Urban Resiliency in the Time of COVID

By utilizing tools like mode shifts, investment in public spaces, and energy savings, cities can emerge from the COVID crisis more resilient than before.

The COVID pandemic has been a wake-up call for cities. This natural disaster has revealed weaknesses and vulnerabilities in our economic system, our healthcare system, education system, and especially in our urban landscapes. As we begin to navigate the long and cautious recovery from this tragedy, local decisionmakers ought to appreciate that many of the vulnerabilities highlighted by this virus are general vulnerabilities, and that many of the tools available to reduce the risks and impacts of the virus are the same tools long advocated for by planning experts as a means to help protect cities from climate change, tackle systemic inequalities, and improve well-being. These tools should be at the heart of a COVID recovery plan, allowing cities to emerge from this crisis better prepared to handle future crises—whether viral, social, or climatological in nature.

Transportation, for example, is one of the most critical considerations in effective urbanism.  In the face of a growing need for decarbonization, incentivizing non-automobile forms of transportation is an effective tool for reducing local energy consumption and carbon emissions. This might include closing off certain streets to traffic in order to encourage cycling or walking; or it might mean investing to improve a city’s public transit infrastructure. For decades, public transit systems have been viewed as indispensable in many large cities for allowing fast and affordable movement from neighborhood to neighborhood. Now, these systems are recognized as a vulnerability in our fight against COVID.

As cities recover from the worst of the outbreak, efforts to improve the efficiency and maintenance of existing public transit will improve wellbeing, reduce inequality, reduce local carbon emissions, and reduce the risk of community spread of the virus; however, the limitations and financial viability of these systems need to be taken into consideration. Social distancing constraints add even greater weight to initiatives that encourage cycling or walking. These efforts now not only help to reduce emissions, but also help reduce the risk of community spread within cities by allowing pedestrians more space, allowing restaurants to provide outdoor seating without restricting pedestrian mobility, and allowing essential workers to commute more efficiently without relying on public transit or ride-sharing.

One important element of an urban strategy to increase walking and cycling is an investment in public greenspace. Not only do safe and easily accessible public spaces provide car-free avenues for walkers and cyclists, but they also offer both physical and mental health benefits for city residents and provide resiliency benefits by helping to manage stormwater and mitigate the urban heat island effect. In the time of COVID, when community centers, places of worship, and workplaces have restricted access, people need opportunities to leave their homes, exercise, and socialize with others in safe and unconfined spaces. In this sense, the role of urban green spaces as a refuge from the noise and dissonance of the urban environment has been extended to now encompass refuge from the virus itself.

The pandemic lockdown has, in many ways, shifted the burden from employer to employee, for instance in the case of energy costs. Because more people are working from home, residential energy consumption, and therefore residential energy costs, have increased. This, coinciding with the most severe economic downturn since the Great Recession, means that efforts to reduce residential energy demand have taken on a new urgency. Energy efficiency improvements and distributed energy assets such as rooftop solar, battery storage, smart monitoring systems, and building weatherization all help cities reach local emissions and energy use targets, but they can also help to reduce the energy burden experienced by homeowners and renters. In the COVID recovery process, local initiatives to help finance these distributed investments should be encouraged, and close collaboration between cities, energy utilities, and state PUC’s should ensure that urban residents have the opportunity to reduce emissions and costs associated with at home energy demand.

Mode shifts, investment in public spaces, and energy savings are just three examples of tools that already have played a role in improving the sustainability and livability of cities but now have taken on even greater significance as urban resiliency tools in the wake of the COVID crisis. We need to get our cities operating again but in a way that is conscious of the continued threat from COVID-19 and other future crises. If we do this, cities can emerge from this crisis more resilient than before.

Oscar Serpell

Associate Director of Academic Programming
Oscar Serpell oversees student engagement activities, new student programming, and alumni connections. He also participates in several key research projects at the center and also writes blog posts and policy digests on timely energy policy topics.