Transforming our cities could be the pathway to a Post-Covid world.

Sorry to bring doom to the doom but the sequence is this: public health disaster, shambolic elite failure, peak coronavirus, then the long reveal of the consequences.

There’s bound to be huge unintended consequences we can’t possibly imagine — but the two that seem absolutely inevitable are an explosion of complex mental health problems and an economic bomb that hasn’t hit yet.

It will be in the coming months not immediately that the economic impact manifests itself as people are laid off, as furlough is rolled back or as peoples meagre savings run out.

Already the worst fears of a coronavirus housing apocalypse are coming into view.

In America according to the National Multifamily Housing Council, 31% of renters living in 11.5 million apartment units in the U.S. were late on the rent on April 5. That figure didn’t include the tens of millions of renters who live in single-family homes and other housing situations.

That future is mirrored here and is only going to get worse.

There is no sign of a rent freeze only a commitment to delay evictions. That’s not the same at all, that’s just storing up trouble, the virus as a savings bank for landlords.

The Scottish Government has launched its £5million loan fund for landlords. But it contains no agreement to protect the tenant’s interests post Covid leaving landlords free to evict for arrears & jack up rent for new tenant to finance loan repayment. The option for tenants is to claim benefits. This is both unjust and inadequate and is storing up a fresh crisis when the pandemic ends. Its testament to the narrow short-sighted political world, and as some have pointed out the fact that the political class is a propertied class.

Even the immediate benefits of the crisis are being wasted.

With the collapse of the Air BnB market in the capital, an open goal for re-setting the housing market was suddenly available. What happened? Instead we’re told that support worth more than £13m could be given to STLs in the capital.

The Greens Claire Miller stated: “It was with some dismay that I learned that the Scottish government decided STLs would have access to the small business grant fund. Now more than ever it should be clear that the government shouldn’t be putting money aside so property owners can keep potential homes empty. However it does present us with an opportunity. I know our council would like to do more to tackle STLs. If the government can work with councils and with Andy Wightman’s team in parliament we can use the information learned from grant applications to find those STLs that do not have planning permission and to return them to the long term housing market where they belong. Let’s come out of this crisis not with a business-as-usual city centre seeing more and more residents unable to find a home there but instead with a rejuvenated city centre which looks once again to being a thriving, unique city centre community.”

This pattern is everywhere to be seen.

As Adrienne Buller from Common Wealth writes:

“In the case of the world’s major economies, the priorities shown by governments in response to this crisis are those of finance, big business, “rentiers” and fellow affluent, global North nations. As several economists have warned, without stringent conditions and major structural changes to the economy, government stimulus, bailouts and an unprecedented influx of money from central banks will simply end up in the vortex of a financial system “unfit for purpose” and lining the pockets of the wealthy, as happened after the 2008 crisis.”

But opportunities persist.

The Changing City

A report by Dr Douglas Finch & Prof. Paul Palmer from the School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh — shows dramatic reductions in the emissions of Nitrogen Dioxide due the reduction of traffic in the lockdown. As they conclude: “By adopting cleaner travel options, such as more electrically powered transport and more cycling and walking infrastructure, then we would see lower levels of nitrogen dioxide. Strategies to lower VOCs emissions would also reduce ozone levels and therefore improve respiratory health across the country.”

But where is the plan to do this? Where is the urgency to seize on this opportunity?

When this current crisis recedes, we are left with that other crisis, the climate breakdown that we were so studiously ignoring in the pre-covid world.

But what if some of the solutions from moving beyond the current crisis lay at a city-scale? We are so obsessed with the constitutional question we have ignored the municipal one. But some smart thinking is going on in pockets across Europe.

In Amsterdam the long-standing work of the ecological economist Kate Raworth (author of Doughnut Economics) is being implemented.

What is the Dougnut?

Raworth explains:

“Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend — such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century.”

She has been working with the biomimicry thinker Janine Benyus to launch the Doughnut City project which asks the question:

“How can our city be a home to thriving people in a thriving place, while respecting the wellbeing of al people and the health of the whole planet?”

Raworth writes: “Janine put it in her characteristically poetic way, ‘when a bird builds a nest in a tree, it takes care not to destroy the surrounding forest in the process’. How can humanity also learn to create settlements big and small that promote the wellbeing of their inhabitants, while respecting the wider living communities in which they are embedded?”

