Greener city life: How COVID-19 could shape the future of urban living

Posted on 19 May 2020

Appreciating the simple pleasures of cleaner air and outdoor space could be the new normal if we build back better, writes Jennifer Lenhart and Jeet Mistry.
As COVID-19 affects lives and livelihoods across the world, cities have taken major hits, with health systems at breaking points, many businesses forced to shut, and lockdowns leaving city centres empty. The situation is even more dire for the near billion people living in overcrowded informal settlements.

In many respects, COVID-19 is an urban phenomenon, leading some to question humanity’s conglomeration in cities. Most famously, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo connected NYC’s rapid rise in cases to its high-density. Compact cities, with citizens reliant on public transport, have taken the brunt of impacts. Some even question if this is why sprawling car-dependent cities, such as Los Angeles, have lower caseloads.

However, measuring cities’ vulnerability is more complicated than urban form. Disaster preparedness; the state of health systems; experience with previous outbreaks; government policies and actions at national and local levels, as well as supply chains and transport patterns influence a city’s impacts. High-density cities, such as Singapore, Seoul and Tokyo, have coped relatively well.

Still, the question remains: will people want to live in cities, especially dense cities, in the wake of COVID-19? Will governments, facing economic depression, turn their backs on funding large-scale public transport infrastructure and instead prioritize car-centric cities? The evidence points otherwise.

City life after lockdown

Cities have thrived owing to their multiple advantages. Economies-of-scale mean crucial services are within reach: shops selling food and basic goods, access to water, sanitation, electricity and healthcare, as well as jobs and cultural/ leisure activities. Such aspects will continue to attract people to cities – even if many face challenges delivering these services, especially to vulnerable populations.

Lockdowns have also led many to appreciate simpler pleasures: neighbourhood walks or cycling along car-free streets. Lockdowns remind city dwellers of the value of clean air and clear skies, granting children the freedom to play on empty streets – a lack of commuting vehicles resulting in plummeting toxic air pollution and quieter roads.

Some cities are already taking advantage. Milan is increasing dedicated space for bicycles and pedestrians by reducing car access. Pop-up bike lanes have appeared in Berlin, Bogotá, Budapest, Mexico City, New York, Dublin and Quito. Temporary street closures (to cars) are taking place in Boston, Cologne, Denver, Vancouver and Sydney. Brussels city centre will give preference to cyclists and pedestrians for the foreseeable future. Some governments have even made funding available for this. Such evidence indicates a turning point – liberating cities from car-centric urban design.

It is not only in urban transportation where cities are waking up. COVID-19 has made uncomfortably clear the mammoth inefficiencies of our modern food system. To address this, Montréal will allocate space and conduct workshops, to support urban residents to grow their own food, to inspire self-sufficiency, healthier diets and offer appropriate social distancing hobbies.

Urban renewal

Perhaps the biggest cause of optimism is seeing how cities remain committed to tackle climate change, despite COVID-19. Over 250 cities in 50+ countries joined WWF’s One Planet City Challenge, the largest participation since its inception in 2012, with finalist cities continuing to participate despite the virus outbreak.

Many cities realize that meaningful climate action is key to securing a healthy, safe and sustainable future – building upon urban resilience to react quickly to COVID-19. City networks, such as C40 Cities, the Global Covenant of Mayors, the Global Resilient Cities Network, ICLEI and UN-Habitat, share ideas and innovations, including how cities are tackling health and economic system impacts, as well as how to support vulnerable communities.

Above all, cities see a chance to push for a post-COVID green economic recovery to build back better. What if we envision, implement and fund greener cities, more equitable cities, more resource-efficient and circular cities? Cities centred on people, not cars, with cleaner, renewable energy in a post-fossil fuel future.

At WWF, we are calling for a New Deal for Nature and People – in our cities, but also with national governments and major stakeholder groups – to urgently address the next crises at our doorstep: climate change, biodiversity loss and future health challenges.

COVID-19 will impact our way of life and economic systems. But let us also seize the moment to persuade our leaders to develop cities as places where we can walk and cycle, enjoy cleaner air, greener streets and public spaces, and foster more resilient food systems and sustainable consumption. Cities where safe housing, reliable access to clean water and sanitation for all are prioritized. COVID-19 will not spell the death of urban living, but an opportunity for its renewal.

Jennifer Lenhart is the Global Lead and Jeet Mistry is Programme Manager, Funding and Partnerships, for WWF’s Cities programme.
A cyclist on the CS7 cycle path in London, UK.
© Global Warming Images / WWF