The city we want in the post-pandemic – Claudio Acioly Jr.

Claudio Acioly Jr.
All photos by Claudio Acioly Jr.

It would be too risky to make a prediction about the city that will be reborn after the post-pandemic economic recovery. There are many factors to consider which influence sustainability and the quality of urban life. We can observe some trends in some global cities that may offer us some clues on the future that awaits us. Some innovative and renewing practices, incipient changes in habits, attitudes and greater awareness of society towards its environment and we observe public policies being adopted. London, for example, prioritizing bicycles and non-motorized mobility, with pedestrians and cyclists gaining ground in the territory where the car was the absolute king, emphasizing the connection between mobility and public health in urban politics being explicitly promoted by the English capital’s City Hall.

Dutch cities like Rotterdam and Amsterdam implanting, in all their services and public spaces, the new normality of the “1.5 meter economy” (the mark of the distance between people at all levels, situations and services that require social interaction), these cities where the cyclist is already a priority in mobility and transport, with segregated bike lanes being integrated parts of planning and management of urban territory. Companies, restaurants and commerce completely embracing the provision of services and delivery via Internet and demolishing, with a single blow, the attribute of job location, offering comfort and convenience to consumers, and another environment for work, practices that may definitely change the future of urban business and the consumer-service provider relationship in a context of agglomeration and compact city. 

Hanoi, like all major cities in Vietnam, demonstrates the importance of territorial governance and national-local articulation in public policies, coupled with intense and innovative communication – using music and famous artists – adopting transparency in the local government’s actions, unusual in a single-party country. It also demonstrates the power of technology combined with an information collection machine through a cell phone application, compulsory for all citizens or residents in the country, with the ability to track and categorize individuals in terms of their location in the city, coding your health status as well as where and when you had contacts, testing at outbreaks, and thus allowing an immediate response of isolation and treatment on behalf of the state. The virus was treated as a war enemy. The response of national and municipal governments generated unanimity and approval among the society, resulting in an enormous success in stopping the virus’ community transmission, low number of deaths, and allowing the reopening of the economy and essential urban activities for its population in a short time after detecting their first contagion case. There was undoubtedly a change and adjustment in people’s behavior even considering the level of social organization existing at neighborhood and district levels, and the presence of party structures. It is worth noting that Vietnam, with its almost 100 million inhabitants, has a long border with China, the epicenter of the pandemic, and even though it is much poorer than its neighbors China, Korea and Japan, it has managed to do what richer countries failed miserably. It is worth mentioning that in Brazil, the Colab application, developed by the company with the same name, is widely used in more than a hundred cities and has been adopted by cities such as Niterói, Recife, Teresina, Maceió, Mesquita, Santo André, Juiz de Fora, Campinas, Santos and Pelotas in their territory management systems and the relationship with the citizenship. A simple yet powerful application that helps the municipal government to manage citizens’ demands and monitor the response and management and decision-making processes, thus increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of public administrations. Colab transforms the government-citizen relationship in a spectacular way. Unlike Vietnam, Colab and Epitrack, built a voluntary participatory surveillance tool during the pandemic, very similar to the one deployed in Vietnam, with about 150,000 participants today . What would the situation be like in Brazilian urban centers if it were adopted as compulsory for all, allowing governments to monitor and track transmission sources? To what extent are we willing to infringe constitutional rights to privacy and anonymity in a situation called by some mayors as a ‘context of war’?

Rotterdam, where Bicycle paths cross the entire city.
Rotterdam, where Bicycle paths cross the entire city

These distinctive examples provide us with some lessons that will certainly be associated with the new generation of policies and practices for territorial urban planning and management that are likely to emerge in the post-pandemic city. The maximization of remote work, online education and training, and the penetration of mobile telephony in the world of services and business will bring tremendous benefits to the population and will profoundly transform the labor market. Applications and digital platforms have consolidated themselves as a vehicle for interaction and debate during the Covid-19 crisis and will be very present in the post-pandemic city, bringing into discussion super-current issues related to personal data security, privacy, anonymity, the right to information and the combating misinformation or ‘fake news’. The city we want in the post-pandemic will be a city with many digital governance resources, connected, computerized, promoting connectivity and networks, and offering its citizens information and public utility services on the edge of cell phones. 

