From fix to fixture: which COVID-driven urban innovations are here to stay for the long term?

What future potential are we unlocking through the temporary fixes, everyday experiments and collective ingenuity of global city-dwellers during COVID-19? Appreciating this depth of experimentation might encourage city policymakers to take our present uncertainty as a critical moment for longer-term transformation

Michele Acuto and Dan Hill

As a new COVID-19 variant runs rampant across borders and headlines, we are reminded that the crisis is far from gone from our streets and backyards. Compared with 2019, these everyday environments of shops and schools, public and private transport, city centres and suburbs, remain transformed – and transforming.

There is some correlation between the shared challenge of COVID-19 and our deeper shared challenges of climate crisis and biodiversity degradation, public health and social justice. The virus exploits these fractures in our patterns of living, but also highlights them. So it is no accident that we see overlaps between experimental urban responses during the pandemic, and the potential for new or adapted patterns of living in cities which address these broader, deeper crises. And it is essential that we better understand the value of this ‘forced experimentation’ during COVID-19 as a source of systemic change and longer-term resilience in our cities.

A deeply urban crisis

The pandemic, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres acknowledged in July 2020, is a deeply urban crisis, notwithstanding its rural and remote implications. To some extent, the virus presents a challenge to the nature of cities themselves, in that it flourishes due to the very features that have enabled cities to thrive – agglomeration and density, close physical contact, diverse networks, fluid population bases – as well as the contemporary city’s weaknesses, whether poor air quality or food inequalities, crowded or unaffordable housing, or generally unhealthy populations. The collective impact is exacerbated by major disparities in health outcomes between classes and ethnicities.

At the outset of the pandemic, this led to over-zealous speculations that COVID-19 may even bring about the end of cities, drawing a line under an ‘urban age’. Yet while the pandemic may well be shaking some apparent certainties, and causing patterns of urban living to move in unpredictable ways, evidence from around the world tells us cities are simply adapting once again, just as they have always done. And these adaptations of urban space, if understood as creative mutations in the code of cities, may be revealing.

City dwellers, from essential workers to residents, have been bearing the brunt of the pandemic – locked down beyond prior imagination or working in extreme conditions – and so it is no surprise that cities themselves have had to become sites of innovation over the past two years. A 2020 review of city-based COVID-19 innovations by the OECD chronicled a vast array of these from all corners of the globe. Since then, the number and diversity of pandemic response and recovery stocktakes has quickly multiplied, following the pace set by the virus.

While diverse forms of experimental urban governance were already increasingly prevalent over the last two decades, the pandemic accelerated the practice due to the necessity of rapid tactical responses just to ensure some degree of continuity in urban life. Given COVID-19’s links to our other, deeper crises, these variants on ‘fast fixes’ and adaptations may produce meaningful insights, despite their sometimes minimal changes.

Strategic insights through tactical responses

Cities have often produced strategic insights through tactical responses. In prior work, we noted how a two-day transport strike in London in 2014 prompted approximately 250,000 commuters to reconsider their regular routes, changing their mobility habits permanently.

Some centuries before, the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire was often improvised rather than planned, yet also led to Robert Hooke’s work producing the first meaningful building codes for the city. More broadly again, responses to infectious diseases have always been a primary influence on urban form, governance and design, from discrete experiments such as John Snow’s on a Soho water pump in 1854 – eventually leading to radical transformations in urban water supply – through to the urban park movement, garden cities, and modernist housing developments.

What similar potential could we be unlocking – or have we already been unlocking – with the temporary fixes, everyday experiments, and collective ingenuity of city dwellers the world over, in this forced mass experiment?

City governments have had to rapidly close the gap between informed research for policy-making, and tactical interventions and testable prototypes on the ground. This may have profound impacts on the practice of urban governance. In many cities, policymakers have been prompted to allow for tinkering, trialling and retrofitting in ways that were unthinkable prior to 2020.

