As the scope and scale of the COVID-19 pandemic grew exponentially early last year, it rapidly became clear that its impact on urban areas was neither uniform nor random. In an early effort to understand the emerging patterns of morbidity and mortality, I showed in The Conversation last April that these patterns both reflect and are reinforced by existing social, economic, environmental and political differences, which themselves find expression in the built environment. Research on responses to earlier pandemics and epidemics, including cholera in London and elsewhere in the 18th and 19th centuries and the Spanish Flu in 1917-18, provides important pointers to help understand the emerging urban epidemiologies.
In early 2020, the epidemiological evidence on COVID-19 was strongest in the USA, UK and some West European countries like Italy and Spain, which were badly hit by the first wave of the pandemic and are characterised by wide social and economic inequalities. Over the following months, very similar and strong relationships between social processes and urban spatial form became clear in countries which failed to avoid mass infection through stringent lockdown, immigration quarantine and effective testing and tracing regimes.
In order to explore how a sample of diverse cities in different contexts were experiencing and responding to the pandemic, I led a team funded for an Urban Thinkers’ Campus session in the COVID-19 series run by UN-Habitat’s World University Campaign in June-July 2020. The team comprised academic, local authority and NGO/social enterprise researchers from six cities on four continents, namely Greater Manchester (UK), Gothenburg (Sweden), Cape Town (South Africa), Kisumu (Kenya), Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Shimla (India).
Apart from Buenos Aires, none of the cities was a national capital. They represent a spectrum of city sizes from 350,000 to over four million, and are diverse in other ways too. As such, they are remarkably representative of the majority of urban areas worldwide, whereas most urban research focuses on the relatively small number of mega- and capital cities.
Our findings revealed a rich tapestry of similarities and differences, reflecting the interrelationships between national epidemiologies and policies on the one hand, and local urban characteristics and priorities on the other. We have just published our results in CITY, a leading critical urban studies journal available on open access.
Many key dimensions of COVID response policy are determined nationally or at state/regional level, depending on the precise divisions of powers and responsibilities. Only rarely are cities able to impose their own lockdowns, mobility restrictions or vaccination policies. Perhaps as a result, there is potential for conflict over such issues where they are felt to be inappropriate or discriminatory to particular cities and counties or regions. This has been evident in the UK too, where Whitehall-imposed tiers comprising different levels of restrictions on retail, hospitality and sport/leisure activities were perceived as unfair by elected mayors in many northern English cities. For instance, demands for greater local powers or joint decision-making over these decisions and the levels of furlough compensation were vocalised consistently by Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester.
The most widespread coping measures adopted by the cities studied include widening pavements, pedestrianizing some roads to accommodate more outdoor dining space with appropriate ‘social distancing’, and enhancing cycle lanes, initially on a temporary basis but potentially also for the longer term. Depending on the ebb and flow of infection rates, use of public transport was either made cheaper and subsidised, or discouraged in favour of walking, cycling and using private cars. Reduction in traffic congestion and hence airborne pollution levels from PM10 and especially PM2.5 particles was very marked during lockdowns, leading to greater appreciation of the need to enhance air quality, especially near schools and in high-density, lower-income areas. Similarly, socio-spatial inequalities in access to public open green space emerged everywhere, particularly where organised sports and leisure facilities were closed. This has boosted the priority attached to urban greening, especially in more deprived areas, and reinforced the urgency of citywide initiatives as a key element of climate change strategies.
Sometimes, public health responses to COVID-19 have been used to fast-track ‘modern’ urban redevelopment regarded by some as regressive or even counterproductive. One example was the summary closure and demolition in Kisumu of a key fresh produce market before construction of a modern facility in a location less convenient to the urban workers and commuters who were its main clientele. As a result, the generally well controlled market was replaced by spontaneous street trading nearby, often with far less sanitary and distanced conditions.
Common across these cities – and most others worldwide – have been rhetorical commitments to use the pandemic response to build or bounce back better, in now-familiar resilience jargon. Doing this would mean reducing poverty and inequality to promote greater equity, justice and sustainability in cities, by reducing the marked inequalities in domestic space and neighbourhood residential density, and access to public green and blue space, educational and other services, and decent employment.
It would also require structural changes, such as redesign of urban areas into clustered ‘15- or 20-minute cities’ with multifunctional land-use and a far higher proportion of journeys made on foot or by bicycle. This would not only help reduce vulnerability to pandemics, but have benefits for the climate change emergency too. Though addressing that would need a more comprehensive approach, including: a transformation to renewable energy-based living; redesign and retrofitting of buildings to achieve low-carbon, carbon-neutral or ideally carbon-positive outcomes; and a strong shift to circular economic activity. But that’s another story!
Feature image: Alex Motoc on Unsplash
About the author: Professor David Simon FAcSS is Professor of Development Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, UK. His particular research interests include development theory, policy and practice; the development-environment interface including sustainability and climate/environmental change; cities, urbanization and urban-rural interaction; and transport and regional and national development planning.
Suggested further reading
Sparke, M. & Anguelov, D. (2020). Contextualising coronavirus geographically. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 45, 498 – 508. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12389.
Schrager, B. (2020). The geography of the US’s mishandling of COVID‐19: A commentary on the politics of science in democracies. The Geographical Journal, 187, 51 – 56. https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12363
Lovelace, R. & Talbot, J. (2020). Cities must act to secure the future of urban cycling: our research shows how. Geography Directions: https://blog.geographydirections.com/2020/06/17/cities-must-act-to-secure-the-future-of-urban-cycling-our-research-shows-how/