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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach


Urban science advice and COVID-19

By c.washbourne, on 2 April 2020

Millions of urban dwellers across the globe are currently under lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19. While the virus is not only an urban issue, it is indisputable that cities have been the focus of some of the most rapid and stringent policy decisions designed to limit its spread. Lockdowns in major global cities like Paris have preceded those in the rural surrounds, attempting to slow the spread of cases between residents living and working in crowded urban settings and limit its diffusion along the multiple transit routes by which people commute for work and leisure.

City skyline

Expanding urban areas are a global phenomenon, with over 50% of the global population now living in cities, predicted to rise to 68% by 2050. While their cumulative spatial footprint remains small in global terms, their influence on environment, society and economy are significant. Cities are great concentrators of people and ideas and as such they have an increasingly large role to play in directing the global approach to sustainable development. They are also highly interdependent, complex spaces, bringing people in to close physical proximity and have been critical arenas in many historic public health crises.

Making effective decisions on the best course of action for cities in times of both stability and crisis is an increasingly complex skill, requiring well-developed mechanisms for data collection and analysis, dissemination of knowledge and public engagement. Cities must have the capacity to understand their own challenges and respond to them in an appropriate and timely manner through administrative and practical interventions. Effective urban decision-making requires appropriately designed institutions, which are able to effectively collect, handle and integrate this knowledge within their decision-making mechanisms. Cities must also be appropriately empowered to make decisions within an inevitably complex system of multi-scalar governance from local, to national to global. This can all be summarised as a need for robust ‘urban science advice’: the capabilities, spaces and practices for generating, translating and disseminating knowledge to support urban decision-making.

Effective urban science advice is critical for responding to crises like COVID-19. Cities must be empowered to act on the basis of the most relevant and appropriate information available, tailored as much as possible to their local context. They must have appropriate mechanisms in place to turn this advice in to decisions which can be enacted and enforced at scale. Urban decision-makers including mayors and heads of local authority areas are frequently required, by immediate need and higher-level policy guidance, to address issues which range from hyper-local to global in scale. These issues often require an understanding of a diverse range of different topical issues and are influenced by and impact upon large numbers of very diverse stakeholders.

For this reason, much research and practice on urban science advice has tended to focus on: technical support, capacity building (including grants and funding), networking and knowledge sharing. While concrete examples are currently quite limited, early actions emerging from the urban COVID-19 response echo this. Long-established city network, C40, highlight their activities in this space in an Executive Director’s statement on the COVID-19 pandemic: “Our mayors are using C40 to learn from each other about the COVID-19 response and we will continue to support these efforts… C40’s Food Systems Network has been organising webinars, calls and group texts to support information exchange on plans for feeding people during an outbreak. Cities in C40’s waste networks are sharing their experiences of how they are managing waste collection and treatment during the COVID-19 crisis.” Several activities in the US illustrate the range of urban science advice foci noted above. The Partnership for Healthy Cities, an international urban public health partnership on non-communicable diseases, supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies in partnership with the World Health Organization and Vital Strategies represents a network of 70 cities. In a statement on the main Bloomberg Philanthropies platform, they acknowledge that: “local governments are often the first to respond to public health emergencies, sometimes with wide-ranging responsibilities but often insufficient resources to deal with them” (Dr. Adam Karpati, Senior Vice President of Public Health Programs at Vital Strategies) and note that they have committed to ensuring that the Partnership “… will assist the cities… by providing tools and technical resources geared toward urban contexts”. The National League of Cities (also supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies) have established a COVID-19: Local Action Tracker, crowdsourcing and analysing information on city-level policies implemented across US.

Urban scholars and decision-makers have spent many years making the case for urban science advice to be embedded in urban governance systems. As cities react to COVID-19, it is possible to identify strengths and weaknesses in the resilience of their own science advisory capacities and governance approaches. Where critical gaps in these systems appear, it provides opportunities for testing new response mechanisms and ultimately for developing new institutional forms and approaches to provide and disseminate relevant knowledge in a timely and actionable manner.

As part of a community of research and practice we have an acute appreciation of the critical role of cities within local, national and global scales of crisis response. Over the coming weeks and months, this mini-series aims to document and reflect on a range of city-level responses to COVID-19 and the role of urban science advice in this. 

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