It is in the city where technology and the different types of citizen participation thrive and reinvent themselves. The examples from Holland and Vietnam paradoxically demonstrate the relevance of agglomeration and economies of scale. It becomes an advantage for combating and responding efficiently to a pandemic with a transmission speed at these proportions. Taking advantage of proximity, accessibility and concentration of population and essential services. They conspire against the negative and Machiavellian theses and apologies that the high densities of cities will be the tormentors of their existence and that is why they justify the promotion of models of garden cities, the sprawling cities of low density, sanitary urbanism, which is equally costly for their citizens and governments. They couldn’t be more wrong. The city we want in the post-pandemic should be a connected, compact, sustainable city with public spaces accessible to everyone. 

It was not the first and certainly not the last time in human history that a public health crisis triggered by a viral pandemic of global proportions puts the essence of the city to the test. It will also not be the first or the last time that we will see sanitary proposals to transform the spatial configuration of cities as a way of adapting them to deal with epidemics, pandemics, pests and crises derived from communicable diseases. The city is a social construction and the human being is a ‘homo-urbis’ by nature. Agglomeration and concentration of people and businesses are its essence. Covid-19 puts to the test the ability of cities to survive and reinvent themselves in order to continue to fulfill their functions as a center for social and technological transformation, as occurred before with the Spanish fever, the black plague, among others. The post-pandemic city will be the locus where innovation and economies of scale and the advantages of agglomeration offer opportunities to generate well-being and prosperity for all its inhabitants. Jane Jacobs’ studies in the last century and more recently from the World Bank and UN-Habitat show the city as the engine of development. For this, it is essential to have public policies and an efficient urban management so that the city can follow the route of planned and sustainable urban development and thus, produce economic development with equal opportunities and sustainability. May its territory and management be a fertile field for intellectual, technological, social and political entrepreneurship. The management of the city’s territory highlights the importance of municipal governments, their institutional capacity, and their leaders’ leadership capacity to define a city vision that offers opportunities for all without compromising the quality of the natural environment in which it operates, and placing policies, programs, projects and actions are underway to materialize it in the near future. Fortunately, we have many examples and references. 

The inner city revitalization and dendification in Rotterdam adopting mixed use and bringing back different Housing options. The center was totally destroyed by a bombardment by the German airforce on 14 May 1940.
The inner city revitalization and dendification in Rotterdam adopting mixed use and bringing back different Housing options. The center was totally destroyed by a bombardment by the German airforce on 14 May 1940

Many cities have adopted the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the basis of their local policies aimed at building a sustainable, safe, resilient and inclusive city as established in the SDG11. New York was a pioneer and the first to launch its voluntary report reviewing the implementation of the 2030 Agenda in its territory. We have good examples in Teresina, Niterói, Porto Alegre and now Rio de Janeiro. Niterói is carrying out its first voluntary report. The 2030 Agenda is a transformative, universal agenda, built on the principle of equality and prosperity for all, based on human rights, with the aim of leaving no one behind in the development and realization of human aspirations. The city is a locus of opportunities and supply of goods and services essential to the social and economic development of humanity, concentrating supply and cost efficiency and universal accessibility, but it is also a source of serious problems whose impacts are planetary such as greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), environmental pollution, social inequality and violence. Cities now account for more than 55% of the world’s population and also produce 3⁄4 of global GHG emissions and are responsible for 75% of energy consumption. Climate change is connected with the effects of urbanization, mainly with predatory and informal urbanization that demonstrates the absence of local public power. With the Paris Agreement, ratified by most nations, they are committed to reducing global GHG emissions in the context of sustainable development and reducing the planet’s temperature. These global agendas and commitments underline the importance of cities. Therefore, the solution to the great planetary challenges will be found in cities. As former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said, ‘our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities”. 

