COVID-19 crisis: an opportunity to rethink our cities

“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 mid-19th century-, have been stablished as a response to public health crisis like cholera” (Ian Klaus, Citylab).

The way we will end up with this COVID-19 crisis presents today a high degree of uncertainty due to different psychological and social factors that are usually difficult to foresee. But surely this crisis will change the way we think and do things from now on in many aspects, also in urbanism and its design, management and urban spaces usage.

It is undeniable that this period will activate debate and reflections around the manner we have designed our cities – either in public or private places- and its direct influence on our health and wellbeing, both in periods of stability and in times of pandemic like the COVID-19.

Therefore, taking profit of this moment to reflection is needed, to make our cities and villages active in the way they respond to this crisis and others to come in consequence of the current climate emergency context.

This response must be articulated in the short term, over the coming months, as urban spaces will have to adapt to social detachment requirements. Yet we must also think in mid and long term, delving into those elements that have long been debated, especially those highlighted currently for their relevance in creating healthier and more resilient cities.

In the short term it will be necessary to start an adaptation process in our urban spaces and facilities, to guarantee citizenship can use public spaces freely provided that social detachment distances are assured. In this sense, some cities all over the world (see reference here) are taking actions as allocate carriageway space to extend and guarantee comfort and safety conditions for active mobility networks (pedestrians, bicycles and other personal mobility systems) or extend the perimeters of public parks.

In addition, the important decrease in public transport use due to citizen’s fear to crowds is being also analyzed, especially in peak hours. This event could lead in a transportation mode shift into more active modes in urban trips, while on intercity trips this can cause an increase in private vehicle usage.

On the other hand, nowadays we can find plenty of examples and images showing how cities that used to have high pollution levels now are reporting the best records in air quality ever. This event (in contradiction) has an important benefit in citizen’s health: a study reveals that the last two months of air pollution reduction in China have probably saved the lives of 4,000 children under 5 and 73,000 people’s lives over 70 years old, a higher number than the deaths caused by COVID-19. In addition, recent studies relate major mortality levels by COVID-19 in regions where pollution problems previously existed.

Therefore, it is necessary to stablish low or null mobility GHG emission strategies as a basic pillar for urban mobility after the pandemic, as already been done in other countries, and also strategies to adapt public transport to security demands urging in coming weeks.

Because it is necessary to think about the short term too, from Anthesis Lavola we have conducted a brainwork on which type of measures could be adopted on coming weeks.

Regarding urban space, the following measures could be applied:

  • Allocate traffic lanes for segregated active mobility, to implement a network that connects all urban areas.
  • Provide temporary bicycle access routes to industrial areas and mobility generating centers located between 10 and 15 km from urban areas.
  • Establish a one-way traffic on sidewalks (one sidewalk in each direction) to prevent crosswalks.
  • Reserve and signal waiting spaces around shopping establishments, facilities or public transport stops.
  • Extend parks and gardens’ perimeters and provide temporary play and meeting areas in the road space to minimize travel needs.
  • Articulate provisional Superblocks in areas with narrow streets.

Regarding public transport, the following measures could be applied:

  • Increase cleaning services and guarantee the availability of personal protection and hygiene systems for public transport users.
  • Order users’ movement to minimize crossings and crowds.
  • Encourage the implantation of staggered schedules at the beginning of work and service hours in order to minimize congestion moments.
  • Adapt supply to demand peaks to minimize peak hour crowds.
  • Promote the signaling on tips and criteria for users.
  • In certain routes and services, implement reservation systems in order to guarantee proper occupancy of the vehicles.

Crises provide time to seek for opportunities, so it is fundamental to understand the current scenario as a period for developing response measures to a specific need. But also, as a test for measures that may have a structural purpose and that can be part of the solution to climate emergency and to the claim on building healthy cities.

Article written by Nacho Guilera, Green City and Biodiversity Manager based on contributions of City and Biodiversity team.