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Rethinking Sustainable Cities in a World of Social Distancing

Mark Roseland
Mar 26 · 11 min read

Mark Roseland, Professor of Community Resources and Development and senior sustainability scientist at Arizona State University in Phoenix, and Ray Tomalty, consultant in urban sustainability and Adjunct Professor in the School of Urban Planning at McGill University in Montreal

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

In this new era of social distancing, we can’t help but remember that as kids we used to play a game where you ran away to avoid contact with the kid who had “cooties.” In those innocent days you could protect yourself from contagion just by crossing your fingers. Protecting ourselves from COVID 19 today is a bit more daunting.

As this pandemic unfolds before our eyes, it is clear that it will shape our generation much the way the Great Depression and the World Wars shaped the generations of those times. While our understanding of COVID 19 seems to change by the hour, as of now it appears quite likely that the current pandemic may last for months and might be followed by subsequent waves of the virus. And while there seems to be a general consensus among public health professionals that a vaccine will eventually be developed that will at least be able to manage the virus, we may be whacked again by COVID 22 or COVID 25. Indeed, climate change makes pandemics more likely since it expands the natural habitat of infectious insects such as mosquitoes, while reducing the habitat of animals, pushing both into closer contact with humans. Even if we quickly find a vaccine for COVID 19, the effects of social distancing will be with us long after the virus has been tamed.

Social distancing raises profound questions for our approaches to sustainable cities. Sustainable cities and a suite of related terms such as urban sustainability, smart growth, eco-cities, new urbanism, and sustainable communities share a revulsion toward urban (and rural) sprawl, and a prescription for more compact urban development.

Although we have each spent the better part of the last 30 years studying, writing, practicing and advocating for the development of sustainable cities, social distancing — a term few people had ever heard before March 2020 — requires us to reconsider this course of treatment. How is social distancing consistent with sustainable cities thinking? How does it challenge that thinking? And how might sustainable cities need to be rethought under these conditions?

In some ways social distancing can help us see what more sustainable cities could be like. The first and foremost example is the recent reduction in fossil-fuel-based travel. While the decrease in air travel is most obvious, we are also seeing major reductions in vehicle travel and traffic congestion in cities worldwide. And speaking of travel, would you really want to be on a cruise ship right now?

Although the shock and speed of COVID 19 has devastated livelihoods and living standards, it may also demonstrate some benefits of a less industrial future. For example, air pollution in China alone kills over 1 million people per year. By one estimate the decrease in air pollution in China during the country’s lockdown in January and February may have saved 20 times more lives than were lost from the virus.

A massive increase in working remotely is also consistent with the idea of a smart and sustainable city. As more people (at least knowledge workers) shift to working from home, innovations and opportunities for online learning, training and employment are becoming much more prevalent.

While people are isolated at home in various stages of lockdown, there is new and renewed interest in DIY projects, home and stuff repair, home cooking, hobbies, and reading. We are also seeing innovative examples of digital connectedness, such as online choirs, as an antidote to social isolation.

Perhaps most significant is a renewed respect for governments and social institutions. After decades of attack and dismantlement, there is suddenly a new appreciation of the importance of government, the value of public service, and the contribution of civil society. For the moment this includes a willingness to consider things like income support, if only for the utilitarian reason that people who cannot afford to obey “stay at home” orders will jeopardize the health and safety of thousands of others as well as themselves.

As promising as this sounds, social distancing also has the potential to undermine urban resilience. Reduced ridership combined with fare holidays are putting the financial sustainability of transit systems — many of which already operate on a knife’s edge — in jeopardy. Ride hailing and car sharing platforms are also suffering as people avoid being in close quarters with strangers. Uber and Lyft have suspended their carpooling services — the most attractive ride hailing services from an urban sustainability point of view — in most major markets. Jump and Lime have removed their shared electric bikes and scooters from many city streets. Meanwhile, the concurrent drop in oil prices has dimmed the prospects of vehicle electrification (and solar installations) around the world.

