Nairobi, 21 January 2022 – Pandemics and plagues are not new to mankind. The earliest recorded pandemic dates from 430 BCE in Athens during the Peloponnesian war. In 1918, the Spanish Flu killed as many as 50 million people worldwide. Final figures on COVID-19 are still evolving, with the World Health Organization reporting over 5.5 million deaths and more than 328 million cases of infection as of mid-January.

 As with many previous such disasters, the COVID-19 global pandemic has provided for both assessment and reflection opportunities. Much of those reflections this time around have centred around the role of cities and urban environments.

“Seen from an urban perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the extent of global vulnerabilities and inequalities. Cities have been at the forefront of the crisis, as indicated by the scenes of enormous suffering, job losses and adversity,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said.

“How they emerge will have an enormous impact on public health, social cohesion, prosperity and our prospects for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals,” he added.

UN-Habitat, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, took COVID-19 as an opportunity to not only re-assess its own policies but also provide holistic, yet data-based, solutions and recommendations to national, regional, and local policymakers around the world on how to transform current realities to better cope with similar future challenges.

An example of the in-depth review was Cities and Pandemics: Towards a More Just, Green and Healthy Future, a report in which a global panel of UN-Habitat experts and external contributors examined some common –and at times incorrect—assumptions about COVID-19, and provided recommendations. Some experts referred to this study as a “COVID vaccine” for cities and human settlements.

UN-Habitat: Rethinking the future of cities to better deal with pandemics

Key findings and recommendations

While experts agree on the need for more expedited and coordinated effort to build more sustainable cities by implementing green and environmentally conscious urban projects, the suggestion that the pandemic will move people out of large cities and, therefore, minimize their role has been debunked.

“Narratives around the cause and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic are challenging core components of cities such as density, mixed land use and global interconnectedness that have led to their success as engines of economic prosperity, drivers of social mobility and hotbeds for research, innovation and creativity,” said the report.

But, it adds, “there is little evidence to relate higher density with greater transmission or mortality rates … Now is the time to re-examine how regions, cities, neighbourhoods and buildings are planned, designed, built and maintained.”

Whether some people choose to leave cities for less-populated suburbs, or even rural areas, medical and non-medical experts agree that government officials, legislators, and others involved need to look differently at how we build, where we build, and what material we use.

Well-resourced and integrated solutions will be key to the world’s future ability to exit the current pandemic and survive well any future ones.

Such an approach, said the experts, will have to revolve around measures such as systematically addressing poverty and inequality in cities, building a “New Normal” urban economy, clarifying urban legislation and governance arrangements, and closing the digitalisation gap that allows some countries and cities to offer citizens solutions that are environmentally-positive, and reduces inequality but leaves others behind.

“Finally, let me stress the importance of greater multilevel coordination between international, national and local governments, especially when investing in and implementing stimulus programmes, so that we can truly build back better, greener and fairer while also protecting our communities,” said Maimunah Mohd Sharif, the UN-Habitat Executive Director in the report.