Literature Review: Urban Development in times of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has mostly affected cities. Pre-existent urban challenges such as inequality, informality and overcrowding have been exacerbated due to the prevention and mitigation measures taken to cope with the virus. Consequently, urban dynamics have changed; the virtualization of education and jobs has challenged the infrastructure of the cities that are no longer based in offices, schools, or universities, but are directly taking place from within the homes. Cities are currently facing great pressure not only to respond to the pandemic but also to adjust their development plans towards recovery.

In response to this, extensive research has been conducted, including a daily publication of comments and ongoing research papers which have encouraged a multitude of debates regarding how resilient are cities? What possible paths will these take after COVID-19? Some reports even claim that instead of a future after COVID-19, it will be a future with it (Sneader & Singhal, 2020).

Two approaches have been predominant in the publications that have been consulted. They are either descriptions and analysis of the current situation, in some cases directed towards advocacy for special causes such as inequality, or projections or predictions as to what might happen in the following years, these projections often include broad recommendations on the course that cities should take.

In both approaches, resilience has been the central theme, questioning how resilient cities have been to the pandemic or providing recommendations aimed at strengthening the resilience of communities and cities in the future.

The analysis has focused on two main domains. Urban planning has received the most attention, mainly concerning urban morphology and land use facing virtual working and social distancing as the “new normal”. Inequality and informality have also been extensively addressed, highlighting the greater vulnerability faced by groups such as immigrants, hospitality, and informal workers.

The literature predicts that urban dynamics will not be the same after COVID-19. The most radical claim is that the "new normal" shall be social distancing and virtualization of daily routines such as working or studying. How does the infrastructure of public spaces and mobility need to adapt to a world in which social distancing is the rule, at least for now? Working at home can also have its rewards such as the vast unoccupied space that is normally assigned to office space, which could be an opportunity for cities such as Rome or Amsterdam to tackle the scarcity of land for housing (Politico, 2020).

Offices and educational centres, until a cure is found or a vaccination made, will need to adapt their design to pandemic conditions. There are already some examples available, such as the Six Feet Office which has been developed by a real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield (Politico, 2020). It is predicted that after COVID-19 it will be more likely that many enterprises will move their operations, and more workers will work remotely or have a home office.

Due to fewer members of the population needing to commute to work, there will be benefits for:

  • Mobility such as less congestion.
  • Environment, less pollution.
  • Efficiency, people at home can have more flexible working hours which are more adaptable to household routines.

It could also promote permanent changes in the way we work, and therefore in infrastructure developments, especially concerning transport. To pursue a complete no cash payment for public transport, wider bike lanes and car-free areas are some of the measures suggested for capitalizing on the decongestion, and it will also strengthen the fight against climate change (Politico, 2020). Cities such as Paris or Milan have already suggested that these measures might be ratified even after the pandemic has passed (Taylor and Laville, 2020).

As mentioned by Florida et al. (2020) urban planners should raise awareness that pollution, traffic jams and congestion are not inherent to cities. After COVID-19 cities should bounce back better; innovations should be made to create new safety protocols to keep passengers and public transport workers safe, and investments should be made in extensive service expansions to make the next crisis easier to manage.

COVID-19 might not be the only pandemic that cities might face in the future. How will it be possible to manage city density when the threat is a density-susceptible pandemic? The absence of sufficient green spaces and the lack of space in housing units does not leave enough space for social distancing. It has been pointed out that social housing policies are challenged the most by the pandemic. Not only does the design of public spaces and streets need to adapt but also, an even more urgently, the conditions of the housing.

Urban sprawl and suburbanization could be an attractive option, especially for family units that contain more vulnerable people. However, cities offer very attractive opportunities that make it implausible for a reversal of the urbanization trend (Grant 2020). Before the COVID-19 crisis, cities were facing urgent requests for cheaper costs of living, more affordable housing and sustainable mobility. History has demonstrated that even though pandemics and plagues can undermine cities, the cities bounce back stronger and denser. After the pandemic, confidence needs to be restored regarding urban density and there is a need to build innovatively, to promote healthy spaces and smart density (Florida et al., 2020).

Rethinking public services is also important. The virtualization of life makes technology infrastructure a basic public service enabling the public to have access to education, jobs, and goods. In order to have access to virtual platforms, a stable connection to the internet and the availability of computers, tablets or smartphones in households becomes a necessity (Florida et al, 2020).

The general opinion is that cities will bounce back. Housing choices will change according to people's life stage i.e. young people, families with children, retired older adults. Rural and suburban areas might be the choice for the most vulnerable, while cities will remain the choice of young people looking for opportunities (Florida et al. 2020). Nevertheless, urban planners should keep in mind that overcrowding is different than density. To bounce forward a distributed density is required.

