Rethinking urban life amid the pandemic

New normal procedures such as quarantine, physicalNew normal procedures such as quarantine, physical

THE world is facing unprecedented restrictions. Many are required to remain at home.

Recommendations by the World Health Organisation — quarantine, physical distancing and self-isolation — have become essential strategies to reduce the spread of this global pandemic.

These procedures not only contradict the desire of individuals for social interaction, but also conflict with the way our cities, parks, squares, subways, shared spaces and city streets are designed.

Although the interconnection between cities is a major source of social and economic progress, it also helped the spread of Covid-19. So it would raise many questions among urban planners about the difference between the trend in design towards increasing social relations between individuals and the need to separate the population in the current situation.

Covid-19 has disrupted global progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and perhaps it is time to see how a planetary health approach could help reframe the SDGs that pose a direct challenge to SDG11, which calls on all nations to make “cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable”.

The Covid-19 pandemic has already significantly altered urban life. These changes have sparked a debate about how cities should be built and perhaps more importantly, how they can better respond to current and future crises.

There are five elements on the rethinking of urban planning and learning to live with Covid-19.

FIRST, the use of digital tools. Digitalisation has been a crucial lever in cities’ response to the pandemic, with tools monitoring contagion risk and ensuring the respect of confinement and physical distancing rules, while also enabling the continuity of services and economic activity virtually.

These tools and the changes in habits they entail will remain a permanent component of cities’ recovery phase and increased preparedness for potential new waves.

This has prompted reflections on issues of privacy rights, and universality of Internet access.

SECOND is urban mobility. Mobility has been strongly impacted by the pandemic and provided cities with a momentum to rethink approaches to urban space and suggest alternative options. Cities must promote cycling as part of the tactical urbanism movement.

Cities are now investing in active mobility infrastructure, improved public transport safety and accessibility, and low emission transport options, such as electric vehicles and scooters.

THIRD, urban density. Compact cities have long been praised for their benefits, which include better accessibility to local services and jobs, short intra-urban distances and public transport systems with positive contributions to the efficiency of infrastructure investments, the reduction of energy consumption and CO2 emissions, as well as knowledge diffusion and economic growth.

Dense urban environments can provide quicker access to health and social services, create support networks to combat social isolation and make use of social infrastructure to alleviate the consequences of the pandemic.

FOURTH, urban planning and design. Cities are adapting urban design, reclaiming public spaces for citizens and rethinking the locations of essential urban functions to ensure easier access to urban services and amenities while securing safety and health.

In the context of Covid-19, concepts such as the 15-minute city developed by Carlos Moreno have gained traction as a means to increase the quality and sustainability of life in cities by ensuring access to six essential functions in a short perimeter: to live, to work, to supply, to care, to learn and to enjoy.

FIFTH is collaborative governance. Cities have been collaborating with a wide range of actors, including national and regional governments, urban stakeholders and citizens, to design and implement immediate, short-term and long-term responses to multiple dimensions of the Covid-19 crisis.

They are also playing a key role in their dialogue at the regional and national levels and on the international stage to call for immediate assistance, for coordinated action during and after lockdowns and for a holistic and integrated approach to long-term urban recovery and resilience.

Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood, special adviser on public health to the prime minister, has stated that the Covid-19 pandemic exemplified the intimate correlation of health and built environment, that managing the pandemic effectively requires humility to learn constantly from other countries’ successes and mistakes as well as our own and to continually improve.

One positive impact of the current pandemic is the time it offers to built environment professionals to reflect on past events and learn what can be improved for future responses.

By Dr Azmizam Abdul Rashid.

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