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Reshaping Towns and Cities in a post-COVID world: Building back smarter

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In this blog Aliba Haque explores how cities in the UK and across the world are reimagining urban life and using their post-pandemic recovery plans to adapt to the COVID-19 crisis, in the third and final part of a blog series following on from our ‘Reshaping Towns and Cities in a post-COVID world’ webinar.

Many urban economists call cities the engines of economic growth.  Cities are the social magnets behind globalisation as well as the epicentres of new ideas and advanced technologies, the pools of high-skilled labour and dynamic manufacturing and the networks of goods, services and opportunities.

When the COVID-19 crisis brought cities to a halt, thriving public spaces emptied overnight. The pandemic altered the fabric of urban life and brought cities to the frontline of the response to the pandemic, with many adopting ‘agile approaches’ to overcoming challenges and implementing measures that support advancing environmental objectives as part of their recovery plans.

Smart cities

According to Capgemini’s (2020) ‘Fast-forward to the future: Defining and winning the post-COVID new normal’ 2020 report, the pandemic has ‘cemented technology’s role at the heart of transformation, driving new ways of interaction, sharing, engaging, and decision making’. Technology has been crucial to cities and how they have responded to the pandemic, implementing tools to measure contagion risk, social distancing measures and the continuation of vital services such as deliveries. Undoubtedly the COVID-19 crisis has renewed interest in the ‘smart cities’ policy approach where cities collaborate with the private sector to design, implement and encourage the use of technology across public infrastructure to “diminish the shortcomings of urbanisation for citizens” (Smart City Index, 2020).

In the UK, Newcastle used smart city technologies and deep learning algorithms to measure whether social distancing measures were being followed by citizens and used such data to analyse mobility patterns following lockdown measures.

Seoul and Daegu used artificial intelligence and innovative technology to promptly develop a coronavirus testing kit and a smart quarantine information system where inbound passengers could be accurately tested for COVID-19 instantly. Passengers could then be isolated to stop the spread. Both cities also used geo-localised mobile technology for contact tracing. Mexico City partnered up with Google maps and Waze to monitor mobility throughout the city, whilst Budapest used smart city tools to control large gatherings and identify places where there were high concentrations of people.

Working from home and social infrastructure

For large parts of the population, the pandemic has normalised remote working, studying and shopping. Termed the ‘Zoomshock’ (University of Nottingham, 2021), productive activities are moving workers from high-density urban areas back to low-density residential neighbourhoods. Whilst the potential for remote work varies by occupation, sector and country, advanced economies such as the UK, France, Spain, the US and Germany have reported high levels of employee time spent working remotely (McKinsey, 2020). This is likely to become the ‘new normal’ where companies, businesses and institutions will make the most of agile working patterns due to lockdown and social distancing measures.

Breaking through the digital divide

Yet, one of the many inequalities exacerbated by COVID-19 is the digital divide, specifically internet access and lack of adequate digital equipment or infrastructure. In New York, approximately 300,000 students did not have access to digital devices to complete their studies whilst in Yokohama, Japan, where students did not have access to the internet, some lessons were made available to watch on local TV stations. Milan called for the launch of donation services for devices and internet connections whilst the City of Toronto partnered with IT companies to provide free, temporary internet access to low-income neighbourhoods.

To prevent the risk of digital exclusion, it is important for projects in the UK to take lessons from these international cities and combine digital engagement with traditional methods such as newsletters, telephone surgeries and advertising projects in local newspapers and public information points.

The future of urban mobility

Whilst the crisis highlighted the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our public spaces and the high street, the relationship between cities and urban mobility has also been strongly impacted.

Urban planners and developers have had to pause momentarily and rethink their approaches towards urban space, opening doors to conversations about alternative mobility measures. The 1000 Cities Adapt Now initiative, launched earlier this year by the Global Commission on Adaptation, has exemplified this, with 1,000 cities across the globe examining climate adaptability measures alongside post-pandemic recovery options that will have immediate benefits for the most vulnerable communities.

Already many cities are exploring transformational urban mobility plans by turning roads into open streets (as outlined in our blog on ‘Re-imagining city spaces in a post-Covid world’) and investing more in active mobility infrastructure.

Milan’s ambitious transport scheme places more of on an emphasis on public transport safety and accessibility, Southampton is promoting low emission transport options such as electric vehicles and scooter usage, Montreal plans to increase green space available to residents and Valencia has increased protections surrounding its green belt, as part of a climate resilience strategy.

Looking forward

Cities across the globe have played a crucial role to complement post-pandemic recovery responses, approaching the challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis as opportunities to actively reinvent, innovate and sustain urban life.

As they seek to move from responding to emergency situations to long-term post-pandemic recovery strategies, decisionmakers for our cities will need to harness tools that can accelerate recovery, such as innovative technologies and widening digital access and participation.

Doing so will allow urban planners and policymakers to address and tackle the widening gap between building back better and infrastructure investment, to make urban centres better for our public health, economies and our environment.

For our cities to be part of a sustainable green recovery, the planning approaches and policy responses needed will have to demonstrate long-term innovation and future proof for resilience that goes far beyond temporary measures that merely ‘kickstart’ economies.

Recovery measures will need to systematically reassess how our cities function, how to tackle socioeconomic inequality and environmental damages caused by urban living and, most importantly, how to not only build back better but build back smarter.

To find out more about the importance of planning, regeneration and urban design in the post-COVID-19 economic recovery for our towns and cities, please contact Aliba Haque, Account Executive within Copper’s Economic Development practice at aliba.haque@copperconsultancy.com.

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