Similarly, in line with the experience of many city dwellers, policymakers have been reminded of the enduring value of communities and neighbourhoods, the importance of well-designed and maintained public spaces and social infrastructures, and the rich biodiversity latent within cities. Many will recall the visceral realisation that biodiversity was appearing to spring back in response to our suddenly quiet streets, even if not all had the luxury of being able to enjoy it.

Streets speak for what our cities stand for

Our streets, essentially the basic unit of cities, are often an emblem of change. The last two years not only saw them locked down but also filled up with Black Lives Matter protests. Streets speak loudly about what our cities stand for – whether cultural, political, social or commercial.

For instance, many city-dwellers will have noticed the way streets embodied a shift in priorities during the pandemic, at least temporarily, towards walking, cycling, outdoor eating, greenery and the local economy. ‘Parklets’ springing out of reconfigured car parks, or dining on temporarily rethought sidewalks and pavements, have become a staple of this crisis adaptation. In many cities, these ‘benevolent mutations’ are embracing al fresco as a health necessity rather than an extravagant downtown luxury, recognising the essential value of convivial places with cultural activity, local engagement – and fresh air.

The challenge, however, may be in the shift of gears from ‘tactical’ to ‘strategic’. The question is how cities might not only react, but make concerted efforts to understand, document and communicate the impacts of these spatial changes as they begin to aggregate and interlock; as new patterns of living begin to form. How should cities best capture data, build in-depth learning, and share translatable insights from these interventions?

Prototypes are always wrong, inevitably – but they are wrong on purpose, to enable maximum learning from minimum means. Urban policymakers, perhaps increasingly aware of design practice, are beginning to understand that learning only occurs in implementation, and that there is an art to coalescing motivation, absorbing risk, aligning interests and building reflection into the prototypes as rapidly, yet thoughtfully, as possible – and yet still reacting to pressing and immediate needs.

New York City’s Open Restaurants Program did just that, by focusing on expanding outdoor seating options for thousands of food establishments in the Big Apple, and documenting this via a publicly accessible GIS platform. It did it successfully enough that the City is now turning this ‘fix’ into a ‘fixture’ as a permanent retrofit programme.

A different order of systemic change

Of course, these dining parklets and informal street vending changes have become something of a ‘poster child’ for in-crisis invention, giving the public a tangible sense of some attempt at ‘business as usual’, and yet primarily only serving a relatively small number of urban dwellers, perhaps reinforcing privilege as much as they attempt to be broadly available. However, if they are aligned with other street retrofits, we might see an entirely different order of systemic change within reach.

The ‘Covid Mobility Works’ website has street retrofit cases from more than 245 cities, categorised into different purposes such as ‘economic recovery, equity, moving goods and people, public engagement, public health, safety’. It’s an extraordinarily rich resource, and gives a sense not only of how many, and how diverse, these types of fixes have been, but also how they might be shared and combined in order to be understood more holistically.

In Berlin, rapidly assembled procedures enabled new bike lanes to be designed and approved within 10 days, rather than the months it had previously taken. Pop-up bike lanes have appeared in a huge number of cities, from Berlin to Budapest, Mexico City to New York City, Dublin to Bogotá. Mumbai has appointed cycle councillors to all 24 of its civic wards.

In England, the quieter, safer and sometimes modified streets meant the number of cycling trips made by women rose by 50% in 2020. In London, low-traffic neighbourhoods were fast-forwarded by some years, even if the rush to implement meant engagement and planning was far from equitable. Auckland’s ‘Innovating Streets for People’ and Vancouver’s ‘Places for People’ schemes are particularly well-considered, in comparison.

Of course, many of these prototypes can be best understood in the context of street programmes that started running prior to the pandemic, such as Barcelona’s Superblocks, Paris’s 15-Minute City, and Sweden’s One-Minute City. Forward-thinking during times of enforced experiment is key. Seattle’s Stay Healthy Streets programme sought to open up 45 miles of ‘neighbourhood greenways’ to unlock urban space for people, not cars – not only as a COVID-19 fix, but as a step forward to longer-term liveability.