There is no neutral city design, either it heals or hurts its inhabitants. The built environment in which we inhabit shapes our health. The healing process and the mental health of the citizens are also highly important in the recovery of the cities. COVID-19 has completely changed urban dynamics, confinement and social distancing have further isolated those who were already isolated and, in some cases, have been perfect settings for those prone to depressions and suicides (Frances et al., 2020). Our bodies, communities, and countries will need to be healed. The design of the city needs to take into account and respond to both the "new normal" and the healing processes.

In various parts of the world, after COVID-19, it is necessary to prepare for a reoccurrence of such a pandemic by locating and reallocating more space for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as providing adequate space in buildings to allow for social distancing, as well as better ventilated spaces especially in buildings that can filter the air which would prevent the spread of airborne diseases. Future construction needs to be done with spatial awareness allowing for social distancing, especially for those that are occupying high rise social housing (Hopkins, 2020). Memorials need to be built and memorial ceremonies need to be held to be able to grieve and to commemorate all of the losses that have occurred due to this disaster, which will bring the folk together and help them recover from their losses and in turn help the mental health needs of the population (Murphy and Greenberg, 2020).

To a greater or lesser extent, all cities throughout the world face the problem of inequality and informality. In some countries, there are vast slums, extreme poverty or a lack of sanitary infrastructure. Other cities may have the better infrastructure or income levels but still face complex challenges such as job informality, income inequality or disintegrated communities. All of these challenges have been aggravated by the pandemic.

People with a low level of income or education in general before the pandemic often have a livelihood in the informal or seasonal job market and rely on a daily income to survive. With the pandemic, the livelihoods of these people have been curtailed as the jobs have stopped. There is also a problem of travelling to and from work as public transport has come to a halt or is restricted in many countries like India and this is causing people to starve. Although sometimes jobs have been created, like in England for example, they currently do not have enough seasonal workers and are employing people during the pandemic to come to the country to do the seasonal work (Nicola et al., 2020).

During the COVID-19 crisis, throughout the world, retailers, the entertainment, culture, and hospitality employees have had their income affected and some of them have even been laid off. Moreover, these jobs may cease to exist if the fear of contagion from human interaction will prevail after this and future pandemics. Some economists, like Edward Glaeser, affirm that a labour market Armageddon is coming and that the only possibility to cope with it is to invest in health infrastructure and research to prevent that a pandemic like COVID-19 will ever happen again (Florida et al, 2020).

Informality is flexible. Despite the challenges posed by this pandemic, people are being creative and there is a growth of e-commerce. The growing need for couriers and home delivery services has created what Politico (2020) has named the digital proletariat. Informal workers have developed digital platforms or work for people who have developed such a platform, that anyone can download to a mobile device, offering their labour services, such as couriers, home delivery services and other services, they have flexible working hours, often without limits and contracts that are paid by the hour. Governments need to create new institutionalism to regulate the new labour dynamics, as well as to mitigate the impact of the pandemic in the middle-sized business.

Some businesses, such as restaurants or the retail trade, have been able to make rapid transitions to e-commerce platforms, home-delivery or take away services. Some hotels have become places where people who need to stay in quarantine can be housed or places where people can recover, thus adapting to the situation and are still able to function and earn a living (Shearman, 2020). Initiatives to support small and medium-sized businesses are already emerging. Nearly 40 charities have joined together and have raised around 75 USD million to support small and medium-sized businesses in about 190 countries. Supported by The World Economic Forum, this initiative seeks not only to contribute to the revitalization of the economy and its recovery but also to sustain the employment networks of the poorer classes, which are mainly affected by the closure of these businesses (Shearman, 2020).  

Nevertheless, businesses that depend on the presence of the public, such as cultural venues or bars, cannot be as easily transformed (O’Sullivan, 2020). Strategies such as United We Stream, which was developed in Europe, are making the transition towards online platforms and virtual drinks to keep their businesses alive. There is also throughout the world free viewing of theatre performances and music performances that are streamed and many of the companies that normally charge for music lessons are giving them for free and it is possible to view museum collections online. Some dance studios are still giving dancing lessons at a reduced cost and streaming the lessons, as well as physical exercise trainers, are also giving e-lessons often at a reduced cost (e.g. OEI, 2020). These are all initiatives which could be expanded upon even in non-pandemic times. But the actual theatres, movie theatres and concert halls are empty during the lockdown, and thus wages are not being earned and tickets are not being sold which is compromising for the arts, the teachers and the performers (O’Sullivan, 2020).

To be more economically resilient, cities, especially those where tourism and culture provide a large part of their income, must also develop strategies to protect their businesses in the future within this economic sector.

Temporary and tactic urbanism emerges as one fast way to adapt city structure to the current demands of the pandemic i.e. social distancing, digitalization of work and education. To avoid that people will fear social interaction, it is necessary to adapt the structures so that, at a safe distance, the ability to socialise will be provided, which will keep the “lifeblood” of the city churning (Daly, Dovey, Stevens, 2020). This strategy may encourage not only the city adaptation but the participation of social enterprises and community led-initiatives, because of their eagerness and established local networks. This could also be an opportunity for governments to connect with their citizens, promote community resilience and to invest wisely, given the flexibility and low cost of initiatives such as closing a street after 5 pm to favour social interactions outdoors.

