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Urban Planning in times of COVID-19 – Resilience and inclusiveness

By Ana Jayone Yarza Pérez

The world is facing unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 outbreak identified in Wuhan, Hubei, China, in December 2019. The current crisis is an opportunity to reflect on how cities are being planned and managed and brings concepts such as resilience to the top priorities.

Resilience as defined by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction “means the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of the hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions.”

The major efforts by the UNDRR to make our cities resilient have focused on the concept of urban resilience mainly related to climate change adaptation and disaster management, leaving wider sustainability challenges aside. The UN Sustainable Development Goals 9 and 11 explicitly identify the role of resilience, while the New Urban Agenda devotes a specific section on “environmentally sustainable and resilient urban development”. However, scholars have a different definition of resilience, separating “general resilience” as the capacity of the system to withstand shocks and stresses while retaining system properties, from “specific resilience” as the system’s capacity to cope with a determinate shock or stressor (Carpenter et al. 2001). The targets and indicators have addressed the quantitative component but there is a gap in the qualitative input and the need to provide better guidance. This may include the reframing of the term to include unsustainable urban metabolism patterns, social inequalities (Chelleri et al. 2015) and other human hazards, such as pandemics, in order to be prepared for the upcoming events.

For this matter, embracing culture as an essential component for resilience, being a brace to the spheres of sustainability, becomes relevant. We find both, the culture of resilience and the resilience of culture providing broader perspectives for cities, citizens and their heritage that can be applied globally. Resilience must be seen as an integrative process with the social, environmental and economic components meeting the challenges of social inclusion, the digital revolution and sustainable development (Turner 2015). This was addressed in the joint UNESCO-World Bank research on Culture – as the “X Factor” for Building Back Better after Conflict and Disasters.  The mantra of Building Back Better needs to be all encompassing.

How is this translated into urban planning?

Taking the experience in China during the Corona Virus outbreak as a reference, we can understand some of the urban function-spatial problems included during an epidemic (Kyoung Yeo 2010):

  1. Inadequate medical facilities: Manifested in insufficient number, uneven distribution, low capacity, and lack of resources.
  2. Excessive urban population density: The virus of coronavirus disease has a strong infectious capacity, an incubation period and human-to-human transmission. It is more likely to spread in cities with high population density, as it is more difficult to control population movements, cut off the virus transmission route, and other urban systems will face greater pressure after the necessary quarantine is implemented.
  3. Congestion: Caused by disordered city road hierarchy and low level of road facilities. The urban transportation system is important to ensure the timely transportation of medical personnel, patients, and various emergency materials when an epidemic occurs. It is the lifeline of the city during the epidemic period and its accessibility should be guaranteed first. Being a double-edged sword with movement being a factor in the spread of the epidemic and essential to provide medical response.
  4. Insufficient open space: Mainly reflected in the uneven distribution of large open spaces, the small number of small open spaces, and the small scale. During the epidemic, the open spaces serve as a temporary storage and patient receiving spots. Insufficient open space also means that the overall scale of the city’s treatment is reduced, and the potential for coping with risks is relatively reduced . The provision of more open and natural spaces not only increases the capacity of the city to respond during an emergency, but there is also evidence proving that the conservation and enhancement of green infrastructure can have multiple benefits for citizens, improving their health and well-being, as well as reducing pollution levels, cleaner water and risk mitigation (IUCN 2018).
  5. Managing public services: Like medical facilities, other public service facilities have a small total volume, small scale, and uneven distribution. Some large public service facilities can be converted into temporary medical facilities under emergency conditions to ease the pressure of patients’ placement, treatment and isolation in the city.
  6. Weak public awareness of the epidemic: Although this point does not seem to relate to urban function-spatial issues, the lack of understanding will seriously affect the normal functioning of the city during an emergency. Lack of public awareness leads to the loss of early response opportunities. When the epidemic breaks out, without the proper guidance by the public sector and the media, the public’s tolerance for the crisis will become very low, enhancing social panic and riots. Providing accurate information in a timely manner, makes limited public resources play their due role and lessen social distress.

This case reflects how resilience may be provided by diversity, natural redundancy, ambiguity and the dynamic activities of creativity, experimentation and improvisation. It provides resilience guidance, highlighting the importance of providing redundant services: multiple areas and buildings for diverse functions scattered all over, and an environment that enhances creativity, allowing the citizens to transform and adapt it to their needs (DESURBS 2016). The reality shows how in most cases these provisions are not implemented due to their higher maintenance and on the contrary, the public over the private space is prioritized, demonstrating the prevailing of economic parameters. This mindset backfires in the long term when a crisis strikes, leaving cities and citizens powerless, and their capacities to overcome the difficulties reduced. More importantly, the human and resource effort needed to respond and recover from the crisis will exponentially increase if no prevention measures are in place. Diversity of reactive policies and response strategies in containment and management of the disaster and their application is essential for resilience, in this case merging the ’herd immunity’ with state intervention.

Identifying the urban function-spatial problem attributes and overlaying them together with cultural resource mapping is likely to create a better understanding as to how the culture of resilience and the resilience of culture may work together. This will provide better data for managing disaster in identifying high risk populations together with the community facilities that may provide the necessary support.

Taking the COVID-19 crisis as an example, on the one hand, the identified vulnerable groups are the elder, people with serious underlying medical conditions and people with chronic or respiratory disease. On the other, the urban function-spatial issues are the aforementioned. How could the city be prepared and respond to it in a more effective way? Following the previous recommendations (problem attributes overlaid with cultural mapping), a possible way forward could be the following:

  1. Identifying gentrified and gentrifying areas: It is in these neighbourhoods where old people mostly reside and suffer high levels of exclusion (McMaster 2018). They are less likely to move from their original homes, unless the economic situation is critical. Also, due to declining attendance, buildings and spaces for social bonding shut down, being subject to change into a private use, and therefore, reducing the community assets during an emergency.
  2. Identifying heritage buildings and public services: These spaces fulfil two main functions, they are an asset for social cohesion, serving as a meeting or information points during a crisis, as well as being a potential place for medical storage, temporary shelter or medical centre.
  3. Identifying open and natural areas: As previously mentioned, these areas serve as an urban sponge, they provide a healthy space for the inhabitants on the long run, being in this case key for elder and people with respiratory illnesses well-being. These areas absorb air pollution and improve urban environment quality. They also serve as potential areas for response: shelter, temporary services or supply delivery.

Altogether, these steps help with the identification of risk areas and existing capacities, providing a solid baseline when designing the response and contingency plan. Moreover, if a wider range of risks were taken into consideration and combined in a matrix, disaster planification could be more effective as some assets and attributes are common to more than one risk (open areas are essential in case of an earthquake and during a pandemic). At the urban scale, this approach may challenge the compact city and its 24/7 life-style, recalling the social agenda of Le Corbusier in the wake of the urban health of Paris after the Great War.

Are we witnessing a paradigm shift where the city as we know needs to be redefined to address the upcoming risks and challenges? Are our cities and institutions prepared for a future outbreak or crisis? This situation is calling for further reflection on the city’s design, cultural values and capacities, and the way these can be a liability or an opportunity in times of crisis. Let’s benefit from the current state of uncertainty to rethink and redefine our cities.


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