The project has its critics (its too technocratic) and some say it treats power and inbuilt inequalities as subjects that can be solved with a flipchart in a workshop. But it does have a solid basis and it is an example of deep holistic thinking.

Over in Paris the mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has made phasing out vehicles and creating a “15-minute city” a key pillar of her offering at the launch of her re-election campaign. We are mapping similar for Edinburgh and Glasgow in the Citizen project.

What would that look like?

In a world where we work less and travel less and pollute less, it would mean that we have most of our basic needs for work, education, leisure, sport, entertainment localised.

The inspiration behind the 15-minute city idea is the Professor Carlos Moreno, from la Sorbonne who believes the “core of human activity” in cities must move away from oil-era priorities of roads and car ownership. To do this he argues: “We need to reinvent the idea of urban proximity. We know it is better for people to work near to where they live, and if they can go shopping nearby and have the leisure and services they need around them too, it allows them to have a more tranquil existence.”

The ideas have been embraced by Hidalgo who wants to encourage more self-sufficient communities within each arrondissement of the French capital, with grocery shops, parks, cafes, sports facilities, health centres, schools and even workplaces just a walk or bike ride away.

Called the “ ville du quart d’heure “ — the quarter-hour city — the aim is to offer the people of Paris what they need on or near their doorstep to ensure an “ecological transformation” of the capital into a collection of neighbourhoods. This, Hidalgo argues, would reduce pollution and stress, creating socially and economically mixed districts to improve overall quality of life for residents and visitors.

The Ville Du Quart D’Heure concept is based on Moreno’s idea of “chrono-urbanism,” or having leisure, work, and shopping close to home. This means “changing our relationship with time, essentially time relating to mobility,” says Moreno.

Moreno says he was inspired by the urban theorist Jane Jacobs, author of the 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

“A neighbourhood, she wrote, is not only an association of buildings but also a network of social relationships, an environment where the feelings and the sympathy can flourish.”

Jacobs was influenced by Lewis Mumford, himself a disciple of our own Patrick Geddes. We have our own rich tradition of urban theory and civics to draw on here.

“The quarter-hour city would reduce two serious problems plaguing many Parisians: the air pollution that kills 3,000 people a year, which is largely caused by car traffic, and the many hours lost in transport suffered to go to work,” says Delphine Grinberg, a member of Paris Sans Voiture (“Paris without cars”).

These moves are happening elsewhere too. Feargus O’Sullivan has written:

“Barcelona’s much-admired “ superblocks,” for example, do more than just remove cars from chunks of the city: They’re designed to encourage people living within car-free multi-block zones to expand their daily social lives out into safer, cleaner streets, and to encourage the growth of retail, entertainment, and other services within easy reach. East London’s pioneering Every One Every Day initiative takes the hyper-local development model in a slightly different direction, one designed to boost social cohesion and economic opportunity. Working in London’s poorest borough, the project aims to ensure that a large volume of community-organized social activities, training and business development opportunities are not just available across the city, but specifically reachable in large number within a short distance of participants’ homes.”

What would the “ ville du quart d’heure “ look like in our cities?

It would mean some massive (and micro) re-design and re-invention, the end to “out of town shopping malls” designed exclusively with huge car parks. It would mean a vast investment in bikes and bike infrastructure, cargo bikes and e-bikes. It would mean localised food systems and extensive urban agriculture and co-working spaces that nurtured the sort of industries and businesses required for the new world. It would mean neighbourhood theatres and cinemas and music venues and bookshops. It would be a huge opportunity to make meaningful participatory democracy.

As Mayor Hidalgo says this is about: “proximity, participation, collaboration and ecology.”

How would we define these neighbourhoods?

It could be a messy and creative process defined by looking at what areas needs and existing assets are. It could draw on school catchment and parish boundaries and local and historical cultures and identities.

These neighbourhoods wouldn’t be isolated they’d be interconnected, just as the city would be connected to the peri-urban and the rural around it. It could re-frame the city as a place where diversity and local democracy were resurgent, and a place where sustainable mental health and our zero-carbon futures were possible.

No doubt much of this will be derided. But the case for a return to the system failure we were enduring before the pandemic looks even more ridiculous than the utopian thinking we need to get us out of here.

Originally published at https://bellacaledonia.org.uk on May 10, 2020.

Writer/Editor