Rethinking the City after COVID-19

by Reimund Schwarze
September 10, 2020

Wuhan, Madrid, New York, Rio de Janeiro: Dense and large cities have been hot spots of the Corona crisis. The size of their populations and their high level of global and local interconnectivity make cities particularly vulnerable to the spread of the virus. On the other hand, there is no clear evidence of a correlation between population density and virus transmission (Shima et al. 2020). It is rather the socio-spatial structure, access to health care, poverty and homelessness that determine the fatal spread of the virus. As a result of the corona crisis, cities can develop into the centers of resilience and innovation that they have always been in economic history. However, this requires conscious political decisions to strengthen cities, especially in the programs of economic revitalization after the pandemic.

Dr. Reimund Schwarze

Tackling inequalities and urban development 

Far from being „the great leveler,“ the pandemic has sharply exposed and even deepened existing structural social and economic inequalities. Tell me where you live and I tell you what your risk of infection – and death – is. This is especially true for people without a permanent home. Homelessness is not only a particular vulnerability to the pandemic, but a home is also the first line of defense against the spread of the virus, while it is also a risk factor for those living in crowded homes. Lockdowns and social – or better physical – distance is difficult to maintain without a place to live or in cramped housing conditions. The same can be said for access to urban health care. Fighting homelessness and the lacking access to health care is a moral duty to the poor as well as public health policy in the pandemic. The city basically has everything it takes to withstand a pandemic – but only if it consistently plans for community health. At the same time, we need data to understand whether new suburban or rural living within the reach of the cities is emerging as a response to the perceived concentration of these risks in cities. 

Strengthening the capacities of local governance 

COVID-19 has highlighted the crucial role of local authorities on the front line of crisis management. The measures taken by local authorities have been essential and, in many cases, cities were pioneering efforts in tackling pandemic risks. They have also played a crucial role in supporting local businesses and enterprises in the crisis.  At the same time however, the COVID 19 pandemic has significantly reduced the revenues of local and sub-national governments and restricted their budgets by closing local tax-paying businesses. An incomplete or slow recovery of local government revenues could jeopardize important investment in urban infrastructure for years to come, lead to lasting cuts in public services and undermine wider efforts to achieve sustainable urban development. In Germany, the national government’s fiscal stimulus package of EUR 130 billion includes EUR 25 billion allocated in support of municipalities, including EUR 8 billion to compensate for declining local business tax revenue (OECD 2020b). A good first step on how to contribute to maintaining essential local capabilities, strengthen local resilience and prevent setbacks in climate protection, but more is needed.  

Promoting new forms of solidarity 

The power of images in countries with coronavirus hotspots has led to an astonishing breadth of changes in everyday behavior. Shopping and public transport only with a mask has become commonplace in Europe. Renouncing private parties, renouncing contacts up to the renouncement of vacation trips are also becoming normal. Slowly the realization is maturing that there is no fixed end point of the exceptional situation. This creates a hitherto unknown form of urban coexistence that has been characterized by diversity, choice and anonymity. Attention is paid to the strangers, car numbers are registered, and foreigners are met with distance and suspicion. On the other hand, new forms of solidarity are developing at the local level. Local solidarity (e.g. local care and aid networks) and creativity (e.g. offers of help through contact-free means of delivery) in dealing with the crisis show the potential for community cohesion and resilience. Whether these are accepted and how long they will last is completely open, not least because the emergence of new solidarity often only reveals the precariousness of many living and working conditions in their entirety. In a crisis you can count on spontaneous creativity and solidarity, but only with enlightened leadership and the dismantling of bureaucratic hurdles can the conditions be built that make this sustained. 

Green and inclusive recovery

The Corona crisis itself cannot contribute to climate protection. Even if the shutdowns in March and April 2020 led to global CO2 emissions reductions of up to 30% (Forster et al. 2020) and some heavily polluted cities such as New Delhi were finally able – after many decades – to report „blue skies,“ this cannot hide the fact that the pandemic and the measures taken to combat it will not reverse the trends in climate change. It will therefore be decisive whether we emerge from the crisis with grey or green reconstruction programs. The global stimulus packages could help drive economic development towards low-carbon and climate-resilient development or lock us into long-term development paths that increase the climate risks and the vulnerability of people. Chances are good. The move away from the demand stimulation that dominated in the past, e.g. during the financial crisis of 2008/2009, to investment stimulation in most national economic stimulus packages can already be seen as a success.  Moreover, it is now undisputed among experts that „green“ infrastructure spending is significantly more employment-promoting in the long term than general („grey“) infrastructure spending –measured in terms of the multiplier effect of state funding policies (Hepburn et al. 2020). In the face of rapidly declining prices of renewable energies, it would also be cheaper for the economy. But an inclusive, green recovery needs more than good economic arguments. It needs enlightened leadership, growing climate and pandemic risk awareness and support for new forms of solidarity. 

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