IPPO Cities event report: how is COVID-19 changing the use of urban spaces for the long-term?

IPPO Cities’ opening event included contributions from city officials and advisors in London, Belfast, Stockholm, Cape Town, Bangkok and Melbourne. This report summarises their observations about the spatial impacts of the pandemic – and how cities have responded

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Mike Herd

The IPPO Cities Observatory – a new off-shoot of the International Public Policy Observatory – seeks to bring together city officials, policy advisors and urban specialists to discuss innovative policy responses and recovery strategies relating to the long-term socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19.

Over the course of 2022, the Observatory – supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies – will explore many different aspects of urban life and policy, from initiatives addressing inequalities and homelessness to community-focused support for vulnerable urban populations.

The IPPO Cities workstream kicked off in December 2021 with a pilot event co-hosted by Dr Carla Washbourne from IPPO Cities and Professor Michele Acuto from the Melbourne Centre for Cities. This virtual roundtable included contributions from city officials and advisors in London, Belfast, Stockholm, Cape Town, Bangkok and Melbourne. Our speakers focused on the ‘spatial’ impacts of the pandemic – in particular, which policy innovations and behavioural trends would translate into long-term changes in the ways that urban spaces (both external and internal) are used?

This policy note offers a summary of the key points raised during this event.

Commuting changes and urban ‘cold spots’

COVID-19 has transformed commuting patterns. As well as the trend for working from home, there has been widespread growth in ‘active travel’ – people making carbon neutral choices for their journeys to work. This has been mirrored by an explosion of new cycle lanes and footpaths in cities across the world, many of which are still in place (although not without some local controversy).

The trend for turning traditional car-dominated streets into innovative public spaces during the pandemic is also persisting. In cities with warmer climates (for example, Bangkok), the bias towards alfresco dining entertainment options as a mitigation measure is expected to remain.

A notable effect of the changed mobility patterns is the emergence of persistent ‘cold spots’ in major commuter cities such as London, both in terms of footfall and consumer spending. The traditional economic dominance of the Central Business District (CBD) in major cities is being challenged as work patterns continue to look very different due to remote (tele)working.

Potential responses highlighted by our event include converting empty commercial spaces into housing, to increase the number of people present around the clock in these ‘cold’ areas – creating a ‘living’ city centre using housing-led regeneration as an economic driver. According to our speaker from Belfast City Council, this could be a multiple problem-solver as cities start to recover, in the sense that it helps build a sustainable city centre while also addressing climate-related issues through greater housing density.

This led to a discussion about the potential for large cities to move towards a ‘polycentric model’ with pockets of commercial space all over the city, rather than one dominant CBD. As one speaker put it: ‘A very different urban form built around a multi-neighbourhood model that is diverse, genuinely sustainable, socially just and ethical, with a different economic framework underpinning it.’

An important caveat raised, however, was the question of how to support those parts of a city that have long been ‘hollowed out’ in terms of local services, and hence for which this ’15-Minute City’ concept cannot realistically be applied, given the limited resources available.

Data availability and digital access

A number of speakers referred to the data-related opportunities that COVID-19 has presented to city policymakers. In London, for example, additional data resources were made available at short notice: ‘Very granular data that helps us understand how high streets have recovered.’

Similarly, Cape Town highlighted the importance of using data mapping to inform their responses throughout the pandemic, building a detailed understanding of impacts within their most vulnerable communities through the use of socioeconomic vulnerability indexes.

But while these opportunities should be encouraged and built upon, it’s also important to recognise that digital access is far from uniform in most cities. As Andrew Lombardi from the OECD highlighted: ‘We need to strengthen and modernise digital access, especially within the peri-urban and historically underserved, under-connected areas in cities.’

Spatial inequalities exposed by COVID-19

Throughout the pandemic, those urban communities who were already experiencing overcrowding, poor housing infrastructure, lack of basic services and limited public green spaces have suffered most, in part because they were unable to sufficiently social distance or work from home to avoid crowded city transport and workspaces.

Our Belfast speaker highlighted that COVID-19 recovery strategies offer an historic opportunity to address underlying systemic issues such as: inequality of access to open green spaces, disparity in the quality of streets, and the ‘separating’ nature of urban road infrastructure that can serve to isolate some (typically more deprived) communities.

The greater focus on inequity during the pandemic has also encouraged policymakers to place more emphasis on involving local communities in decisions. While this is a welcome shift, the downside, according to Impact on Urban Health’s experiences with communities in the London boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth, is that ‘the pot is running dry’ in terms of resources available to organisations to engage in this sort of decision-making.

Note: IPPO Cities is hosting a follow-up event further exploring policies in this area, entitled: Tackling urban inequalities through pandemic recovery: what equity-centred interventions are cities attempting? To read more about the scope of this event and register your attendance, see this Eventbrite link.

Policy-related takeaways

Our first IPPO Cities event culminated with some broad takeaways for city policymakers involved in long-term recovery planning. A key concern expressed by Professor Dan Hill, co-author of this IPPO Cities topic snapshot, is that tactical responses to COVID-19 sprang up very quickly – and can revert back equally fast: ‘Things have been introduced almost covertly, and this was useful and problematic in equal measure.

‘For example, in the UK, we saw a 50% increase in women’s cycling in 2020 – an extraordinary improvement in what was a pretty bad cycling culture beforehand. But unless proper (permanent) bike infrastructure has been built, this will snap back very quickly as soon as cars dominate the roads again, because the fundamental conditions haven’t changed.’

In short, cities’ long-term strategic responses may need to look quite different from their initial responses. However, they have at least been aided by the COVID-driven acceleration in ‘participation work and co-creation, and all of the things you need to do to change your city’.

For more information about IPPO Cities’ work, email mike.herd@ucl.ac.uk. To sign up for our next urban inequality-focused event, see this Eventbrite link