But suddenly, like a tsunami, the Coronavirus pandemic challenges these global agendas and goals and hits cities and their inhabitants indistinctly in rich and poor countries, and becomes a single global enemy. Without mercy, it paralyzes the business sector and destroys the urban economy in general, putting at risk those who were already in vulnerable situations living in the peripheries, slums and informal settlements of cities in the developing world. According to UN-Habitat, before the pandemic, we already had nearly 1 billion people in the world living in precarious situations in favelas, barreadas, villas, katchi abadis, settlements internationally called ‘slums’. In Latin America, for example, where 85% of its population is expected to live in urban areas by 2030, about 24% of that population is already in this precarious situation today. In Brazil, according to IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), there are more than 5 million irregular houses. According to a survey published by the Door Community, Brazil has 13.6 million slum dwellers who deploy around R$ 120 billion a year. These data prove the power of economies of scale and agglomeration. 

In order to imagine the city in the post-pandemic in developing countries, the ideal, sustainable, inclusive, safe and resilient city that we want in the future for the next generation, it is essential to have adequate knowledge of the pre-pandemic city, its problems, its challenges and its strengths and vocations. So that we can better understand their situation during the pandemic, their capacity to respond, when certain challenges and weaknesses deepen, but also their strengths and ability and adaptability to emerge to deal with a crisis with these proportions. Some cities innovate and adopt bold policies to deal with an externality of this nature. Some have secure means and resources and well-structured collection sources, others much less. Some cities are more resilient than others. They have some attributes in their management, in their citizenship, economic base and local businessmen fulfilling their role of social responsibility, and geographical conditions that give them an advantage over others. In this sense, cities in developing countries are at a huge disadvantage compared to their peers in more developed countries in a marathon against Covid-19 with no time and no place to end. Its collection capacity, its planned territory, the existence of large informal areas lacking basic infrastructure, large-scale informal employment, weak institutional capacity and great social, economic and spatial inequality. If we already had a troubled city before the pandemic, the Corona virus exacerbated its problems and the different social, economic, environmental and territorial vulnerabilities. 

Regardless, in both formal and informal city, the economy of scale and the advantages of crowding people and businesses were tested unprecedentedly during the pandemic. When quarantine was imposed and strong social distance measures were taken in order to manage the speed of transmission, including stopping public transport, entire populations were forced to withdraw from the public domain, leaving empty public spaces, businesses behind dying and a city that lives in silence and fright, fearing an invisible enemy. In Rio de Janeiro, on the one hand, the withdrawal of the population from beaches, streets, public spaces and places of culture and entertainment revealed the unique beauty of places, its architecture, the exuberant nature, fresh air, animal life and silence emerging and prevailing in the urban environment. The beaches recovering their crystal clear water, the Botafogo bay recovering its forgotten in time transparency. The pandemic exposed the space capital of a city and its urban and architectural attributes. On the other hand, the pandemic has had a dramatic effect on people who operate in the informal sector, who live in slums and low-income neighborhoods, and who depend on the agglomeration economy for their daily income. The compact environment of the city is fundamental for the sustainability of its businesses and livelihoods, but it is also the space of transmission risk when a pandemic becomes a threat to the health of a population that is concentrated in areas which are extremely in need of infrastructure, public space and accessibility, living in inadequate housing and surviving on their own work and shifting income. 

The policies of social distancing eliminated at once the gathering of people in the formal city, the locus from which they acquired resources to produce a daily meal and a minimum income to support their families. The poor population that lives on the informal economy has been doubly penalized. In addition, the collapse of the supply chain of several small-scale companies has resulted in the bankruptcy of many stores, businesses and the loss of jobs in a domino effect. Today, the IMF and the ILO report that more than 1.6 billion people have already lost their jobs in the world. This equates to the population of India and Brazil together as a mass of unemployed people at a time, unprecedented in history. 

