Urban resilience and the coronavirus pandemic

Just like every other aspect of life, Augmented Urbans was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. While it is yet too early to draw individual conclusions, the following text gives a general overview of what happened globally in urban planning. This summary is based on a 2020 research paper “Urban nature as a source of resilience during the social distancing amidst the coronavirus pandemic” by Karl Samuelsson, Stephen Barthel, Johan Colding, Gloria Macassa and Matteo Giusti. One of the co-authors, Stephen Barthel, was a member of the Augmented Urbans advisory board.

The importance of urban nature rose to the attention of many city dwellers during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, as countries implemented various social distancing strategies to curb the spread of Covid-19. These effective measures (Gu et al., 2020; Tian et al., 2020; Wilder-Smith & Freedman, 2020) included school closures; urging people to stay and work from home; and limiting people’s mobility and restricting the number of people who they came into contact with outside their families. These restrictions affected many people, especially those with the highest risks to their health, such as the elderly, subjecting them to suffering from anxiety and depression from social isolation (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2007; National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine, 2020). 

While the compact-city model with high population density is often seen as the sustainable city model due to its reduced transport emissions and energy use (Güneralp et al., 2017; Kennedy et al., 2015; Pan et al., 2019), the model is increasingly criticised for not considering human well-being in terms of health-promoting environments like various urban green spaces (Gren et al., 2018; Hartig & Kahn, 2016; Kabisch et al., 2017; Samuelson et al., 2018). During the current pandemic, dense urban conglomerations also function as epicentres for the spread of the coronavirus. It is particularly these dense locations that have most often had to face strict isolation and social distancing regulation to control the spread of the virus. For people living in dense settings with limited public space, urban green space became increasingly important, offering resilience and maintaining the overall well-being of urban populations under social-distancing conditions. In the circumstance of voluntary social distancing in which people are still allowed to visit urban nature, it can provide people the opportunity to escape the confinement of their own homes and provide positive well-being effects (Hartig et al., 2014; Markevych et al., 2017) while maintaining at least some social relationships and a connection with the outside world even if with distancing (Jennings & Bamkole, 2019; Weimann et al., 2019). 

With increasing urbanisation (UN, 2014) and increasing probability of future crises and uncertainties (Biggs et al., 2011) the need for resilience towards these disturbances is critical. Part of resilience thinking involves accepting crises and disturbances as a part of the new reality, which means cities need to learn to function during these changed conditions, whether caused by  virus outbreaks or climate change. For this reason, it is vital to maintain and increase space for urban nature for the general public. Urban nature is known to reduce stress and provide relaxation (Hartig et al., 2014; Tyrväinen et al., 2014), and it is therefore extremely vital to enable an escape from household confinement. Contact with nature can also provide urban dwellers with a sense of coherence (Weimann et al., 2019). Access to urban nature enables people to stay physically healthy and active which in turn can also reduce anxiety (Hartig et al., 2014; Markevych et al., 2017; Lawton et al., 2017) and even post-traumatic symptoms (Oppizzi & Umberger, 2018).

The social distancing measures have shown to have notable effects on changes of movements – reductions in movements related to retail and recreation, grocery and pharmacy, transit and workplaces, and in some areas (e.g Sweden) an increase in public park use has been noted (Google 2020a,b). It is crucial to determine the magnitude of these effects of social distancing and also to understand how it has changed people’s activity spaces and movement patterns across the day. It is also important to analyse the impact of socio-economic factors of such changes. The methods to understand these processes include disaggregated cell phone record analysis (e.g Dong et la., 2020; Schläpfer et al., 2020) and a participatory geographic information system, or GIS (e.g Brown & Kyttä, 2014). However, it is important to understand that both of these methods provide data that can be skewed towards younger segments of the population (Colding & Barthel, 2017). Hence, the importance of complementary approaches, including face-to-face interviews after the pandemic or phone interviews should not be forgotten.

The way cities are spatially organised affects whether they can promote both people’s connection to nature and social distancing. While spatially contained development is advocated, aiming to decrease urban metabolism and mitigate climate change (Güneralp et al., 2017; Kennedy et al., 2015; Pan et al., 2019), nature resources must also be allocated to cities to ensure the well-being of its residents (Giusti & Samuelsson, 2020; Hartig & Kahn, 2016). Unfortunately these goals are often conflicted. Some ways to compromise in these conditions include avoiding extreme densities, over-connected street networks and monofunctional neighbourhoods, providing both integrated spaces for social interactions and secluded restorative environments (Samuelsson et al., 2019). 

Another issue that arises with this type of developments is the question of property rights (Schlager & Ostrom, 1992), determining the opportunities for social distancing for urban residents, especially those living in dense neighbourhoods, making this matter a question of social (and environmental) equality. Unfortunately, we are witnessing a global demise of public space. It is the urban neoliberal policies that have resulted in a global surge of privatisation of public space (Leclercq et al., 2020, Lee & Webster, 2006). While these actions often cause public parks to be turned into revenue-producing entities, they can in some cases help maintain or restore urban ecosystems. Whatever the case may be, it still occurs at the expense of public green space (Colding, 2011), potentially limiting their accessibility. 

Cities can learn from history, both past and present crises, and use that knowledge to enhance the resilience of cities accordingly. Nature areas have repeatedly played a significant role in the times of crisis (Barthel et al., 2019; Colding & Barthel, 2013). Whether these are urban parks providing space for outdoor recreation during social distancing or urban gardens that provide an opportunity for people to grow their own food (Warner, 1987), such responses to crisis are possible because there is open land for nature in the city that people have access to (Barthel et al., 2015). Keeping or increasing space for urban nature in cities and enabling its accessibility for the public has to be part of a sustainability policy aiming to simultaneously strive towards SDG 3 and SDG 11.

See the original article “Urban nature as a source of resilience during the social distancing amidst the coronavirus pandemic”.


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