Six ways cities can support babies, toddlers and their caregivers during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond
This brief is part of our series on ways to limit the impact of Covid-19 on babies, toddlers and the people who care for them. We will be updating these briefs as we collectively learn more. We’d love to hear your examples, ideas and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This policy brief was updated on 27 August 2020 and is also available in Spanish.
How Covid-19 may affect the youngest city residents for life
Babies and toddlers are vulnerable. They require constant love and care to thrive, along with good healthcare and nutritious food. The science tells us that these first few years of life are foundational for lifelong health, learning and happiness. In many cities, existing inequities make it far harder for some babies and toddlers than others to get the play, love, food or healthcare they need.
The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified many of these inequities. Urban life has been turned upside down, putting great stress on families and reducing their access to services and support systems. For example:
- Access to many essential early childhood services — such as prenatal, post-natal and well-baby clinics, primary healthcare and childcare — has been interrupted. (For more, see our brief on Five ways health and social services can support babies, toddlers and the people who care for them through the Covid-19 pandemic.)
- Many people have lost income (see our brief on Five ways Covid-19 economic recovery plans must invest in the next generation), increasing the risk of food insecurity and malnutrition, and leading to rising anxiety and stress. Like everyone, caregivers are experiencing more loneliness and isolation as public life has shifted online or to shouted interactions from balconies and windows. Caregivers who are struggling to cope have far less access to the formal or informal support networks they usually rely on. Rates of domestic violence are spiking.
- Access to public space and nature has been restricted in many cities, affecting caregiver mental health and opportunities for outdoor play — both critical for healthy child development. Where there is still access to public space, it is more a challenge for caregivers with young children to maintain physical distancing from other users of sidewalks and public transit.
The most vulnerable families are typically the worst affected, including families living in heavily polluted urban areas, those in informal settlements, migrant families such as asylum seekers and refugees, homeless families, women and children at risk of domestic violence, and those facing existing discrimination related to race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or age. Often, vulnerable families compound several of these conditions.
Yet Covid-19 is also showing us elements of a better city for babies and for all
Despite all these negative impacts, the Covid-19 pandemic is also showing glimpses of what a city that works for babies — and for everyone — might look like.
- Walking and cycling — which we consider to be two of the best modes of transportation for families with young children — have gained tremendous popularity, as they are perceived to offer the best chance of maintaining social distance while moving around. In response cities from New Zealand to North America to Europe are emulating Bogotá in rapidly expanding sidewalks and cycling lanes.
- Levels of air pollution, noise, traffic congestion and road crashes — all of which affect babies, toddlers and their caregivers have dropped during lockdown. For the first time, urban residents experienced what cities feel like with far fewer cars on the roads. Yet as lockdown eases and public transport capacity remains minimal, cities are faced with the risk of seeing spikes in car use.
- People are realising how much they value easy access to local services and nature — particularly important for urban residents living with small children. A study of public life in Denmark showed that lockdown has led to reduced use of city centre spaces but increased use of local and neighbourhood public spaces, and with greater participation of children and women than before Covid-19.
- Mutual aid networks are springing up and communities are trying to support vulnerable members in new ways, reminding us of what a healthy society should look like. In Tirana, Albania, emergency support networks set up after an earthquake few months prior have proven an incredible resource for residents and were rapidly adapted to support the most vulnerable during the pandemic.
What can cities do?
Families can do much to buffer their young children from harm — from lockdowns or other stressful situations — just by loving them and playing with them. But to be able to do this, families themselves need to be supported by their communities, workplaces and governments. That does not necessarily require new solutions: often, it just means considering the needs of babies, toddlers, and the adults surrounding them more systematically in existing interventions.
Here are six ways for cities to support families during and after Covid-19.
1. Make sure that essential urban services and public goods — sanitation, public space, nature, transit — are directed to vulnerable families with babies and toddlers.
- Expand public access to sanitation for families: this is especially an issue in informal settlements. Kigali has installed temporary sanitation facilities — toilets, showers, clean water, and soap — close to where vulnerable families live. Some of these could be made permanent and expanded to other public spaces. Paris has adapted its public toilet facilities to distribute free hand gel, and is distributing free masks to all residents.
- Enhance proximity to essential family services and supplies: Ensure that families have access to groceries and baby supplies within a 15-minute walk. Where necessary, expand home delivery capacity — as China has done. Support local stores financially if needed, and allow them to use parking spaces for customers to queue in a distanced way. Distribute food where families face shortages. In Dharavi, Mumbai, local NGOs and community organisations are using their networks to locate and help the most needy families.
- Reclaim space from cars to maintain access to public spaces: Use parking and car lanes to expand sidewalks, like in New Zealand. Expand cycle lanes, like in Bogotá, Paris and countless other cities across the world. Pedestrianise streets like Tel Aviv, for caregivers to take their babies and toddlers outside to meet and play, turn them into sport and play spaces like in Seattle’s StayHealthyStreets or London’s StreetSpace programmes, or open schoolyards as playgrounds for families with toddlers. Tirana is regulating who can use public spaces and when, to ensure access to the most vulnerable. Here is a repository of such interventions around the world.
