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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: City responses

By c.washbourne, on 8 June 2020

From Wuhan to New York to São Paulo, cities have been the stage for many of the biggest dramas unfolding throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. They have been the focus of the most rapid and stringent containment efforts and key players in the ongoing debate around the future of our social lives, work and mobility. Significant independence, resourcefulness and creativity on the part of cities has been required in order to ensure that public health is protected as countries begin to relax rules limiting movement and social contact. This cannot be effectively managed without the advice of experts and insights and support of communities, to understand the ongoing risks posed by COVID-19 and to shape the most appropriate and effective responses.

Cyclists in Mexico City

Cyclists in Mexico City

As noted in the first instalment of this series, effective urban science advice in particular is critical for responding to crises like COVID-19. Cities have to be empowered to act on the basis of the most relevant and appropriate information available, tailored as much as possible to their local context, using appropriate mechanisms to turn this advice in to decisions which could be enacted and enforced at scale. In the US alone, the National League of Cities’ COVID-19: Local Action Tracker, has been documenting the growth of city-level policies and as of 8th June 2020 stands at 1,837 policies tracked, representing 506 cities and around 95,500,000 citizens. City-level responses include actions as diverse as the release of emergency relief funding, distribution of masks, development of public health campaigns and setting guidelines for the reopening of recreation and leisure facilities. The effectiveness of many of these actions ultimately depends on insights from biological, physical and social sciences and engineering amongst a range of other important expertise, guiding the way that they are shaped, implemented and evaluated.

In the short term, many cities have rapidly developed and rolled out measures to reduce transmission while getting citizens moving again. To improve public health and safety and reduce congestion pressure in reopening urban spaces, city decision-makers have been promoting alternatives to cars and public transport, which many are nervous to begin using again. These include more pedestrianised streets, ongoing restrictions on vehicular traffic in cities like London and the development or temporary expansion of the  already extensive and successful bike lane system in cities such as Bogota. These plans are often backed by claims around improved health and sustainability, vocally endorsed by key local decision makers such as Mayors and illustrate the highly visible and responsive role that cities can have in enacting large-scale changes in mobility. Cities such as Milan have seen demonstrable improvements in air quality and voiced their support for a longer-term transition from vehicular traffic, seeing the opportunity for their current decisions to improve the urban environment and quality of life in to the future.

Some cities are playing a key role in sophisticated approaches to test, trace and respond to COVID-19. In Seoul, South Korea, residents can check their likely contact with those with confirmed cases through a combination of ‘technology and public participation’. This is part of a national action taking place under the remit of the ‘Infectious Disease Control and Prevent Act’, which enables authorities to access a wide range of different geolocated data sources, often captured in urban contexts, such as mobile phone information and credit card usage combined with data-mining of CCTV footage, which can then be made open to the public through an app and website. Many cities are already key locations for significant personal data collection, and test and trace responses have simultaneously opened debates about privacy as they have been praised for their role in reducing transmission. In an networked and digital future, city decision-makers will increasingly need tools and approaches to grapple with these kinds of complex technical and ethical challenges.

Other cities have been proactive in using their in-house technical capabilities to get directly involved in the COVID-19 response in creative ways. UNESCO Creative City of Design Curitiba, Brazil, has made a commitment to leverage its expertise in design and innovation in 3D printing face shields for the use of health professionals working in the city through a collaboration between various agencies from the municipality such as the Curitiba Agency of Innovation, the Social Action Service, the Secretariat of Education. Cites are great condensers of ideas and hubs for creativity and innovation, which, when effectively mobilised, have proven to be key in the COVID-19 response.

While responding to short-term challenges, some cities have been proactively looking to the future, using the issues highlighted by COVID-19 to amplify or expedite certain policy directions. In Singapore, the potential for disruption to global supply chains brought about by COVID-19 caused significant concern and accelerated existing plans to increase food production and urban farming in the city. The Singapore Food Agency states that Singapore aims to meet 30% of its nutritional needs by 2030 (current production is around 10%) and in the last few days has opened up a new tender for potential growing spaces across the city.

Throughout the crisis, cities have continued to demonstrate their capacity to innovate and act, in the face of the most unusual challenges brought by COVID-19 and this piece highlights just a few of many examples. Only in the coming weeks and months, will we begin see the longer-term impacts of these decisions on the evolution of our urban spaces.

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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