Although the decline in personal travel around the city has been compensated in part by a rise in telework, this is only an option for white-collar employees like office workers. Other workers, especially those in the service and retail sectors — are facing mass unemployment. This is the very class of people who are also putting themselves at risk to keep food stores, pharmacies and restaurants open, usually compensated with low wages and scant benefits. For them, COVID 19 has meant negotiating between the threat of losing their job or their health. Job losses have a domino effect for these people, many of whom are renters. They are not likely to benefit from mortgage holidays offered by banks and may face eviction from their homes. The threat to the temporarily and long-term homeless is now especially dire as those living in shelters and urban camps have extremely limited social distancing options. These developments are creating a vast class of vulnerable people and aggravating underlying social equity issues.

In a society already suffering from major issues related to loneliness, social distancing represents a major threat to public health and well-being. The unemployment and social isolation attendant on COVID 19 containment response could trigger higher suicide rates. Avoidance of physical contact such as hugging, holding hands, and kissing is linked to higher stress levels, depression, poor heart health, sleep disturbance and weight gain. More screen time and less real-word social contact presents a much greater risk of digital dependency, along with the attendant personal and public health implications. The mass closure of parks, gyms, and recreational facilities is also likely to undermine active living goals and contribute to the already dire epidemic of obesity.

Adaptations in consumption patterns may also undermine sustainability goals. Increased on-line shopping means vastly more shipping from warehouses to homes, with the added delivery traffic, GHGs and packaging waste that entails. The fear of contagion is irrationally driving people to avoid fresh produce and turn to canned, dried, processed, and frozen foods, many of them packed with calories and food-miles. Closures are emptying out local businesses and redirecting consumption to giants like Amazon with global supply chains. Finally, the shared economy is being hit hard by the increased aversion people have of touching objects that others have recently handled — hence our earlier reference to “cooties” — and a similar fate could be in store for the circular economy.

While everyone wants to get back to normal after a COVID-19, we should be careful not to interpret this to mean that we should return to the way things were.

Cities have a long history of experience with disaster and learning from disaster. After the great fires of the 19th century, most cities introduced building codes and zoning regulations to separate hazardous land uses and reduce the opportunities for conflagration. Indeed, cities developed the way they have largely in response to health concerns of earlier eras, such as measles, whooping cough, and tuberculosis. Such viruses were particularly rampant in early 19th century cities before better sanitation, vaccination and wider access to healthcare reduced their incidence . After climate disasters, cities have learned to avoid reconstruction in flood zones, armour infrastructure, and strengthen shoreline defences. One of the most persistent lessons across disasters is that we should not rebuild the city as it was before — disasters wake us up to our vulnerabilities, show us that traumatic events often cannot be foreseen, and push us to adjust city systems to improve their resilience. Disasters can shock us into the future and prime us for accepting long-term changes to how cities are run.

Some of the social learning that disaster occasions is institutional and some is not. Governments change policies to adapt, but people also discover on their own that the new ways forced upon them by disaster are in fact preferable in some ways to their pre-disaster routines. People often adopt a new commuting route or method that was made temporarily necessary by a strike or other disruption to their daily routine. Many people who are prodded into walking to work out of necessity, report that this activity has become their favorite time of day and show much lower stress than those who continue to drive. Bike sharing programs that have temporarily expanded into new districts may be difficult to withdraw if new advocates emerge in those areas. Once businesses have invested in cloud and VPN services to get over the telework hump, they may loosen rules about home-working permanently.

Of course, we can’t redesign cities around the challenges and opportunities generated by a single strain of coronavirus. We have to think about this problem in the context of other challenges like climate change, the growing inequality in our cities, and the increasing connectedness of cities around the world. As other commentators have noted, the trick is to focus our efforts on solutions that address goals across all these issues. We also need to take into account the fact that new cultural values and norms — more walkable cities, climate consciousness, a focus on self-provisioning, on-line experiences, and a desire to connect with nature — were already emerging before COVID-19 struck and will likely continue in the post-pandemic era. Finally, the future role to be played by technological advances, such as autonomous vehicles, AI, and IoT also have to be factored in.