- Adapt public transit: Change protocols to protect bus drivers and other workers from infection. Lower the maximum capacities on trains and buses to allow for distancing. As in Sydney, automate as much as possible (doors, payment, lifts) to reduce the need to touch things. Increase the cleaning frequency on vehicles and in stations. In times of reduced ridership, public transit is suffering from income-loss, and may need to be supported financially like in London, to ensure that service remains available for essential workers, families and everyone else in the medium-to-long term.
2. Build urban resilience for the next disaster.
Covid-19 appears to be having worse impacts in cities with air pollution problems, while communities with strong existing networks have proved better to cope. With this in mind, the responses to this pandemic should also look to prepare for future challenges — including potential further waves of the virus:
- Clean up the air in places where families spend the most time: Air pollution especially affects babies, toddlers and pregnant women. Explore ways to keep it as low as possible like Copenhagen, Mexico City, Oakland and Los Angeles, when lifting travel restrictions, for example by keeping some traffic-calming measures, encouraging working-from-home, making public transit cleaner and safer, or promoting active mobility — like Milan is doing.
- Strengthen community resilience: Build the capacity of existing community networks to spread information and deliver services to families. Connect parents locally via WhatsApp or social media to share ideas and support each other. Understand which neighbourhoods are worse affected by environmental stressors such as air, noise, light and thermal pollution, and psycho-social stressors such as poverty and discrimination, as those increase communities’ vulnerability to health risks. Act on these issues to support equitable health resilience.
- Learn from data on how the crisis affected babies, toddlers and caregivers: A combination of data and empathy is crucial to make informed decisions that can support the most vulnerable families. The Covid-19 crisis is generating a wealth of new data that can help to inform empathic perspectives, from the impacts of childcare restrictions to changes in mobility patterns and the use of public spaces such as parks when lockdowns are eased.
3. Boost support for caregiver mental health.
Ensure that mental health helplines stay operational, and expand existing services to allow online access. Nurture peer-to-peer support groups and activate social protection and welfare networks to help caregivers access food and economic support , like Düsseldorf, Nice and Madrid. Think specifically about the needs of caregivers working in essential services: what do they need to keep the city running?
4. Protect women and children from domestic violence.
Lockdowns have led to a spike in domestic abuse of women and children: in France, reports went up by 30% and 20% respectively at the start of lockdown, with “urgent” cases up 60%. In response, France has set up support centres for victims. Providing shelter in hotel rooms is another option.
Strengthen alert systems by providing opportunities to report abuse in services that remain open, such as supermarkets and pharmacies. Enable victims to report abuse discreetly via SMS or internet messaging when they cannot escape being confined with the perpetrator. Maintain hotlines and communicate about the issue on official channels.
5. Make sure families with young children can continue to get key services such as childcare, healthcare, nutrition and early learning.
Many childcare options are no longer available, but some governments are ensuring that essential workers can still access childcare. Some US states even paying for childcare for essential workers. Paris has offered free childcare for parents working in food-related businesses. Copenhagen has been among the first to re-open daycare facilities, and has adapted its measures to the specific needs and risk of young children and their caregivers. Experts are recommending increasing outdoor play in early learning and childcare institutions as a response to covid-19.
Many organisations are helping parents to access early learning resources online. In New Zealand, the government is providing early years TV programming to reach families without internet access.
6. Provide parenting services digitally or remotely when possible.
Digital means of service provision are often possible — such as telemedicine, or online parent coaching. Parenting services around the world are going online: Tel Aviv’s Digitaf is sharing information related to Covid-19, for example, while Jordan’s Queen Rania Foundation is adapting its parent education programme for delivery via WhatsApp. See our brief ‘Five ways health and social services can support babies, toddlers and the people who care for them through the Covid-19 pandemic’ for more examples.
COVID-19 and the Risks to Children in Urban Contexts
A policy brief by World Vision diving into the situation of families in urban contexts related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 portal on C40’s Knowledge Hub
An extensive compilation of resources to support Covid-19 response policies at urban level, including documents, articles, and case studies.
COVID-19 Mobility Works
A repository of mobility interventions from cities around the world to respond to the covid-19 pandemic.
COVID-19: Transportation Response Centre
A global platform of transportation solutions for Covid-19
Streets for Pandemic Response & Recovery
Technical guidance from NACTO for cities and transportation agencies on making use of streets for Covid-19 response and recovery.
Temporary Mobility Changes for the COVID-19 Transition Period in Tirana
Covid-19 response guidelines for transport design in Tirana
Covid-19 Research by The Centric Lab
Scientific research on the urban health impact of Covid-19 with a strong equity lens
Public Space & Public Life during Covid-19
Results from Gehl Architect’s research on changes in public space usage and public life as a result of Covid-19 in four Danish cities
Early Action to manage Covid-19 in Bogotá
Case study by C40 on Bogotá’s response to Covid-19, including the expansion of cycling infrastructure.
As the Impact of Coronavirus Grow, Micromobility Fills in the Gaps
A comprehensive explanation of micromobility, which is experiencing a surge due to covid-19
How Seoul and South Korea are fighting Covid-19
A look into Seoul’s measures to fight Covid-19, hailed as one of the most efficient response.