Covid is fading into history in our cities around the world, but its implications are still worth reflecting upon. This special collection called “Covid, Cities and Sustainability” in npj Urban Sustainability has been a pleasure to encourage and edit for the reflections it has provided.
I spent a lot of my time during Covid writing about how theories such as Innovation Waves and Transition Theory are now much more relevant as they both show how big changes can come out of deep economic downturns1. I suggested that much of the climate agenda would become mainstreamed due to decarbonizing technologies becoming the basis of new investment. Little did I realize how quickly this would happen and how much of my musings could be seen in the papers in this edition.
This series was about what it means for cities in their mobility, economy, carbon footprints, air pollution, poverty levels, and how the virus spread in different urban fabrics2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12. Papers also picked up on the revival and regeneration of local places13,14,15,16,17,18 spurred on by their dramatically increased need during the pandemic. Others have enabled us to understand the health implications of these increased local green spaces and local walkability14,15,17,18,19.
Perhaps the most interesting perspective I have gained from focussing on the papers in this series is that many of the expected changes to our cities did not happen. Three of these were quite obviously exposed.
Density. Pandemics create fear of exposure to people so it was predicted that there would be a reaction to high density buildings as happened in English-speaking cities after the 1930s depression. However, this did not appear to happen. High rise buildings were not more susceptible to pandemics instead we saw many people forming local groups and even choirs singing together from windows. The science showed density did not lead to more Covid but many other factors that required direct management were necessary to keep the virus at bay7,8,9,18,19.
Population Decline. Some of the predictions that cities would decline as people were expected to leave for healthier rural locations did not happen. The data were if anything the opposite. Health services were critical for supporting large numbers of people through the pandemic and these were better in cities. So many other services and jobs are clearly going to continue to make cities, of all sizes, continue to grow in the post pandemic era2,4,5,11,18.
Transit Decline. Public transport was immediately hit by the pandemic as was traffic in general. Transit agencies very rapidly began to show how with masks and daily cleaning, trains and buses could continue to provide a healthy kind of transport20. For most cities, the patronage did not pick up again quickly as something else was setting in which is now bound to stay: virtual meetings through digital communications became routine. Smart phones and computers have begun to replace the need for some work trips in the city and even many for business trips to other cities around the world. The quality of digital communications was able to meet the massive increase in demand and this is likely to remain. Many businesses are now providing for an extra day or two at home and finding this works well. Transit remains a major part of future cities and even more so as the decarbonization agenda takes over5,18.
The Covid economic decline and the restart using new ways to frame an economy, are going to continue to emerge, and hopefully will be reflected in future papers in this journal. Perhaps we can begin to see what the next few decades of future growth in our cities will be, based on the things we have learned from Covid. Here are some of my learnings.
Decarbonization will rapidly happen with technology but urbanism will shape cities better for people and nature.
Smart technology integrated with solar, wind, batteries and electric vehicles will become rampant through the global economy enabling grids of all types and sizes in every part of the world21,22. The smart systems will need local management as well as grid-scale management23. Electric local vehicles and electric trackless trams will be integrated into mobility as a service replacing much need for car ownership24. And electric trains between cities will become as common as planes are now.
Urbanism will insist on the significance of local places as these technological changes happen. They will need to be walkable and meaningful as well as activated for people of all ages and incomes18. Reduced automobile dependence will continue to grow as a major focus for cities to enable them to be competitive25.
Nature-positive outcomes will also become the major focus for urbanism26, building up biodiversity and enabling biophilic landscaping of soft and hard surfaces27, closing canopies with street trees, all enabling cities to play a critical role in resilient responses to big weather changes.
Perhaps after these next few decades we may even see some of the more difficult parts of climate change begin to be provided with solutions.
Circular economy, hydrogen economy processing of industrial products, new fuels for shipping and aviation, will start to provide the last technologies and urbanism responses for decarbonization.
Circular economy will start to learn from the way smart technologies have shaped the application of renewables into local solutions by enabling simpler local manufacturing based on recycled waste28.
Hydrogen will use smart systems to become cheap enough for processing locally all primary production including minerals and agricultural products29, and the secondary production of manufactured goods but will disappear as an option for land transport.
Shipping and aviation will have new renewable fuels but will never be able to compete with the cheap fuels of the late twentieth century and more and more alternatives for local economies will be provided21.
Newman, P. COVID, CITIES and CLIMATE: historical precedents and potential transitions for the new economy. Urban Sci. 4, 32 (2020).
Kato, H. & Takizawa, A. Human mobility and infection from Covid-19 in the Osaka metropolitan area. npj Urban Sustain. 2, 20 (2022).
Yang, C. et al. Promoting economic and environmental resilience in the post-COVID-19 era through the city and regional on-road fuel sustainability development. npj Urban Sustain. 2, 33 (2022).
