Coronavirus outbreak – Roles & Responsibilities of Planning

At the brink of the Tenth Session of the World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi (8-13 February), the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP) expresses its solidarity with the more than 40 million residents of Wuhan and other cities in the central Hubei province of China. These cities are currently in the status of ‘lock-down’ to contain and overcome the outbreak of a coronavirus, which the World Health Organization WHO declared on Thursday, 30 January 2020, as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.We stand by our colleague planners with whom we have a longstanding relationship of mutual knowledge exchange and cooperation to innovate planning theories and practices.



Future history will teach us if a lock-down was a justifiable unprecedented drastic measure applied in such a scale. However, it already teaches us a hard lesson that ‘urban hardship’ is not only related to climate change and natural disasters, but also to viral viruses penetrating and harming human bodies. Fei Chen, Senior Lecturer at the Architecture Department of University of Liverpool, argues in her article for “The Conversation”, that Chinese cities are set-up and operated in a way which increases the success rate of a total lock-down significantly:


It sounds unbelievable to quarantine a city of 11 million people, but it may work because movement within and between cities in China relies heavily on public transport infrastructure. Major cities in China are well connected by airports, express railways, motorways and long-distance buses. Once the entry points of these transport routes are controlled and patrolled, people cannot easily get out. The transport infrastructure is built by the state and over 90% funded by public money, so control remains in the hands of the authorities. The one-party government in China also helps to effectively implement such a strategy.2


As the planning community is advocating and adopting ‘resilience’ planning, we propose that this World Urban Forum should expand that notion to preventing, mitigating and withstanding potentially epidemic outbreaks. Fei Chen further argues that


Cities nowadays rely on complex systems to operate. The concentration of labour and resources may enable efficiency but leaves them vulnerable to attacks.2


This complexity and scale of cities and its direct relation to the spreading of diseases highlights the importance of planners to join the discussion and openly elaborate the right approach to dealing with the existing threat but also to think about their role and responsibilities in mitigating them in the future. These measures can take a multiplicity of forms. On the one hand, the global tendency of cities becoming ever bigger and transforming towards metropolitan areas while becoming more interconnected through a variety of transport modes. On the other hand, there are additional layers to planning which are intertwined with the planning, management, operation, and disaster-response approaches. One of them is the – particularly in China – rapidly growing importance of data-driven and controlled Smart Cities. Fei Chen provides one example in her article:


In the foreseeable future digital technologies and smart city measures may also play a role in dealing with pressure on health infrastructure by, for instance, reporting cases and coordinating the allocation of resources. Wuhan has a reputation for the active integration of smart technologies in urban management.2


Another layer is the advancing field of data science and spatial visualisations and analytics. The origin of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is frequently associated with the work of John Snow in 1854. He mapped the spreading of Cholera cases in London by merging physical maps and infographics while adding additional layers such as water sources. This led to the discovery that the Cholera virus is spreading via the water sources instead of the air as previously assumed.

Published by C.F. Cheffins, Lith, Southhampton Buildings, London, England, 1854 in Snow, John. On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, 2nd Ed, John Churchill, New Burlington Street, London, England, 1855.


Today, the scale, power, and complexity of such analytics are much more advanced. In the case of the Coronavirus, the John Hopkins CSSE developed an online dashboard which tracks global cases of infections and confirmed deaths associated with the virus. While this does not necessarily explain the cause or contribute directly to its counteraction, it is an incredibly strong tool for live-visualisation and might bear further potential if compared with other diseases or analysed retrospectively.


Visualisation of global spreading of Coronavirus (by John Hopkins CSSE | click here for live version)


Further, the long-term impact on the affected cities and region is still not foreseeable. However, the local economy will experience a significant loss. While some sectors might recover quickly as soon as the lock-down status is lifted – as well as compensated by national financial mechanisms – the reduction of, for example, income from tourism in Wuhan and its environment is inevitable. ISOCARP Member Zaheer Allam expands on this further in his article on ArchDaily:


The urban economy is expected to take a toll, and this cannot be disregarded as cities contribute more than 80% to global GDP. From the SARS outbreak, an estimated economic impact of US$ 12-18 billion resulting from the tourism, travel and retail sales industries alone. The Zika virus outbreak on its end is estimated to have costed local economies in affected areas between US$ 7-18 billion, while the Ebola virus caused an estimated loss of US$2.2 billion in the GDP of three economies (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone) in 2015 alone.3


ISOCARP cannot provide any answers yet on the implications of the Coronavirus for the planning sector. But we want to provide a platform to formulate the questions that can lead to adaptive urban and territorial policies, plans, designs and further research. Apart from an online discussion forum on our website ‘Planetary’, we also will address the Wuhan case in some of our planned activities, such as the Networking Event ‘Beyond the Metropolis, organised in partnership with UN-Habitat’s MetroHUB and MTPA (Metropolitan and Territorial Planning Agencies) and hope to find supporters for further activities and fruitful discussion.

We are inviting our members, partnering organisations and ISOCARP’s supporters to share thoughts, opinions, related research and proposals on the role and responsibilities of planning. Can planning smaller-scale urban settlements counteract epidemic spreading? Must lock-down scenarios be considered in basic service-provision? What tools and methods can actively contribute? Where can the planner’s responsibility be delineated?


We are looking forward to any comments on the above questions or new questions formulated to the planning society. Please send us your responses via We will publish all responses here and invite you to follow the further development.



1 World Health Organisation (30 January 2020). Statement on the second meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Available at: (Accessed 31 January 2020).

2 Fei Chen, The Conversation (30 January 2020). Coronavirus: why China’s strategy to contain the virus might work. Available at: (Accessed 31 January 2020).

3 Zaheer Allam. “How Cities, and Architecture, Respond to the Wuhan Coronavirus” 01 Feb 2020. ArchDaily. Available at: (Accessed 2 February 2020).

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