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The liveable city: Five reasons why the events of 2020 can make cities safer, smarter and healthier

In this year of severe disruptions, the liveability of cities has taken on added importance. The lessons learned from this annus horribilis could make cities more resilient.

World Built Environment Forum
29 July 2020

Resilience strategies are increasingly focused on relieving social and economic tensions

While 2020 has been a challenging year for everyone, it has been toughest for poor and marginalised communities. Across the world, the Covid-19 virus has been shown to discriminate against people along economic and ethnic lines. This has intersected with a series of globally co-ordinated social justice campaigns, reasserting the rights of minority communities.

For Billy Grayson, Executive Director of ULI’s Center for Sustainability and Economic Performance, this combination of factors has clearly demonstrated the negative impact of inequity on urban resilience:

“We’ve seen globally that those governments which have made meaningful investments to support their most economically vulnerable people and businesses are in better shape economically to weather the downturn. They’re also better able to follow the rules necessary to flatten the curve and beat down this pandemic. Cities are becoming more aware of inequality. This has led them to look at resilience through a social equity lens. They are realising that, if they can help improve economic mobility in the most vulnerable communities, when shock events hit, they’ll be much better equipped to bounce back. I think there is going to be continued investment in social equity in cities, which will make them more resilient in future.”

The liveable city: stable, smart and healthy

This webinar looks at how data rich cities are becoming more resilient to climate stresses, and exerting a beneficial influence on the individual and collective well-being of citizens.

Data quality, not quantity, is a priority concern for smart cities

Cities are data heavy environments, but not necessarily data rich: the value of much urban data has been brought into question by the disruptions of 2020. The systemic issues that serve to exclude groups of people from fully enjoying the opportunities of city life may also serve to exclude those same people from urban datasets. Smart city projects that rely on unrepresentative data will compound, rather than alleviate, inequity.

Helle Søholt, CEO and Founding Partner of award-winning architectural firm Gehl explains: “Many cities have so much data that they are unable to properly analyse it. And this crisis has shown that they don’t have the data they need. Smart cities are ‘People cities.’ We need to work harder to ensure that all people are represented in the data that we are collecting – which is not always so. We need to be more specifically looking into whether all people are actually represented in the data, whether all people are visible. Data can be very selective.”

Many cities have so much data that they are unable to properly analyse it. And this crisis has shown that they don’t have the data they need.

Helle Søholt
CEO and Founding Partner, Gehl

RICS President Tim Neal agrees. “We really want to gather much more ‘soft data’ about the human experience of city dwelling and urban life. That’s a different dataset to what we’ve gathered hitherto, which have typically been ‘hard data’ around physical infrastructure and use of assets. There’s a lot less data about inclusion, and how places make people feel. We’re now starting to see more happiness indexes and that’s an important direction of travel.”

Discussions around how cities effect personal and environmental health are evolving

“Society has come away with a heightened sense of what is really important,” says Tim Neal. “Health, wellbeing, nature: they’re really the lenses through which we’re now looking at liveable cities. Liveability is a question of priorities and it places the question of human experience right at its heart. Our future urban space can be as liveable as we choose to make it – even under any remaining social distancing restrictions. The key is that human and environmental needs are balanced with the imperatives to drive productivity and deliver returns for businesses.”

Helle Søholt has claimed previously that “the solution to diabetes is not medicine, it is urban planning.” Asked to expand on this, she says: “The way that cities have been designed has made us inactive. We’re sitting behind computers in offices; we’re using individual cars to drive back and forth from work. We use elevators and escalators and avoid stairs and eat too much heavily produced food. What we really need is to consider how urban planning can help us to live a healthier life. I really hope that some of the systems that have been very quickly implemented in our cities – outdoor seating and activity zones, bicycle infrastructure – will remain.”

Billy Grayson concurs. “The global health crisis is one of the most persistent stresses affecting our ability to be resilient. While Covid-19 has put a focus on infectious disease, it’s leading to a much broader discussion on health – and some really positive outcomes in urban planning.” 

Public transport systems will be cleaner – and conspicuously so

“We’ll have to quickly make public transport as safe, clean and attractive as possible, so that, as we return to work, people feel comfortable using it,” says Billy Grayson. “This is also a social equity issue. Public transport is relied upon by the some of the most vulnerable people in our cities.

We’ll have to quickly make public transport as safe, clean and attractive as possible, so that, as we return to work, people feel comfortable using it. This is also a social equity issue. Public transport is relied upon by the some of the most vulnerable people in our cities.

Billy Grayson
Executive Director – Center for Sustainability and Economic Performance, Urban Land Institute

“Many Asian cities have seen a relatively fast return to public transport. There are a couple of things that those cities have done right. One is that they’ve flattened the curve – flattening the curve really does make people feel safer using public transport. The second thing is that they’ve made sure commuters wear masks. The third thing has been very visible cleaning: seeing people making surfaces safe for passengers is a good way of restoring public trust in that infrastructure.”

In a previous WBEF webinar, Emma Gilthorpe, COO of Heathrow Airport made a similar observation: “I think people want to physically see cleaning happening. They don’t just want to know that a terminal was cleaned over night; they will take confidence from seeing somebody with a spray and cloth.” 

For commuters in the post-Covid-19 world, the cleanliness of mass transit networks will have to be seen to be believed. 

Localism and community have taken on a new importance

The modern metropolis can be an alienating place, but throughout the Covid-19 lockdown, and from cities across the world, we’ve heard stories of a resurgent and triumphant community spirit. Neighbours have become friends, and small businesses have discovered new, hyper-localised customer bases. Through a series of surveys undertaken by Gehl, Helle Søholt now has hard evidence to support these anecdotes.

“What we have seen is a tremendous revival of neighbourhoods. A lot of traditional city centres have effectively closed down; activity has dropped between 60 and 90%. But activity levels in neighbourhoods has grown by up to 35%. The cities that are doing best are the ones that have great social connections, where people know each other and help each other. I think this new localism is one of the things that we can further strengthen in resiliency strategies of the future.”

For Tim Neal, this is all cause for great optimism. “People know now that health, wellbeing and nature are really important. They appreciate local trades and this new, authentic community spirit. Political leaders, corporate leaders, essential workers, surveyors, designers, architects: we all understand better what’s best for our bodies, our minds and our businesses. A refreshed approach to life, work and accommodation, and a stronger lifestyle ecosystem: that vision is becoming stronger. Our professionals really want to go after that and deliver it.”