
In fact, as with previous public health crises, the key determinants of risk for urban residents are inequality, inadequate housing and lack of access to clean water, sanitation and waste management. Aggravating conditions, such as high levels of air pollution, have also played a role in exposing marginalized communities to more severe impacts. At the same time, it has become increasingly clear that urban density is not in itself a decisive factor in the transmission of the virus. Indeed, studies have shown that in some regions per capita infection levels and mortality were often lower in more populated city centres than in surrounding suburban or rural areas.
The more meaningful distinction, therefore, is often not between urban and rural areas but rather the disparity between balanced density and adequate services — something that even highly concentrated cities can achieve if the necessary governance and resources are in play — and overcrowded, excluded settlements and slums. In practice, these divisions are often acutely evident even within cities or districts, as illustrated by the striking variance in local infection levels depending on poverty levels, ethnicity and other factors.
Only by addressing the underlying issues of inequality and exclusion in cities, then, can COVID-19 be effectively managed and contained. If this task seems daunting, then there are also reasons for tentative optimism: with the right policies in place, the enormous economic and social resources being invested to curb the pandemic could help deliver greener, more inclusive urban areas in the long term.
The report focuses on four key priorities:
- Rethinking the Form and Function of the City: Urban morphologies and systems should be reconfigured at different scales to not only enhance their resilience to the effects of the pandemic, but also make them more sustainable and productive through inclusive planning. Spanning a range of scales, from regions and territories to neighbourhoods and buildings, the promotion of compact design, accessible mobility and mixed land use can support the development of safer, more liveable urban environments.
- Addressing Systemic Poverty and Inequality in Cities: Targeted interventions should be designed to mitigate the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 and related restrictions on poor and vulnerable groups through emergency assistance and service provision, at the same time taking steps to address the underlying causes of their exclusion. While overcrowding and the absence of basic services have raised the health risks of the pandemic for poorer residents, lack of access to digital services and the decline in informal sector activities during lockdowns have left them in an even more precarious economic state.
- Rebuilding a ‘New Normal’ Urban Economy: A suite of tailored economic support and relief packages should be developed to help smaller businesses, informal workers and at-risk sectors to survive the crisis, with an emphasis on “building back better” by promoting the transition to greener, more equitable urban economies. Though cash-strapped local authorities may be tempted to respond to these pressures by scaling back their commitments, it is essential that they continue with the support of national governments to maintain services and financial assistance to help residents and businesses survive the crisis.
- Clarifying Urban Legislation and Governance Arrangements: Authorities must recognize the need for more integrated, cooperative multi-level governance, with an emphasis on developing more flexible and innovative institutional and financial frameworks. Governments at national, subnational and local levels have been forced to respond creatively to the unfolding crisis in many different ways, whether through greater collaboration, increased autonomy or a recentralization of certain responsibilities. While the outcomes have been uneven and frequently contested, they have also generated new approaches and learning that should not be forgotten once the pandemic has come to an end.