Zhang, H. et al. A general urban spreading pattern of COVID-19 and its underlying mechanism. npj Urban Sustain. 3, 3 (2023).
Wang, J. et al. Resilience and recovery of public transport use during COVID-19. npj Urban Sustain. 2, 18 (2022).
Long, Y. et al. Japanese urban household carbon footprints during early-stage COVID-19 pandemic were consistent with those over the past decade. npj Urban Sustain. 3, 19 (2023).
Liu, L. et al. Infectiousness of places—impact of multiscale human activity places in the transmission of COVID-19. npj Urban Sustain. 2, 28 (2022).
Pandey, B., Gu, J. & Ramaswami, A. Characterizing COVID-19 waves in urban and rural districts of India. npj Urban Sustain. 2, 26 (2022).
Beevers, L. et al. Modelling systemic COVID-19 impacts in cities. npj Urban Sustain. 2, 17 (2022).
Badia, A. et al. A take-home message from COVID-19 on urban air pollution reduction through mobility limitations and teleworking. npj Urban Sustain. 1, 35 (2021).
Stier, A. J., Berman, M. G. & Bettencourt, L. M. A. Early pandemic COVID- 1 9 case growth rates increase with city size. npj Urban Sustain. 1, 31 (2021).
Sethi, M. & Creutzig, F. COVID- 1 9 recovery and the global urban poor. npj Urban Sustain. 1, 23 (2021).
Iida, A. et al. Urban agriculture in walkable neighborhoods bore fruit for health and food system resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. npj Urban Sustain. 3, 4 (2023).
Cao, L. et al. Characteristics of urban park recreation and health during early COVID-19 by on-site survey in Beijing. npj Urban Sustain. 3, 31 (2023).
Lin, B. B. et al. Nature experience from yards provide an important space for mental health during Covid-19. npj Urban Sustain. 3, 14 (2023).
Beckmann-Wübbelt, A. et al. Climate change adaptation measures conflicted with the recreational demands on city forests during COVID-19 pandemic. npj Urban Sustain. 3, 17 (2023).
Fagerholm, N. et al. Analysis of pandemic outdoor recreation and green infrastructure in Nordic cities to enhance urban resilience. npj Urban Sustain. 2, 25 (2022).
Meyrick, K. & Newman, P. Exploring the potential connection between place capital and health capital in the post COVID-19 city. npj Urban Sustain. 3, 44 (2023).
Giles-Corti, B. et al. What are the lessons from COVID-19 for creating healthy, sustainable, resilient future cities? npj Urban Sustain. 3, 29 (2023).
Earley, R. & Newman, P. Transport in the aftermath of COVID-19: lessons learned and future directions. J. Transp. Technol. 11, 109–127 (2021).
Newman, P. W. G. Net zero in the maelstrom: professional practice for net zero in a time of turbulent change. Sustainability. 15, 4810 (2023).
Newman, P. Expanding the pathway to a net-zero future. Nature. 614, 34 (2023).
Hargroves, K., James, B., Lane, J. & Newman, P. The role of distributed energy resources and associated business models in the decentralised energy transition: a review. Energies 16, 4231 (2023).
Wood, J., Verschuer, M., Economou, D. & Newman, P. The potential emergence of mid-tier transit. J. Infrastruct. Policy Dev. 7, 1659 (2023).
Newman, P. & Kenworthy, J. Gasoline consumption and cities revisited: what have we learnt? Curr. Urban Stud. 09, 532–553 (2021).
Thomson, G. et al. Nature-positive design and development: a case study on regenerating black cockatoo habitat in urban developments in Perth, Australia. Urban Sci. 6, 47 (2022).
Thomson, G. & Newman, P. Green infrastructure and biophilic urbanism as tools for integrating resource efficient and ecological cities. Urban Plan. 6, 75–88 (2021).
Newman, P. Hope in a time of civicide: regenerative development and IPAT. Sustain. Earth 3, 13 (2020).
Whitehead, J., Newman, P., Whitehead, J. & Lim, K. L. Striking the right balance: understanding the strategic applications of hydrogen in transitioning to a net zero emissions economy. Sustain. Earth Rev. 6, 1 (2023).
Newman, P. Regenerative development: the hope-based future. Curr. Adv. Geogr, Environ. Earth Sci. 8, 109–130 (2022).
Mouritz, M. et al. Leadership in sustainability: collective wisdom, conversations, creativity, contemplation and courage, the five pillars of a master’s teaching unit. Sustainability 14, 5070 (2022).
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Newman, P. Covid, cities, and sustainability: a reflection on the legacy of a global pandemic. npj Urban Sustain 3, 51 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42949-023-00130-z