So what can cities do to capitalize on the positive changes that COVID-19 is bringing to our patterns of urban life and minimize the impacts of the less desirable adaptations? Here are some proposals:

  • consolidate gains in active transportation by completing comprehensive bike networks, including separated bike lanes and bike/pedestrian priority traffic lights.
  • pour more resources into Vision Zero efforts with the aim of eliminating traffic-related deaths, for instance by reducing traffic speeds.
  • make public transit fare-free and price the use of roads and public parking spaces by private vehicles.
  • build on gains in social solidarity by introducing basic income guarantees, especially for non-unionized workers in the part-time, service sector and gig economies.
  • make evictions permanently more difficult for landlords and set up gap financing systems to help people get over short-term cash-flow problems without the threat of being thrown out of their homes.
  • commit to end homelessness by building social housing for anyone in need.
  • expand the provision of health care services to include social supports such as housing services, access to natural spaces, good quality food, and adequate transportation.
  • expand the sharing and circular economies through smart regulation, public investment, and leading by example.
  • adopt a vast green infrastructure program that will improve the health and livability of dense urban places.
  • create more communal space and programmed activities in denser areas, e.g., by closing streets to car traffic.
  • set up neighbourhood transfer centres where all courier companies can leave their parcels for pick-up by households and where households can drop off goods to be returned.
  • focus on retrofitting suburban areas for self-provisioning, renewable energy, and active transportation rather than on increasing densities.
  • build the social and physical resilience of the city by strengthening social caring networks and retrofitting the built environment to function under extreme conditions.
  • develop AI for the modelling of urban processes and the impact of potential disruptions such as disease vectors, climate extremes, and infrastructure failure as a prelude to creating effective contingency plans.
  • double down on the use of on-line platforms for gathering citizen input into city governance, including planning, budgeting, and problem-solving.
  • use blockchain technology to move many administrative processes — including obtaining permits, transferring deeds, paying fees — to the internet.

Sustainable city advocates such as ourselves have been pushed to rethink established positions for some time now. The virtues of compact urban development are being challenged by issues such as skyrocketing housing costs in many growing cities that have limited urban expansion, the gentrification that accompanies new development near transit stations and around downtowns, and the arrival of technologies like autonomous, electric, and shared vehicles that may shrink the environmental and social costs of suburban “sprawl”. The current pandemic is yet another sign that thoughtful reflection is in order.

At a fundamental level, COVID 19 and social distancing are changing how we feel and think about cities. Understandably, people have become skittish about public parks and squares; where they are not formally closed, many are empty. Dense urban places like pedestrianized shopping districts and outdoor markets, until now considered among the great attractions of city living, are being shunned. Pandemics, some argue, are essentially anti-urban, because they thrive on the things that define cities — density and connection. Some commentators are lauding the image of the detached home on a large lot as a refuge in time of contagion and a resource to help boost self-sufficiency in case of supply disruption. The tendency of the well-off to wait out the crisis in their cottages and country homes is not only giving the virus access to new vistas, but undermining confidence in the virtues of compact urban living.

Other observers are not so ready to give up on density. They point out that density makes walkable neighborhoods and mass transit possible, allows for more affordable housing, and creates a consumer base for vibrant mainstreets. The shared economy — for bikes, cars, scooters, tools, rooms, books — thrives in dense places. Density supports the physical and social infrastructure we need to deal with disasters, including big hospitals with specialized staff, rich social networks, and stronger safety nets. Density allows us to curb climate emissions, water use, and even the trash we generate. In short, dense places are often more sustainable because they are more efficient and more resilient because they provide different options when disaster blocks a given path forward.

It is time to seriously think through the implications of social distancing for urban development. Some of those implications build well on the idea of the sustainable city, while some challenge the very notion of urban sustainability. If we are smart about it, responding to this pandemic could provide an opportunity to advance an agenda that moves us toward finding those sweet spots where public health initiatives have multiple ecological, economic and social co-benefits. If we are not smart enough about it, we will face endless false trade-offs between public health and sustainable urban development, raising the likelihood that in addressing the pandemic we will increase our risks of succumbing to climate change, increasing social inequality, and all the other pressing concerns we were preoccupied with only a few short weeks ago. Either way, we can’t simply “go back” — the world has changed and we can now only go forward. We just need to go forward in the right direction.

Mark Roseland

Written by

Mark Roseland is Professor of Community Resources and Development at Arizona State University, and a senior sustainability scientist at ASU.

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