History teaches us that urban innovation has often come after a disaster. Following the 1755 earthquake and fire, Lisbon was rebuilt with more stable buildings to withstand future events. Disease control and hygiene were reasons to re-plan Paris in the mid-19th century. Around the same time, the London sewer system was built to combat cholera outbreaks. All three cities were role models and influenced urban planning worldwide. So what characteristics does the city have with the potential to become the role model for how the covid-19 was dealt with and why? Although it is too early to have clear answers, there are first indications.

Rethinking current urban planning

The covid-19 has tested the reality of our cities. Although maintaining distance is now necessary, many neighborhoods and cities hardly allow it, even in generally well-equipped European cities. For a long time, car-friendly cities were the main focus of urban planning, resulting in little space for pedestrians with little chance of keeping two meters away. Quality open spaces are scarce in many neighborhoods or have been privatized. As a result, it is difficult for many urban dwellers to spend time away from home, and a particular challenge for those living in small apartments with no outside space. This situation will intensify dramatically in the summer, when people want to leave their hot apartments only to find crowded parks.

More space for bicycles

Many cities around the world are discovering the benefits of promoting cycling to work by avoiding saturation of public transport and allowing physical distance. Since automobile traffic has also decreased in many cities, concepts proposed for years are now being tested, for example, closing certain roads to turn them into bicycle-only streets, or developing more dedicated bicycle lanes. In addition to being a form of transportation, bikes also give people the opportunity to exercise outdoors without congregating in popular and crowded spaces like parks or beaches. One city that has been particularly active in this regard is the Colombian capital of Bogotá, which is opening 76 kilometers of additional bicycle lanes at the moment. Since Bogotá tends to be greatly affected by traffic congestion, promoting bicycle use can have beneficial effects that go far beyond the current pandemic.

New open and multifunctional public spaces

Mixed-use environments allow flexibility by having, for example, a pedestrian zone that can also serve as a public space for nighttime cultural activities, unlike a mall that is locked at a certain time. When there are mixed-use environments in different parts of the city, shopping is easier and involves fewer trips.

There are currently many community initiatives targeting older people and vulnerable groups, where volunteers complete their purchases to prevent them from catching COVID-19.

In addition to reducing travel and car dependency, these mixed-use urban neighborhoods also encourage community participation. Community centers and other residential programs facilitate a sense of community by fostering neighborhood aid, which is critical in times of crisis. There are currently many community initiatives targeting older people and vulnerable groups, where volunteers complete their purchases to prevent them from getting covid-19. Those initiatives are developed in the most natural way when people can interact in open public spaces.

More planning, fewer disasters

Covid-19 certainly tests our reality of how we used to build our cities and how we should better build them in the future. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, adopted by the Member States of the United Nations, is the guide that makes our communities safer and more resilient to disasters. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Framework can serve as a guiding principle for designing better urban infrastructure, promoting inclusive planning processes that incorporate the voice of planners, decision makers and civil society organizations.

Our cities must move from “rebuilding better” to “building better”. This includes thinking about how to deal with future events, for example, designing more open green spaces.

In line with this, the New Urban Agenda developed by the United Nations calls for the principles of “better rebuilding” to be integrated, not only during recovery, but also for planning. Our cities must move from “rebuilding better” to “building better”. This includes thinking about how to deal with future events, for example by designing more open green spaces, as they not only support distancing during the current pandemic, but also help cool cities in the summer.

Find and take advantage of synergies

A city is made up of many layers that are too often planned and designed for one purpose when there could be several. A park not only serves as a recreation area, but could also serve as a retention area during heavy rains and, therefore, as part of a flood risk reduction strategy. Pedestrian zones can be reopened more easily than shopping malls during pandemics like the current coronavirus, and at the same time they are public spaces that allow multiple social functions. If they are also green areas, they can also serve to reduce heat and flood risks.

The time to think about a more innovative urban design is now. The pandemic is a wake-up call: we know how to create a sustainable urban future, and green neighborhoods with multifunctional spaces are the cornerstone that enables communities to grow and interact from a safe distance.

Simone Sandholz is a specialist in urban planning and risk management at the United Nations University- Institute for Environment and Human Security.

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