Urban farms to traffic bans: Cities prep for post-coronavirus future

A man cycles while wearing a mask in Kensington Palace Park, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, London, Britain, April 19, 2020. REUTERS/Simon Dawson - RC2M7G9FETCQ

As the coronavirus pandemic forced lockdowns in many parts of the world, cities from Amsterdam to Singapore are unveiling measures to improve sustainability, food security and living standards that urban experts said would soon become the norm.

Reported cases of the coronavirus crossed 2.4 million globally and about 170,000 people have died, according to a Reuters tally.

The International Monetary Fund has warned of the steepest downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, while the International Labour Organization said more than four out of five workers globally are affected by full or partial closures.

“Extraordinary times require extraordinary responses,” said Tony Matthews, a senior lecturer in urban and environmental planning at Australia’s Griffith University.

“Many of the major innovations in urban planning and design have historically been founded in improving health outcomes,” he said. “COVID-19 will prompt a new round of thinking about how urban form and function can be improved.”

Cities will aim to become more self-reliant and resilient, with a focus on transport, energy and food security, he added.

More than two-thirds of the global population is forecast to live in urban areas by 2050 – up from 56% today, according to the United Nations.

The coronavirus crisis would not be the first time that an epidemic has led to changes in city planning, research shows.

The cholera outbreaks of the 1830s led to better sanitation in London and elsewhere, while the tuberculosis epidemic in New York in the early 20th century paved the way for improved public transit systems and housing regulations.

MOBILITY TO NUTRITION

Now, authorities from Bogota to Philadelphia are looking at mobility, adding more bicycle lanes and barring traffic from some streets so more people can walk safely during lockdowns – measures planners say will be long lasting.

In Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo is aiming for the “quarter-hour city”, where most daily needs are within a 15-minute walk, bike ride or public transport commute, to reduce congestion and pollution, and improve quality of life.

From China to the Czech Republic, facial recognition software and other technologies to track the outbreak and enforce quarantine are likely to persist, increasing the risk of surveillance by authorities, according to privacy experts.

In Singapore, the COVID-19 crisis has brought food security to the fore. The city-state imports more than 90% of its food, and has been pushing urban farming with an aim to locally produce 30% of its nutritional needs by 2030.

Earlier this month, with the city in partial lockdown to curb a recent surge in infections, authorities announced a S$30 million ($21 million) grant to ramp up local production of eggs, leafy vegetables and fish over the next six to 24 months.

“The current COVID-19 situation underscores the importance of local food production. (It) mitigates our reliance on imports, and provides buffer in the event of food supply disruptions,” the Singapore Food Agency said in a statement.

Urban farming is an under-exploited “low hanging fruit”, with many potential benefits including more livelihoods and improved household nutrition of the urban poor, said Paul Teng, dean of the National Institute of Education in Singapore.

“The COVID-19 crisis has focused the attention of many governments to treat food security more seriously as a national security issue,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

THRIVING CITIES

With the travel and tourism industries taking a big hit from the coronavirus, cities that are dependent on tourism revenues will need to overhaul their economic models, Matthews said.

In Amsterdam, one of Europe’s biggest tourism hubs, authorities earlier this month said they would aim to base their public policy decisions on the so-called “doughnut” model that prioritises social and ecological goals for better living.

Based on a blueprint created by British economist Kate Raworth, the inner ring of the doughnut represents the bare minimum that everyone needs for living, including food, water, decent housing, sanitation, education and healthcare.

The outer ring of the doughnut represents ecological goals such as climate action, healthy oceans and biodiversity.

Between these two rings is where cities can thrive as the needs of humans and those of the planet are met, Raworth said.

Elsewhere, governments are introducing a universal basic income to offer relief as people lose their jobs.

Authorities in Spain have said they planned to introduce monthly cash payments to citizens, while Brazil has approved an emergency basic income for the poor.

There had been growing interest in a basic income because of the lack of safety nets and more insecure employment brought on by austerity measures after the 2007-08 global financial crisis, said Louise Haagh at the Basic Income Earth Network advocacy.

“Perhaps the most important lesson from the current crisis is the way our health systems sustain our societies and economies. Economic security is part of this wider picture, and basic income is one measure to secure societies,” she said.

“Even if we might not see major changes to policy after the crisis, the hope is that current systems will be revisited in some way,” she said.

Many cities will not be able to return to the way they used to be, at least in terms of their economies, Matthews said.

“The crisis has fully exposed fundamental weaknesses in our systems and upended all kinds of order,” he said.

“It’s going to be a profound adjustment.”

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