Post COVID-19 Urbanism


A challenge to all city and regional planners

Think Piece commisioned by the International Society of City and Regional Planners

The COVID-19 pandemic marked the year 2020 with one of the biggest public health crises of all time, threatening to take away millions of lives. It is poised to instigate a massive economic crisis, triggering further negative consequences for human life, wellbeing and lifestyle. Cities, especially the globally significant ones – such as Wuhan, Milan, Madrid, Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles – are disproportionally affected (for now). Thus, the pandemic is evolving into an urban crisis, forcing us to reconsider our deeply held beliefs about good city form and the purpose of planning. We face a time of unprecedented change and uncertainty, with the urban environment under the spotlight. During the pandemic, we need to adjust our role as planners, but more importantly, we need to re-examine the urban planning agenda in the ‘post-COVID-19 world’.

The International Society of City and Regional Planners invites planners around the world to consider the post-Coronavirus future of our regions, cities and towns. Here we initiate and facilitate a discussion regarding planning challenges, goals and constraints. We are aware of the ancient wisdom that a crisis is also an opportunity. We embrace the challenge to reinvent the meaning of our mission: Knowledge for Better Cities.

Towards that end, members of the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP) have formulated several initial questions, starting with what we have learned from the still-unfolding drama of the Coronavirus, and moving to more speculative, future-exploring questions:

  • How have cities enabled – and contained – the pandemic?
  • How can we expect cities to recover once the pandemic has peaked?
  • Is there a model of the city which is ‘pandemic-resistant’?
  • How does the pandemic relate to the issue of resilience in general terms – resilience to climate change, natural hazards, accidents, war, unrest…?
  • Is the question of a ‘post-COVID-19 city’ one of public health only, or a broader matter of safety, security and survival in the face of all possible risks – and abrupt climate change in particular?
  • When considering pandemics and other crises and emergencies, should planners focus on the physical form (size, shape, structure, density) and the material elements of the city (infrastructure, buildings, open space) only, or should they also take action on the economy, society, culture, governance, politics…?
  • What types of urban innovation can we expect, or promote, based on the lessons learned during the COVID-19 crisis?

ISOCARP’s 56th World Planning Congress, set for Doha from 8 to 12 November 2020, will provide an excellent platform to discuss these and other questions arising from the pandemic health crisis, including links with the pre-defined general Congress theme of ‘Post-Oil City – Planning for Urban Green Deals’.

Profound issues are raised in the current crisis. We here propose a number of themes as prompts for a broader and deeper discussion.

  • The Risks of Globalisation and the Emergence of ‘Glocalisation’

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the fragility of ’globalisation‘. While it triggered attempts to return to self-centred national states and even self-sufficient cities and regions – along with disturbing expressions of nationalism and xenophobia – it also produced constructive examples of international collaboration and the sharing of information, know-how and supplies.

  • Smart Protection vs Fear of Surveillance

Some strategies to combat COVID-19 come straight from the intelligence toolbox, tracing individuals and their contacts. How do we distinguish the strategic advantages of big data and smart urban management from the dangers of personal surveillance and the end of privacy?

  • Digital Platforms as a Viable Communication Tool

The crisis has empowered digital platforms, from distance learning to virtual conferencing and online shopping. Will reduced physical mobility (of goods and people) equally empower the transition to a 100% clean energy society?

  • From Planning Cities to Sustaining Community

The crisis confirms that planning is not just about the physical aspects of a city but also about the engagement of its people. Citizens are using social networks to get engaged voluntarily, generating social capital. Should city planners and designers get out of their offices and engage with the locals even more than before?

  • The Size of the City or the Neighbourhood Unit

Should we still celebrate the concept of mega and metropolitan cities? Urban villages can be isolated and protected more easily than huge cities. Moreover, they foster a sense of belonging and dynamic social interaction. Urban planners should promote subregions efficiently connected via public transportation while internally enjoying a high degree of self-sufficiency.

  • Changes to Transportation Modes

Pollution levels in cities all over the world have plummeted. Air quality is healthy again. Transformed mobility patterns affect our daily lives – citizens switch to walking and give up driving. Shall we see this process as a threat equal to the collapse of the global economy or do we need to learn how to stick to these practices in the Post-COVID-19 world?

  • Acting on the Climate Crisis

Do people, governments and political systems act only when a threat is personal and immediate? Why doesn’t the world treat the existential threat of climate change like an infectious disease?

  • City Planning in the Age of a Global Economic Crisis

As millions lose their jobs some countries, such as Spain, consider introducing a basic income. Another strategy is urban agriculture, to guarantee that no-one goes hungry while generating fuel and fibre – and reducing household bills.

  • Contemporary Cities and the Housing Dilemma

Suddenly it’s possible, in many countries, to stop evictions and foreclosures, and to suspend payment on mortgages for primary residences and utility bills. Could some of these extraordinary measures be retained after the pandemic in cases of poverty, job losses and similar hardship?

  • Social Justice and Just Cities

Urban planners need to identify and promote infrastructure that (i) prevents the most vulnerable populations from being the prime victims of epidemics – most likely involving a dramatic change in development priorities – and (ii) addresses the problems of global migration and post-war conditions.

  • Social Distancing: Can Public Life Survive Coronavirus?

Whereas the current coronavirus fight requires social distancing and isolation, proximity and density make many urban systems more efficient, while lower density enables access to nature and local resources. In the wake of the pandemic, we will seek an integration of higher and lower densities, rather than extolling the virtues of one or the other.

  • The Biggest Questions: A New Paradigm?

Would a less consumerist society, with fewer possessions and less travel, need a different urban setting? Will local industries prosper and replace global supply chains? Will societies have more solidarity, or less? Will local communities be more engaged? Will governments be held more accountable? What other transformations of urban cultures can we expect, and how can we retain and improve them through planning and design?

The worldwide members of ISOCARP
want to hear your comments and ideas.

ISOCARP members will discuss new strategies
at the 56th World Planning Congress
in Doha (8-12 November 2020)

ISOCARP members want to know
what you are experiencing right now.

Think Piece initiated by Ali Alraouf, co-authored by Ali Alraouf, Malgorzata Hanzl and Dushko Bogunovich; and co-edited by Jeremy Dawkins and Frank D’hondt, all members of the Board of the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP). Although commissioned by ISOCARP Board, this Think Piece does not imply the expression of opinion on the part of ISOCARP as an association of individual and institutional members.

20 April 2020

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