Far-reaching urban innovations

These are simply a handful of the hundreds of mobility-related changes that we have witnessed during the COVID crisis. Even more far-reaching urban innovations might include the London Borough of Camden’s rapid solution for homelessness, almost foreshadowing a Finland-style ‘Housing First’ strategy. Urban dwellers and municipal authorities have been experimenting with new tactics for lighting, crowd management and better-ventilated buildings, or exploring new emphases on air quality, green spaces, public safety and health, and placing an increased focus on neighbourhoods.

A necessary, if sudden, focus on urban food resilience has caused a diversification of agriculture, logistics, processing, operations and waste recovery. Restaurants’ relationships with the surrounding city ‘foodsheds’ are being reworked, with more buying direct from farmers to secure their supplies amid an increased emphasis on local food resilience and security. Sweden’s innovation agency Vinnova is running a research project with Stockholm Resilience Centre and Dark Matter Labs into how the Swedish food system has been responding, and innovating, during the pandemic.

Other striking developments include the accelerated digital government services and communications strategies that have been witnessed: for example, Seoul’s Digitalisation Push has been aimed as much at enhancing e-governance as for pandemic response awareness, in order to further enhance the city’s digital backbone.

A critical moment for longer-term transformation

What’s clear is that we need to change our perception of these fixes, from ‘single-purpose remedies’ to ‘experiments in urban retrofit’ which could become permanent (or at least long-standing) fixtures. Appreciating this depth of experimentation might encourage city policymakers to take our present uncertainty as a critical moment for longer-term transformation.

Not all experimentation will have been successful; many cities, for example, have not found a way to prevent an increase in private car use. Yet some of these positive changes may well be here to stay in the long run. Several of the forced experiments in urban innovation sketched above have stuck, so far at least, in many cities across continents and living conditions – across Global North and South, core urban and peripheral suburban. City policymakers, in several contexts, have begun to reorientate their work towards ‘experimenting with purpose’, shifting from temporary fixes to mission-driven change.

Given the virus’s likely mutations, the time for this ‘opportunity’ is far from gone, and may be ever-more present in the months ahead. Yet if we can see the correlative, perhaps even causative, links between COVID-19 and deeper crises such as climate and biodiversity degradation, the huge migrations that these will precipitate, and our broader challenge of social justice, there may be much to gain by learning from these prototypes, policies and practices. Again, several cities have taken advantage of tactical pandemic-related adaptations to strategically incorporate their environmental and inclusion agendas.

If there is a relationship between the pandemic and these broader crises, then these mundane or everyday changes triggered by COVID-19 – healthy green streets, open parks, localised food systems, safer and healthier transport, shifted working patterns, increased biodiversity, more diverse neighbourhoods – could powerfully help to shift the dial in these much bigger fights.

Similarly, the value in these fixes becoming fixtures is also in innovation practices and core values; understanding how cities thrive not simply as economic powerhouses but also as inclusive, diverse communities and regenerative places. We don’t know which COVID-driven innovations will stick in cities, any more than we know what the end of the pandemic looks like. But if previous urban history is anything to go by, the long-term changes will be more significant than we might recognise today.

Michele Acuto is Director of the Melbourne Centre for Cities and Professor of Global Urban Politics at the University of Melbourne.

Dan Hill is Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova, the Swedish government’s innovation agency, and Professor at Oslo School of Architecture and Design.

  • The International Public Policy Observatory now has a specific cities-and-COVID policy workstream, IPPO Cities, supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies. It is designed to be a global observatory of city-level policy initiatives, and will host regular virtual events that feature city policymakers, frontline practitioners, researchers and other specialists. Sign up to our first event here, or for more information, email mike.herd@ucl.ac.uk