Social distancing started as a preventive measure and will remain in the collective conscience at least for the next few months. Cities must, therefore

  1. Be creative in adapting to the immediacy of current dynamics,
  2. Devise strategies to enable collective healing and the recovery of confidence in social interaction,
  3. Make efficient use of the resources that this "new normal" leaves behind i.e. vacant land or decongested mobility.

Models that project the disease spread are an important tool for policymakers to prevent, tackle and recover when facing a pandemic (Chatterjee, 2020). During the COVID-19 pandemic, two models have been predominantly used to predict deaths: One was developed by the Imperial College London (ICL) and the other by the Institute of Health Metrics (IHME), University of Washington, Seattle. When predicting transmission and infected cases, a model was developed in Wuhan but has no open code. Another model developed by Michigan University (eSIR model) was used in this study. The models were evaluated using three criteria: transparency, reproducibility and validity using information from New York and Italy (Chatterjee, 2020).

Both models have the codes available, but the ICL is accompanied by a methodology document that justifies its assumptions and is a model choice, allowing the users to understand it easier. The IHME model also has a methodology document but contains no justification for its assumptions and choices, which makes it less transparent and less reproducible. The predictions of the IHME model were less reliable when used to predict deaths 14 days before the peaks (Chatterjee, 2020). Contrary to what the current situation shows us, the model predicts a rapid decline in deaths after the peaks. The results of the ICL model also are within the confidence intervals, which makes it more reliable according to the three parameters that have been established.

The ICL model is more transparent and reproducible compared to the IHME model. The former model sometimes over predicts future deaths, while the latter one clearly under predicted post-peak deaths. Both models predicted the timing of the peaks reasonably well using data from the previous week. The ICL model produced a much wider bound of uncertainty for the NY state possibly because the pattern did not conform well with their internal training data used from European countries (Chatterjee, 2020. The eSIR model is transparent and, because of that, it was possible to modify their code to use while this research was conducted. Without the modifications, the model produces an extremely large range of uncertainty, so much so, that the best-case scenario provided by the lower confidence bound may not be meaningful.

Recommendations for policymakers: Rely on open-source codes, do not overuse the models, always consider uncertainty, mainly for the long-term and use models that are already tested with retrospective data.

Chatterjee, N., 2020. Transparency, Reproducibility, And Validity Of COVID-19 Projection Models. [online] Medium. Available at: <…;

Daly, J., Dovey, K. and Stevens, Q., 2020. We Can't Let Coronavirus Kill Our Cities. Here's How We Can Save Urban Life. [online] The Conversation. Available at: <…;

Florida, R., Glaeser, E., Sharif, M., Bedi, K., Campanella, T., Chee, C., Doctoroff, D., Katz, B., Katz, R., Kotkin, J., Muggaah, R. and Sadik-Kahn, J., 2020. How Life In Our Cities Will Look After The Coronavirus Pandemic. [online] Foreign Policy. Available at: <…;

Grant, J., 2020. What Cities Can Learn From Lockdown About Planning For Life After The Coronavirus Pandemic. [online] The Conversation. Available at: <…;

Hopkins, J., 2020. If More Of Us Work From Home After Coronavirus We'll Need To Rethink City Planning. [online] The Conversation. Available at: <…;

Murphy, M. and Greenberg, K., 2020. Cities That Heal: How The Coronavirus Pandemic Could Change Urban Design On Point On NCPR | NCPR. [online] NCPR. Available at: <;

Nicola M, Alsafi Z, Sohrabi C, Kerwan A, Al-Jabir A, Iosifidis C, Agha M, Agha R, The Socio-Economic Implications of the Coronavirus and COVID-19 Pandemic: A Review, International Journal of Surgery,

Organización de Estados Iberoamericanos. 2020. Iniciativas Culturales. [online] Available at: <;

O'Sullivan, F., 2020. Paris Has A Plan To Keep Cars Out After Lockdown - Citylab. [online] Available at: <…;  

POLITICO. 2020. The World After Coronavirus. [online] Available at: <…;

Sneader, K. and Singhal, S., 2020. The Future Is Not What It Used To Be: Thoughts On The Shape Of The Next Normal. [online] McKinsey & Company. Available at: <…;

Taylor, M. and Laville, S., 2020. City Leaders Aim To Shape Green Recovery From Coronavirus Crisis. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <…;

Wand, A., Zhong, B., Chiu, H., Draper, B., & De Leo, D. (2020). Covid-19: The implications for suicide in older adults. International Psychogeriatrics, 1-16. doi:10.1017/S1041610220000770

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Author: Daniela Ochoa Peralta

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Literature update: Urban development in times of COVID-19

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