Planning for public health

A pandemic sheds new light on the vitality of cities.

As the coronavirus reorders daily life, it is shedding new light on cities and urban planning.

In the early days of the outbreak, some thought cities were aiding the spread of the virus. There was a notion that density was dangerous, and that suburbs and rural areas were safer. This has proven to be a bit too simple an analysis. Later reports and events have shown that no areas were safe from the pandemic. And cities are perhaps better able to absorb the impact of coronavirus.

Still, it’s true that large urban areas have suffered the most cases. It’s also the case that physical distancing seeks to limit the effects of density. But it’s not the case that people will be fleeing cities once the pandemic ends.  

The outbreak has reaffirmed the importance of parks and walkable neighbourhoods. Social distancing is not teaching us that we are solitary animals who are content to stay home. Instead, we are suffering from cabin fever. We are missing the kinds of random encounters that give daily life a little colour.

These exchanges are at the heart of what makes cities attractive and successful. They are places where people come together to share ideas and collaborate. Those tasks are helped by density and neighbourhood amenities. This won’t change once we are mixing freely again. The pandemic has made us appreciate parks and walkable neighbourhoods. It has also shown that we need the vitality of cities for our mental and physical health.

This was known before the coronavirus disrupted our lives. You might recall the many articles focused on the “epidemic of loneliness.” In our new reality, these point out how we used the term “epidemic” incorrectly in the past. The extent of loneliness was overstated, but the articles were useful for their focus on the connection between social contact and our well-being.

This was also a focus of urban planning and its connection to public health. There is a long, historical connection between the two. In 1854, John Snow mapped the incidence of cholera in London and traced the source to contaminated drinking water. In our time, planners have focused on health factors like sustainability, air pollution and food security. 

The urgency of the pandemic has pushed a lot of these to the back of our minds. But that doesn’t mean they are any less important. It’s probably a safe bet that pandemic planning will be a central issue for cities in the future. But these other health issues will resume their central place once the pandemic wanes. That means the focus will remain on active living and how cities can foster it.

It will be at least one aspect of urban life that is not altered by the coronavirus. And it will be crucial because cities will lead the economic recovery.

April 24th, 2020

How cities rebound will be crucial to national recoveries.