Preparing for a crisis and building healthier cities

Modern medicine has managed to either wipe out or control the infectious diseases that plagued humankind for so long. But when a new strain appears, such as COVID-19, it becomes clear that we are not always prepared to fully comprehend the threat level and respond accordingly. How can we better prepare our cities and people for future threats, whilst also improving their everyday life? And how can we best use forthcoming investments?

 by Sebastiaan van Herk, Sofia Aivalioti, and Valentin Bereyziat

Preemptive action: Healthier cities and people

The outbreak of COVID-19 has already proved what many scientists have been arguing for years. In addition to the over-70 generations, the most vulnerable populations are those with noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and respiratory diseases. All of these are highly related to urbanisation and the lack of healthy environments in our modern cities.

Would healthier cities and people be less vulnerable and better prepared for sporadic pandemics? We think they might be; not in terms of avoiding catching the disease, but rather to reduce their vulnerability. And in any case, it is just another good reason to make our cities and citizens healthier. We have learned from our work that investments in urban areas can have many drivers, multiple objectives and benefits.

So how can we make our cities, and citizens, healthier?

We can create more liveable and healthy cities by integrating nature in its design, designing spaces for physical activity, accommodating healthier and sustainable food production and consumption, promoting active and sustainable mobility, etc. Creating a healthier place acts as a preventative measure for people to have longer, healthier and happier lives!

Ducks in the fountains of Rome
source: Francesco Delrio via Twitter

Studies show that our mental and physical health can be further improved by a healthy environment. Cities are becoming more and more experienced in designing and valuing better air quality, water quality, more biodiversity and many other ecosystem services. It’s part of what drives our work on blue-green infrastructure.

Data is already showing us in real-time how a city on lockdown affects pollution levels. The urban environment has a chance to recover from the normally ceaseless flow of people and vehicles. Although it is the result of a lockdown, it still thought-provoking. The European Space Agency is reporting on how the nitrogen dioxide levels over Italy have dropped drastically since the country enforced self-isolation for its citizens – you can see the video here. The quality of both the water and air improves, insects and animals reemerge. The urban environment itself becomes healthier – the silver lining to self-isolation.

The waters of the Venetian canals have cleared without the disruption of boats and there have been sightings of fish and swans making the most of the empty waterways! Nature certainly seems to be reclaiming these spaces. But as the mayor of Venice explained to reporters, the canals only look clearer because sediment hasn’t been stirred up by boats and is instead settling on the water beds. It would take much longer for the water quality itself to significantly improve. 

For those of us working on urban environments, we’ll stick to actionable lessons, and continue designing for more liveable places. But it is motivating to think that healthier cities and people can also be less vulnerable and better prepared for pandemics.

Build back better 

When Europe starts to recover from the outbreak, it will have to act fast to stimulate the economy and ensure it is better prepared for the uncertainty of the future. This is an opportunity. Governments and financial institutions are under growing pressure to make economic bailouts designed to counter the coronavirus pandemic dependent on climate action in the longer term,  EURACTIV’s media partner Climate Home News reports.

From our work in climate-related topics, we’ve learnt concepts like the four pillars of climate resilience: threshold capacity, coping capacity, recovery capacity, and adaptive capacity. We have previously advocated for improving our preparedness, or coping capacity. Both recovery and adaptive capacities will soon become important as we measure society’s ability to bounce back to a state either equal to or even better than before and to anticipate and prepare for future developments, such as climate change or new pandemics. 

In a nutshell, we have to build back better, as our colleagues at UNDRR would put it. This requires innovation, flexibility and experimenting, concepts very close to our mission. If we start massively investing in recovery, let us use and experiment with these concepts and create resilient, healthy and liveable cities.

To find out more about the potential of liveable cities, get in touch!

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