Could cities and communities have been better prepared for the Covid crisis?

4 August, 2021

It is clear that Covid-19 has possessed major setbacks for the SDGs. The pandemic has reflected the gap in urban research and the need for researchers to take these uncertainties as a guide to chart more sustainable future communities and cities.

As I write this, the world is still confronting one of the biggest public health risks of all time. As the world is continuing to struggle with the implications of the pandemic and the nations scramble for vaccines, there is enough evidence that Covid-19 has revealed the true progress of urban development.

Have we got it right yet?

However, the pandemic has disclosed a rather ugly truth. Covid-19 might be a temporary shock to economic growth for countries like the US and China, for the majority of countries, the economic damage is predicted to be more long-lasting. This poses a real risk for the families who are pushed below the poverty line.

If we look closely at the countries that are predicted to have the deepest and long-lasting effects of Covid-19 poverty, with the exception of Yemen and Venezuela, all of them are in Africa. The trend rate of economic progress is slow, which means that the poverty numbers in 2030 could surpass the ones in 2020.

While these numbers look grim, these are not set in stone. As such, Covid-19 has brought importance to urban development in countries like Africa. The focus is now on the way human settlements are planned and bringing up questions over how these cities are affected, specifically in Global South and Africa.

This is a reason why I cannot stop emphasising the importance of Sustainable Development Goals 11. Progressing towards sustainable cities and communities creates a fertile ground for accomplishing other targeted SDG objectives. Cities and urban centers are home to most of the world’s population and nuclear for economic growth and progression. However, these high concentration areas are also the most vulnerable to any natural or man-made disasters or pandemics like Covid-19.

It is not the first time that a pandemic has altered urban planning and development methods. It is essential that policymakers and researchers learn from the past and recognise how to speed up the management of the cities affected by the pandemic, in a way so that they can better cope with future pandemics.

The need to advance the SDG 11 and its implications have become even more significant. Actions taken in the next few years will determine how effective the planned policies and management systems adhered to SDG 11.

What’s happening right now?

Achieving goals set to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable – The current state of play and policy

  1. Progress towards SDGs has been quite uneven for both countries and the goals, which is usually disrupted with a lack of coordination amongst global, national, and local governance.
  2. Persistent gaps in areas like service delivery and infrastructure hold back the global south from long-lasting results.
  3. Financing SDGs continues to be the greatest obstacle for global success, along with resource management, effective tax collection and monitoring illicit activities are also vital.

There are growing issues that need to be tackled in months and years to come. All of the following will have an unprecedented impact on our transition to sustainable cities.

  1. Green recovery for different cities and countries
  2. Designing public realm and green spaces linked to urban adaptation.
  3. New forms of mobility and links to urban adaptation
  4. Impact on local businesses and service providers.
  5. Role of technology and digital futures
  6. Urban and local production chains and linking them to the circular economy

This might not cover all the aspects of urban planning but provides a brief review on the important aspects that the pandemic has uncovered to focus on for urban environmental sustainability.

While the current focus is on handling immediate challenges of the pandemic, it is essential to place approaches to recovery that align with sustainability objectives.

What are the key opportunities for a green and just recovery?

Even though the long-term impact of the pandemic will differ from city to city, there are certain patterns that have already formed a topic of debate and discussion.

As the pandemic continues to unfold while health concerns reach their peak, cities need to take steps for a just and green recovery. The aim is to rebuild economies while managing complex socio-economic problems and tackling the climate crisis at the same time.

  1. Rethinking urban mobility and land use – The pandemic has allowed the policymakers to demonstrate that the mobility behavior has become more diverse and fluid than previously assumed. There is an opportunity to abide by this momentum and encourage a model shift by relocating the road space to broad walking and cycling space.

This will create necessary intervention in car use and motivate people to take up active and public transport. There is a need to diversify from radical transport and create more cycle networks that bridge the gap between residential areas and urban cores for better connectivity and reach.

  1. Retrofitting the urban building – Building retrofits have major benefits that are beyond carbon emissions like reduced cost and a more comfortable lifestyle. The reduced number of tourists in cities has made it easier for the authorities to accelerate these plans, provided it is well planned. This will require leadership from the public sector and planning the complex land use and urban functionality.


  1. More of green infrastructure and nature-based solutions – Perhaps the most enduring and positive legacy that we can build post-pandemic will be to create a renewed appreciation towards high-quality green spaces that is just and healthy local environments where nature and technology can work together, increasing the cities’ resilience from the effects of pandemic and climate change.


  1. Urban circular economy – The pandemic has pushed us to rethink our use of resources and embrace initiatives that value local resources in and around the cities. Policies to promote a circular economy also need to consider affordability for low-income groups, who are often deprived of healthy and fresh produce. It will require coordinated policy and action across many sectors, including urban agriculture, social policy, and infrastructure.


How can we set the track towards the development of sustainable cities and communities?

The early years of the 2020s are likely to be the turning point of our progress towards SDGs, specifically SDG 11, which forms the basis of other developers as well. Without sustainable cities and communities, it is difficult to achieve other sustainable goals.

  1. The central part of all the above approaches and themes would require active participation from the local governments in the recovery of the planning process at national and global levels.
  2. Funding also needs urgent attention – allotting a part of the Recovery and Resilience Fund for sustainable urban planning and development.
  3. Investing in recovery measures that specifically focus on inclusivity, zero carbon impact, and energy efficiency, that creates more spaces for nature and resource efficiency for locals.

Urban development research must, therefore –

  1. Adapt to the immediacy of the recent dynamics
  2. Implement strategies to ensure collective healing and improvement in social interaction
  3. Ensure effective use of resources, wherein the “new normal” provides room for diversified mobility.

To be truly inclusive, recovery planning needs to have a just transition for all the people residing in the city. It also needs to address the social inequalities in the community, especially securing those who are the most vulnerable and ensure that their basic needs are met.


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