By Ayyoob Sharifi and Amir Reza Khavarian-Garmsir
Enhancing resilience capacities is of critical significance in a world of increasing uncertainties and instabilities. This is particularly essential in urban areas where most of the world population currently lives and increasing urbanization trends are projected for the foreseeable future. Given the significance of building on urban resilience, many scientists and policymakers around the globe have placed it high on their agenda over the past few decades. However, their focus has mainly been on either climate resiliency or resilience to disasters from natural hazards such as earthquakes and tsunamis (Sharifi, 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic hit cities in the midst of this increasing focus on urban resilience. It offered an unprecedented opportunity to also reflect on the resilience of cities to pandemics (Sharifi & Khavarian-Garmsir, 2020).
To better understand the implications of the pandemic for urban resilience and highlight lessons that it can offer for post-pandemic urban planning, design, and management, we have conducted a comprehensive literature review (Sharifi & Khavarian-Garmsir, 2020) and a brief overview analysis (Sharifi, forthcoming) of the early literature related to cities and COVID-19 to highlight implications and lessons.
Of different definitions that exist for urban resilience, we adopt the one provided by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, since it is straightforward and allows an understanding of how different capacities contribute to urban resilience during various stages of disaster risk management. Based on this definition, urban resilience is the “ability to plan and prepare for, absorb, recover from, and adapt to adverse events” (TNA, 2012). These abilities would allow cities to maintain their functionality under changing conditions. In the following section, links between these four abilities and different lessons learned from the pandemic will be briefly discussed.
Major lessons for urban resilience
Ten major lessons that this pandemic can provide for urban resilience are briefly discussed below.
- Diversify the economic structure of cities: Lack of diversity in terms of economic structure and livelihood options increases the scale of economic decline. Economic diversification initiatives should be prioritized to enhance shock absorption and facilitate rapid recovery.
- Diversify supply chain: The pandemic has caused supply chain disruptions in some parts of the world. This highlights the excessive dependence of cities on their hinterland areas and indicates the necessity of diversifying supply chains and increasing local input to enable shock absorption and strengthen self-organization and adaptation capacities.
- Reduce socio-economic inequalities: The pandemic has exposed the deep-rooted inequities that exist in many cities around the world. Such inequalities make it difficult to contain the spread of the virus, thereby putting the broader community at risk. Enhancing socio-economic equity is, therefore, of critical importance for improving absorption and facilitating recovery from the pandemic.
- Adopt a more integrated urban management approach: Lack of integrated management, where different urban sectors collaborate and interact with each other, may cause conflicts between different urban sectors, thereby, diminishing the capacity to respond swiftly and take adequate and coordinated recovery and adaptation measures.
- Take advantage of the capabilities provided by smart city solutions: In many parts of the world smart solutions have contributed to enhancing effectiveness and efficiency (i.e., achieving the maximum outcomes by minimal use of resources) of measures taken to identify and isolate infected individuals, and to take necessary actions in response to shifting demands.
- Take actions to enhance social capital and sense of community: Improvements in these regards contribute to urban resilience by, among other things, enhancing the rate of compliance with social distancing measures and strengthening the culture of community-based social support.
- Promote active modes of transportation: While significant declines in public transportation usage have been reported in many cities, active modes such as cycling, and walking have gained considerable attention. Further investments in active modes can, therefore, not only improve absorption capacity, but also facilitate adaptation through inducing behavioral change. Promoting such active modes should, however, not undermine the mobility of people with mobility challenges. For that purpose, a balanced modal share that facilitates universal accessibility would be needed.
- Reform public transportation systems: public transport is generally believed to be more resilient to shocks and stressors as its infrastructure is more robust and it would also minimize likelihood of congestion in case of emergency evacuation. The pandemic has, however, damaged public trust and has caused safety concerns. Reform plans and programs are, therefore, needed to avoid renewed and additional interest in automobile ownership and automobile-oriented development.
- Promote compact urban development: Despite concerns about higher possibility of infection in high-density areas, research shows that density is not a significant risk factor. This is because high-density areas may have better access to services and capacities needed for absorption and recovery. In addition, due to improved awareness of risks in dense areas, residents may act more cautiously and pay more attention to social distancing rules. Therefore, high-density areas that provide adequate access to services are likely not to be risky. Furthermore, given multiple other benefits of compact cities (e.g., for climate change adaptation and mitigation), promoting compactness is desirable.
- Provide more open and green spaces in urban areas: Improved provision of open and green spaces is critical for ensuring compliance with social distancing measures. It also allows people to maintain their outdoor exercise and recreation activities, thereby strengthening their coping and adaptive capacities.
Linking the lessons to urban resilience
To demonstrate how these lessons and their associated factors can be linked to the four resilience capacities, thereby contributing to urban resilience, a list of key resilience-related factors and associated capacities are included in Table 1.
Overall, while the full impacts of the pandemic are not yet known, early evidence provides useful insights that can be adopted for post-pandemic urban planning and management. While enhancing resilience to climate change impacts will most likely still be the main priority of many urban planners and policymakers, actions should also be taken to better respond to future pandemics. An important issue to be noted is that most of the lessons discussed here are likely to also provide co-benefits in terms of resilience to climate change and other stressors. For instance, diversifying economic structure will certainly enhance the capacity to absorb other stressors such as climate-induced floods. We hope that planners and policymakers will find these lessons useful.
Sharifi, A. (2020) Urban Resilience Assessment: Mapping Knowledge Structure and Trends. Sustainability, 12, 5918. Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/12/15/5918
Sharifi, A. & Khavarian-Garmsir, A. R. (2020) The COVID-19 pandemic: Impacts on cities and major lessons for urban planning, design, and management. Science of The Total Environment, 749, 142391. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.14239
Sharifi, A. (forthcoming) The COVID-19 Pandemic: Lessons for Urban Resilience. In B. Trump & I. Linkov (Eds). COVID: Risk and Resilience. New York, NY
The National Academies [TNA]. (2012) Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative, National Academies Press. Retrieved from https://www.nap.edu/catalog/13457/disaster-resilience-a-national-imperative
Dr. Ayyoob Sharifi is an associate professor at Hiroshima University. His research is mainly at the interface of urbanism and climate change mitigation and adaptation. He actively contributes to global change research programs and is currently serving as a lead author for the Sixth Assessment Report of IPCC.
Dr. Amir Reza Khavarian-Garmsir is an assistant professor at the Department of Geography and Urban Planning, University of Isfahan, Iran. His research work focuses largely on how climate change and technological innovations affect urban transformations.