If we continue to ignore how systemic inequalities in housing, transit, public space and food systems disproportionately put marginalized communities at risk, all our efforts to make cities healthy and pandemic-proof will be in vain.
By Isabelle Anguelovski, Panagiota Kotsila and Helen Cole, based on research presented at the UrbanA Open Webinar: COVID-19, Justice and Sustainability in Cities.
Environmental justice has many implications for health, and Covid-19 is no exception. As research has shown time and again, low income and minority communities are consistently exposed to greater environmental hazards and have access to fewer environmental amenities than their more affluent counterparts, facing worse health and lower life expectancy. These same cumulative social and environmental vulnerabilities have dramatically increased the risk of infection and mortality due to Covid-19.
While much is being said about making cities more resilient to future outbreaks through measures like density reduction, pedestrianization and urban greening — urban features once thought most important for reducing the risk for non-communicable diseases — it is essential to analyze how inequalities shape the exposure, vulnerability, and eventually the risk and outcome of infectious disease on the ground. We need a careful analysis of underlying and emerging patterns of inequality if we are to craft measures that will make cities safer and healthier for everyone, especially for the most marginalized.
Despite lingering narratives that density is bad for outbreaks like Covid-19, statistics for the US show no correlation. Rather, it is more and more evident that overcrowding and unsafe housing conditions are the real problem, coupled with the concentration of socio-spatial inequalities in cities.
For example, wealthier residents have access to larger homes with more than one bedroom and bathroom, reducing the risk of contamination between family members and facilitating isolation. Cities thus need affordable, adequate, secure and accessible housing for health and reduced transmission. A safe home with enough space for privacy is the best frontline defense against pandemics and a guarantee against the aggravation of health and economic inequalities.
In view of the length and acuteness of the current health and economic crisis, cities and states should declare a moratorium and/or a relief on rents, mortgages, and evictions for vulnerable groups. Housing should be greatly decommodified, as it has been in cities like Vienna, where it is considered and treated as a basic human right. A minimal guaranteed income should be put in place as cities such as Utrecht or Hamilton, Ontario have discussed or put in place. National governments should reverse decade-long cuts to housing infrastructure, especially public housing, as has been the case in the United States and United Kingdom. Touristic cities should convert short-term rental to long-term housing for residents, using the crisis as an opportunity to end housing speculation and providing housing for all. Regulating the tourism would also alleviate these cities from the huge influx of temporary visitors that contribute to gentrification while also increasing the present risk of disease transmission.
Due to their high potential for transmission, public transportation systems are a major hotspot for Covid-19. As a result, planners and public health experts are concerned that many residents will reject public transportation and return to private motor vehicles, which, in addition to having contamination impacts, will be stratified by class. While 53% of workers in professional and business services in the US, according to a US Department of Labor Study, are able to tele-commute, those more at risk of new infections will be low-income workers who depend on public transit to get to their jobs.
As public transit ridership in global metros drops significantly as a result of Covid-19, who will fund the transit investments needed to pay for greater number and density of subway wagons and lines and for greater hygiene? Funding, maintaining, and providing safety on mass transit systems — many already suffering from aged or crumbling infrastructure — is essential for transit-dependent workers and thus to achieve social equality and transit justice investment. This is true even in European countries with a historically more supportive state towards the maintenance and modernization of transit systems.
Also, as cities plan for increased active transit by reducing motorized transport space on roads, another essential equity question arises: Who will be able to commute by foot or bike for short distances (5–10km) traveled by many commuters? Active commuters tend to be those living close to their workplace because they have the financial means to afford living in the city and are thus more able to enjoy new bike and other active transit lanes that cities such as Barcelona, Milan, or Seattle are already building in their centers. However, those who live in or outside the periphery do not have the luxury to commute on bike or on foot. Active transit is often not feasible for them and other affordable and low-risk solutions need to be put in place.
Safe streets are about broader sidewalks and new separated areas on roads for pedestrians, bikers, and other sustainable mobility vehicles. But the car lobby and industry is a powerful voice in setting political agendas, and is already mounting campaigns advocating the safety of private cars. In addition, public decision-makers are also aware that in the EU alone, for instance, 1.1m automobile manufacturing jobs are affected by factory shutdowns as a result of Covid-19. Cities have little time to reconfigure the use of streets as public spaces before the car lobby strikes back, particularly due to the rising contention around public transit described above.
Now is the time to act towards decongesting streets, regaining rights of pedestrians, and changing the narrative about safety in post-Covid cities. Decongesting would in addition help in reducing exposure to air pollution which is producing the underlying conditions of chronic heart and respiratory diseases that also drive mortality in Covid-19 cases.
A pivot toward healthy cities is likely to be accompanied by a more serious effort to make cities greener. In Valencia, Spain or Nantes, France, existing decentralized networks of small green spaces are poised to provide easy access to nature for all residents while not compromising much needed access to larger parks. Many cities should also consider a much more extended use of vacant spaces such as flat rooftops for providing new green spaces that can be converted into community gardens and provide more widespread access to green space.
We know that there are close links between the emergence of new pathogens such as Covid-19 and the pressures we are putting on ecosystems, particularly through the activities of globalised agribusiness and industrial animal farming. We need more proximate and diversified agro-ecological systems for food production as part of urban and peri-urban planning. Until we transition to such localised and sustainable systems, we need to support those who work in the fields and food factories, many of whom are marginalized undocumented immigrants, by providing the means to protect their livelihoods, health and human rights.
According to the WHO’s latest report, systemic holistic approaches are needed in order to achieve better public health in cities and peri-urban and urban food systems should thus be made part of urban planning considerations. As the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems states: “Covid-19 is a wake up call for food systems that must be heeded” in order to be more sustainable and just, and cities have a role to play in this.
A shift in priorities
These are just four domains in which relatively simple changes to the urban environment might lead to lessening health inequity, shifting recent trends of widening inequities already embedded in society. After decades of social injustices placing low-income and minority communities at greater risk and economic disadvantage, they now face additional unjust burdens of overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic consequences.
We need to work towards avoiding the emergence and spread of epidemics as much as we need to transform our societies and cities. It is a goal that aligns with climate change mitigation, planetary health, and environmental justice for all, bringing into question the kinds of activities and economies we want to prioritize. How can the current crisis translate into bold and radical ways of transforming cities today to be more just, sustainable and healthy? Do we imagine the cities of the future as landscapes of grandiose LEED-certified buildings that mostly serve the interests of the elite, or do we ensure that the existing infrastructure we have is repaired and improved to serve the majority?
Read more about our research on urban environmental justice at our Green Inequalities blog.