Cheonggyecheon river revitalisation, Seoul, South Korea, after demolishing a flyover expressway where 170,000 cars passed daily, it revived a stream and created the Seoul Greenway, one of the longest urban park in the world.
Cheonggyecheon river revitalisation, Seoul, South Korea, after demolishing a flyover expressway where 170,000 cars passed daily, it revived a stream and created the Seoul Greenway, one of the longest urban park in the world

People who already lived in inadequate housing, with few services and overcrowded in their residences in slums and informal settlements were also forced to confine themselves. There are several reports on stress and domestic violence, in addition to the loss of food security and basic income. Female-headed households were particularly affected by this forced confinement. The pandemic crisis has shown unequivocally that what drives a city’s economy is its people, its human capital. In Rio de Janeiro, this is evident. Remove them from public spaces, quarantine and contain them, and the urban economy completely collapses. Without the demand for their products and without their employees, stores and businesses cannot function and cannot generate revenue. Relation chains and economic transactions that have been completely dissolved. If there is a lesson from this crisis, it is that people are the ones who make the economy run and public policies must be people-centered and produce interconnected results of social and economic sustainability. The post-pandemic city in developing countries will have to articulate processes that result in policies and programs that respond to the demand for citizenship and the specific needs of its most disadvantaged social groups in order to create a basis for social sustainability for future generations. And, thus, strengthen their human capital. Urbanization and integration of informal settlements with social inclusion and local economic development will have to be an integral part of urban policy in the post-pandemic city. 

We were also able to observe that the contraction of the various economic activities associated with the forced absence of people, cars and public transport from the urban territory were accompanied by a significant improvement in air quality, causing a direct impact on the carbon footprint of cities. Satellite photos that monitor greenhouse gas emissions in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Brasília showed a notable reduction when comparing data from 2019 and 2020. Empty streets and seclusion of people unveil the issue of environmental sustainability, land use and urban land occupation practices, and fundamentally underline the essence of city planning and management. What city do we want in the future of the post-pandemic in developing countries? 

In order to answer this question, it is necessary to take a step back, and as I said earlier, to assess the context before, during and after the pandemic and the complexity of the formulation and implementation of public policies. What worked and didn’t work before the pandemic in terms of planning and management for sustainability? Urban and housing informality shows one facet of the urban management’s failure, the loss of control over urban land management and the lack of regulation of the housing and housing markets. Exclusionary markets that push the population towards the informality of rent and informal land occupations. The excess of automobiles and the low air quality demonstrate the mistakes of urban mobility and public transport policies. The exponential increase in the volume of solid waste produced in the city accelerates the rate of saturation of landfills and demonstrates the lack of a circular economy strategy that connects consumption and production, and the practices of recycling and reusing raw material considered urban waste as an integral part of urban policy. The energy issue is still embryonic in cities of developing countries. Solar, wind and electric energy is being introduced in scale in various parts of the world. Cities in Asia and Europe are transforming their energy matrix and introducing the electric car as well as public transport fleets abandoning fossil fuels and promoting electrically powered motorized transport. The post-pandemic city will have to look after its environmental capital very carefully and significantly reduce the volume of GHG emissions. 

The fact is that building the city we want in the post-pandemic, sustainable, resilient, safe and inclusive, in accordance with Goal 11 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, must bring together social, economic, environmental and spatial sustainability, the result of a new generation of public policies, under the leadership of municipal governments and municipal leaders supported by technical teams endowed with skills, abilities and knowledge of the city’s local reality. To have political and administrative autonomy, and to be able to mobilize the means and resources from its territorial and fiscal base, and to provide itself with legal tools to plan its territory with a focus on human capital and the sustainability of its environment and, to involve the private sector, civil society, universities and the various actors in the construction of a city vision that we want in the post-pandemic.

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