OPINION: Post-pandemic cities – how can we use the lessons of lockdown? 

by Jo da Silva | Arup
Thursday, 21 May 2020 11:41 GMT

People gather at a street in Rocinha slum during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil April 29, 2020. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Coronavirus may propel sustainable investments and more resilient cities

Jo da Silva is a Global Sustainable Development Director at Arup

I have spent the last decade thinking about and working to improve the resilience of communities and cities across the world. How do you prepare for the worst and, once it’s happened, whether it be an earthquake, a typhoon, a drought or a flood, how do you recover from it so that you are stronger next time? There are many lessons that apply to this pandemic. And yet, the magnitude of what we are all living through now feels unique.

The scale of human impact of the coronavirus outbreak can be best grasped not through the number of infections or the tragic fatalities, but through the number of those affected. And you would be hard pressed to find somebody on the planet right now whose life has not been in some way affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

This universal experience has led us to question many pre-conceived truths about our way of life. Within engineering and design, my own area of specialism, we’re questioning many of the ideas that previously seemed set in stone. And while we do not yet know the COVID-19 equivalent of the engineer, Joseph Bazalgette’s sewerage system in post-cholera London, we are starting to pose questions around the way our cities function:  


Homes are at the centre of this pandemic, catering to varying needs of individual family members 24/7. They serve as places of work, leisure, education, physical activity and worship, in addition to fulfilling basic needs for shelter, rest and sanitation. These new requirements are leading to questions over what can be considered a decent amount of space and whether we have made mistakes when it comes to planning high-density housing in the past. As people spend more time in properties, is it reasonable that everyone should have some access to outdoor space? In the world of social distancing, do high-rise blocks with the necessity to use lifts or stairs still make sense?

These are questions that we have the luxury of asking in developed markets. But in many places across the world this crisis has added urgency to the need to provide safe housing and sanitation for the 828 million people estimated to live in slums. I’m hopeful that this pandemic helps propel investment in cities trying to address this.


Growing cities, particularly in emerging economies, are still being constructed around the needs of the car. Expanding through roads and nodes – nodes being large shopping centres, surrounded by a network of big carriageways. But are shopping malls part of our future if social distancing remains and internet shopping accelerates?

In developed economies, as cities look for ways to re-start their public transport networks, they find that there are no easy ways to marry up social distancing with the demands of high-density living.

Much more fundamental changes to the role of transport in our lives are needed.

As we have become confined to much smaller geographical areas during lockdown, we have realised the need to make sure local communities are more self-sufficient. We need to focus on designing cities where people’s immediate needs – healthcare, education, food, green spaces – are met within their community, making transport less essential to everyday lives. The economy of the past few decades was powered by the physical movement of people. Technology, paired with the new, community-focused design paradigm can flip this dynamic on its head.


This leads me onto the most important and fundamental shift. It’s become more transparent than ever that everyone’s quality of life is reliant on the community around them. Cities have always comprised multiple neighbourhoods, but as we have lived such big chunks of our lives away from our homes and immediate surroundings – at school or at work - we have tended to approach cities as one, unified entity criss-crossed by transport networks.

Imagine a world where we focused on the development of cities in smaller modules, concentrated around community hubs. The impact of any disaster or crisis would still be there but we could much more effectively avoid cascading failure, by isolating individual communities instead of whole nations or households. With facilities in close proximity, the isolation would have a much less fundamental impact on people’s lives, allowing us to weather many storms and look after those most vulnerable.

I’m an optimist and believe that having had a taste of community spirit, clean air and minimal sound pollution, we will take this unique opportunity to make our cities not just good places for business, but also good places to live – for everyone. As we grapple with the immediate healthcare crisis, we must not miss the opportunity to consider where we want the recovery to lead us to.