From Mumbai’s cycle councillors to New York’s al fresco dining boom, the pandemic has forced cities to get creative
The pandemic, as the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, acknowledged in July 2020, is a deeply urban crisis. Covid has flourished due to the things that are a city’s strengths: population density and diversity, concentrations of logistics and mobility networks, fluid population bases.
It thrived because of the structural flaws of many cities, including poor air quality, food inequalities and crowded or unaffordable homes, poor provision of public spaces, and often unhealthy populations. The pandemic has had a long-lasting impact on city residents due to social and systemic inequalities and health problems. It is disproportionately affecting ethnic and racial minority groups.
People speculated that the coronavirus might bring down a city. Evidence from all over the world suggests that cities are simply adapting as they always have.
City governments have responded quickly and effectively to the crisis by altering the urban environment. 2020 review of city-based Covid-19 Innovations by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development(OECD) demonstrates how councils have tinkered with, tried and retrofitted in ways unimaginable before the pandemic.
Both cities and citizens have demonstrated that they can adapt quickly under stressful circumstances. London’s 2014 transport strike prompted 250,000 commuters in London to reconsider their routes and change their mobility habits permanently.
Centuries ago, rebuilding London after the 1666 great fire was more spontaneous than planned. But it also resulted in English physicist-architect Robert Hooke helping to develop the city’s first meaningful building codes.
The evolution of the urban environment has been influenced by responses to infectious diseases. John Snow, a British surgeon and apothecary, is well-known for his experiments with a Soho water pump back in 1854. He recognized cholera as a waterborne disease and led to systemic changes in urban water supply.
Covid has seen street usage in cities around world shift, at least temporarily, to walking, cycling, outdoor eating and greenery. Small parks – sometimes called parklets – have sprung out of reconfigured car parks or taken over on-road parking spaces. Temporarily redesigned pavements have been the place to go for diners.
Embracing such Al frescoThe pandemic has made possibilities a medical necessity. It has also emphasised the essential value of convivial places with cultural activity, local engagement – and fresh air.
New York offers an example of how cities might capture data and learn from these tactical, reactive solutions – which can be thought of as prototypes – to improve people’s lives in the long term. Its. Open Restaurants programThe city has been expanding outdoor seating options for thousands more food establishments and documenting all of it via a publicly accessible platform.
However, many of these changes simply aim to project a tangible sense of normality. Often, they have only served a small number.
From fix to fixture
The following is a general overview of the Covid Mobility WorksThis website has collected examples from over 245 cities to show how they have helped equity and access, the transport and movement of goods and people. Berlin saw new bike lanes approved in ten days rather than the previously lengthy process that took months. Pop-up bike lanes have appeared everywhere elsewhere too, from Budapest and Bogotá to Mexico City and Dublin. Mumbai has appointed 24 cycle councillors in all its civic wards.
The quieter, safer, and sometimes modified streets in England meant that women made half as many cycling trips in 2020 than they did in previous years. London accelerated the implementation of its low-traffic neighborhoods by a few years, even though it was difficult to engage and plan. Similar schemes in New Zealand’s cities and Vancouver to create healthy, sustainable neighbourhoods have been comparatively well considered.
These aren’t exactly new endeavours. Urban development experts have been working with such concepts for many years. These include Barcelona’s superblock car-free zones and the 15-minute city concept – which aims to have residents live, work and shop all within a 15-minute radius – that has been implemented in Paris. The hyperlocal, one-minute-city model in Sweden, for instance, is designed to allow residents to have input on how much land is made available for cars. And in Seattle, the local government is opening up 45 miles of neighbourhood greenways – not only as a Covid-19 fix, but a step towards making the city liveable in the long term.
The city governments have responded rapidly to the crisis by changing the urban environment quickly and effectively.
While the impact of online shopping and working online predates the pandemics, a variety of urban lockdowns have drawn attention to these awkward questions. Only a few cities have mastered the systemic solution to all these interrelated problems.
The pandemic can also be seen as forcing forward thinking and experimentation. Cities face deeper strategic problems than the immediate tactical responses by local government and the visceral experiences residents. If we can see the links between these patterns associated with Covid-19 and other, deeper crises – the climate crisis, mass migration, social justice – there may be much to gain from the apparently mundane Covid-induced changes to our urban environments. Cities are not only economic powerhouses, but also thrive as inclusive, diverse communities that can be regenerative.
Michele Acuto, a professor of global city politics at the University of Melbourne, is Michele Acuto. Dan Hill is a visiting professor of practice at University College London’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose.
Main image: A Parklet, Hammersmith, London. Credit: Meristem Design.
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