The pandemic and the direction of urbanism

Vicente Loureiro

We lived a promising decade for urbanism until the arrival of Covid-19. We had big goals for cities condensed in the 2030 Agenda of the UN (United Nations), spelled out through the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs, all of them focused on poverty eradication, considered the greatest global challenge and an essential prerequisite for inclusive development, without leaving anyone behind.

Some cities, in fact, had also set bold goals for the next decade, independently of UN recommendations, aiming to promote a more dignified and sustainable life for its inhabitants.

The UN 2030 agenda

Oslo, in Norway, for example, wanted to exterminate the use of the car, as we know it, by 2030; Madrid, Spain, in turn, had the same intention, except that the city restricted the measure to its central area. Melbourne, Australia, intends to, in the next 20 years, create the conditions for all its residents to be, at most, on a 20 minutes’ walking distance from their basic daily needs. Milan, Italy, proposed that by 2030 no one would smoke in their public spaces anymore. Transforming attitudes in the way of using the city and making life in urban daily life.

Oslo free car program

This whole debate motivated National Geographic to hire SOM (Skidimore, Owing’s and Merril), a city planning company that is highly respected internationally, to produce a documentary announcing what the city of the

future would be like. The result is a set of principles that configure a more humane design for cities, with feasible spaces for all citizens and their needs, incorporating elements of nature in the construction of buildings and

suggesting spaces for sharing services and greater social interactions within them. Also proposing more autonomous neighborhoods with amenities within a 10 minutes distance from home, on foot or by bicycle. They came to call “Biomorphic Urbanism”, where building and infrastructure would be oriented by ecology so that nature could always regenerate and cope with the demands of growing populations.

The city of the future according to National Geographic

The company highlighted, as an example of this more humane design of cities, the intelligent roads, the strategic landscaping carried out with endemic species, the incentive to small businesses and collaborative work, the spread of the use of bicycles, and flexible buildings adaptable to uses other than the original ones. These are suggestions for a city of the future without taking into account the differences in budgets that separate the richest from the large urban agglomerations of the poor countries. Perhaps a similar formulation effort would be worthwhile for cities like ours, with an accumulation of needs and scarcity of resources.

More recently, Paris also decided to adopt in its planning system the 15- minute city principle, with all the facilities, jobs, shopping and services close to home, reachable on foot or by bicycle. The city even coined the term “Crono Urbanismo”, written by Sorbonne’s urban planner, Carlos Moreno. That, in summary, proposes a radical change in the relationship of city dwellers with time, especially that consumed in mobility, betting at the end of the era of automobiles as much as in the revolution in the way of thinking and planning cities. With public spaces free of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, friendly to pedestrians and cyclists, exterminating with street parking spaces and making the main roads inaccessible to cars, among other bold and unprecedented measures.

Paris, a 15-minute city

Some researchers of urban life already criticize such formulations understanding that they would only be possible to be carried out in rich cities that have a good standard of installed infrastructures. Those researchers, among them British Ricardo Senet, do not believe that those measures can be replicated in cities in the Southern Hemisphere, due to the absolute scarcity of resources for such costly transformations. But let’s face it, if we managed to set a target of 15 minutes, or even half an hour, spent on public transport for mobility in our cities, it would already be quite an achievement.

Here the main challenge remains how, where, and how to include the poorest. It is an issue that is not only difficult to resolve but also reluctant, thanks mainly to the development model that generates permanent excluded people. We build many houses, but at the same time, there are many people without a home. In the last decade, the Brazilian Federal Government built around 4.3 million homes through the My House My Life Program ( in Portuguese, Programa Minha Casa Minha Vida) and the housing deficit, which was 7 million units, even after this historical production record, remained more or less the same. Not to mention that not everything that was accomplished by this program had a good insertion or urban quality. The reproduction of our cities, still with a high level of informality and precariousness in terms of infrastructure, renews the stock of needs and generates a perception of urbanism incapable of making them better.

The big challenge: urbanizing the slums and actually integrate them into the city/ Photo: Richard Santos

In this kind of seesaw between interesting formulations, innovations, and concrete urban development practices marked by socio-territorial segregation, we were faced with the biggest health crisis in a hundred years, caused by Covid-19. We have seen the proliferation of the virus happen more sharply and lethally in the most fragile areas of cities, indicating that, without the universalization of essential urban services and without the adoption of a development model with greater social cohesion and equity in access to opportunities, we will not have cities that are just and neither resistant to pandemics similar to this one.

Perhaps it is worth paying attention to the experience recently adopted by the city of Amsterdam, based on an economic model developed by Professor Kate Raworth, from the University of Oxford, which proposes a  new way to prosper, called “Theory of the Donut”. The model seeks a better balance between the needs of people, cities, and countries with the available environmental resources. Using the slogan “growing for growing is the philosophy of the cancer cell”, it indicates paths towards a post-capitalism where it will not be necessary to “spend the money we don’t have on things we don’t need”. At first glance, changes such as these in the model of economic development seem to have a greater future for urbanism than in the strategies used to describe it as biomorphic, chronological urbanism, smart or similar cities.

Theory of the Donut
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