From Wuhan to New York to São Paulo, cities have been the stage for many of the biggest dramas unfolding throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. They have been the focus of the most rapid and stringent containment efforts and key players in the ongoing debate around the future of our social lives, work and mobility.
Significant independence, resourcefulness and creativity on the part of cities has been required in order to ensure that public health is protected as countries begin to relax rules limiting movement and social contact. This cannot be effectively managed without the advice of experts and insights and support of communities, to understand the ongoing risks posed by COVID-19 and to shape the most appropriate and effective responses.
As noted in the first instalment of this series, effective urban science advice in particular is critical for responding to crises like COVID-19. Cities have to be empowered to act on the basis of the most relevant and appropriate information available, tailored as much as possible to their local context, using appropriate mechanisms to turn this advice in to decisions which could be enacted and enforced at scale. In the US alone, the National League of Cities’ COVID-19: Local Action Tracker, has been documenting the growth of city-level policies and as of 8th June 2020 stands at 1,837 policies tracked, representing 506 cities and around 95,500,000 citizens. City-level responses include actions as diverse as the release of emergency relief funding, distribution of masks, development of public health campaigns and setting guidelines for the reopening of recreation and leisure facilities. The effectiveness of many of these actions ultimately depends on insights from biological, physical and social sciences and engineering amongst a range of other important expertise, guiding the way that they are shaped, implemented and evaluated.
In the short term, many cities have rapidly developed and rolled out measures to reduce transmission while getting citizens moving again. To improve public health and safety and reduce congestion pressure in reopening urban spaces, city decision-makers have been promoting alternatives to cars and public transport, which many are nervous to begin using again. These include more pedestrianised streets, ongoing restrictions on vehicular traffic in cities like London and the development or temporary expansion of the already extensive and successful bike lane system in cities such as Bogota. These plans are often backed by claims around improved health and sustainability, vocally endorsed by key local decision makers such as Mayors and illustrate the highly visible and responsive role that cities can have in enacting large-scale changes in mobility. Cities such as Milan have seen demonstrable improvements in air quality and voiced their support for a longer-term transition from vehicular traffic, seeing the opportunity for their current decisions to improve the urban environment and quality of life in to the future.