Life after COVID-19: How do we prepare our cities for the next pandemic?

woman on train mask covid
woman on train mask covid

Amid a global pandemic, urban areas are being viewed through a lens that focuses sharply on COVID-19 and questions how prepared cities are to deal with widespread health emergencies.

Physical distancing measures recommended to slow the transmission of COVID-19 have sparked community solidarity, with people working together to stay apart to ease the burden on the health care system.

Staying home, keeping six feet apart from others, avoiding social interactions – all have become the ‘new normal’ under the threat of the outbreak. As time ticks on, warnings of some physical distancing lasting for another 12 to 18 months have surfaced, raising concerns on how sustainable this way of life is, and how our cities will look when we begin the slow crawl out of self-isolation.

Some municipalities have started to implement, or test out, urbanized elements of physical distancing for a post-COVID-19 world – extra room for people to move on sidewalks, roads and bike paths, for instance. Attention is being drawn to dense urban spaces, sparking debate on whether reducing density is the right direction forward in preserving public health and pandemic preparedness.

But, is it even possible to build a pandemic-ready city?

Roger Keil. Image credit: Ute Lehrer
Roger Keil

Roger Keil, professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, says yes, it is possible. The answer, however, isn’t likely what you’d expect.

The basis for a pandemic-ready city is a healthy city, says Keil, who adds that urban design and density is just one consideration.

“The definition of healthy cities is in the context of the medical community but also in the public health community. It is always more than just the absence of disease,” he says. “A healthy city has to be proactively interested in improving the life that we experience in cities.”

What that means, when looking at a city from a holistic perspective, is first addressing the disparities that exist in populations at greater risk in an epidemic or health crisis. Addressing the most marginalized communities in terms of economics, health, access to employment, etc., is where planning for a healthy city begins, says Keil.

“We can temporarily and spatially escape from an unhealthy city by trying to build environments that protect us from an unhealthy environment – and the city does a lot in that respects – but the city is also an inequality machine,” he says.

In order to respond to a pandemic, systemic changes need to happen to address societal inequities. “If we leave it to the neo-liberal philosophy to redesign our society, we get the outcomes we now have,” says Keil.

Sean Hertel, MES, MCIP, RPP - Lecturer - Univeristy of Waterloo ...
Sean Hertel

Sean Hertel, a registered professional planner, MES graduate from York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies and research fellow at the City Institute at York University (CITY), agrees.

“There’s a lot of talk about building parks and bike lanes everywhere, and we realize that open space and an active lifestyle is key to good health, but those things deny the fact that the people who most need those things can least afford to live close to where those things exist. We are denying the fact there are structural inequities in our system, and we are just going to continue to displace people further and further out.

“Doing those things – building bike lanes and parks – without understanding the social inequities of our system just doubles down on the inequitable system we have.”

Planners, he suggests, contribute to the building of an environment, but the way an environment is built does not predetermine how it is used. Dense urban space, for example is only one consideration in how cities can prepare for and manage a pandemic.

“Density isn’t a factor by itself to decide on whether one lives a healthy life or not,” Keil says, using Manhattan as an example as the highest density New York City borough and least affected by COVID-19. “You cannot say density is the common denominator – you have to look at social class, marginalization and those kinds of things to get a true picture of what puts a city at most risk during a public health outbreak.”

Hertel adds it’s important to remember that past public health movements gave rise to modern planning.

“Planning was a response – quite literally and figuratively – to keep people from dying,” he says. Looking back a century, water was polluted from tanneries, young children were playing in open sewers and modern planning produced municipal infrastructures – building facilities to treat water and creating safe public spaces for recreation – designed to keep people healthy.

From there, zoning and land use separation were adopted to ensure adequate spacing between factories and residential areas; however, due to issues of racism and other societal divisions, many at-risk communities continued to exist in the margins of these separated spaces.

“Pandemics do shape planning, but planners may be unintentional cogs in the inequality issue,” said Hertel. “We, as planners, sometimes don’t realize we are taking credit for things that engineers and health practitioners should be credited with.”

Planners have been given the legacy of “people not dying in the streets,” but Hertel feels that credit is somewhat misplaced. “I’m worried that now we are forgetting what keeps people safe and healthy – access to jobs, access to health care, access to employment, access to not being racially discriminated against – and planning does not safeguard against those things.”

Planning for a pandemic, says Hertel, is about pay equity, access to social services and health care and education and appropriate living conditions

The other point to consider, says Keil, is that pandemics are not truly avoidable; the world will continue to have outbreaks from different sources and spread by different means. But, while the responses to different epidemics would not be the same, the preparation could be.

“We cannot widen the sidewalks and fend off HIV AIDS, for instance,” he says. “But, what we can do is live our human lives differently – that is what we have to work on in terms of pandemic response. I would think we should focus on what we understand needs to be strengthened, and that is our public health system and putting more resources back into a system that has been depleted.

“There are things we can do without anticipating what exactly will hit us the next time and it will hit us the next time that’s for sure, something else will come our way after this coronavirus.”

Adjusting the collective neo-liberal mindset is necessary for that change, says Hertel, who points to the government’s and society’s focus on resuscitating the pre-pandemic economic status.

“That’s certainly not the appropriate thing to do, but as Roger said, we are living against the headwinds of neo-liberalism, and we are hearing how the economy will save us all and free markets will save us all, but the thing is, that makes pandemic preparedness that much harder.”

Planning for a pandemic, says Hertel, is about pay equity and access to social services and health care and education, and these elements are “mutually incompatible” with the messages and priorities to re-open the economy.

“They say ‘re-open,’ but they don’t say ‘re-imagine,’ ‘repurpose,’ ‘redo,’ ‘fix,’ ‘repair,’ so I think we need to do things differently, but our understanding of what makes a city is very skewed toward the economic and towards the physical and not the social,” says Hertel. “I find that very sad because this is certainly a moment we could use to foster change, and we are completely tone deaf to what’s happening.”

If there’s one attainable goal from an urban studies and planning perspective, however, it’s that the pandemic highlights there is no spatial or developmental fix.

Unless we retool the economy, Hertel says, those who suffered the worst during this pandemic – those who are transit dependant, homeless, underemployed, living in precarious conditions, marginalized communities – will continue to be at greater risk during a health emergency.

Hertel is hopeful those conversations will happen though, and that action will follow.

As a post-secondary educator, Keil says it’s also important to change University education and instill the wisdoms gained from this crisis into curricula of urban studies.

“We have an opportunity to change the perspective in the courses we offer – in our new Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change,” he says. “We can talk all we want about what planners should do, but if we don’t make that change in our classrooms we don’t affect anything.”

Read a report on this topic co-authored by Keil and Hertel:

By Ashley Goodfellow Craig, deputy editor, YFile