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12 Key Principles for an Effective Urban Response during COVID-19

12 Key Principles for an Effective Urban Response during COVID-19

The Un-Habitat or the United Nations agency for human settlements and sustainable urban development, whose primary focus is to deal with the challenges of rapid urbanization, has been developing innovative approaches in the urban design field, centered on the active participation of the community. ArchDaily has teamed up with UN-Habitat to bring you weekly news, article, and interviews that highlight this work, with content straight from the source, developed by our editors.

As the fight against coronavirus keeps on bringing many cities around the world to a standstill, the need to support urban entities and local governments is greater than ever. Although the pandemic has drastically changed our relationship with the public realm, due to all the imposed but necessary restrictions, from physical distancing to limiting access, the demand for public space has not decreased. People still need to go outside, commute, work, study, play, socialize, and maintain a healthy mental state. Discover in this article UN-Habitat’s key areas of focus for an effective urban response for COVID-19 that local and national governments should focus on to prevent the spread of the virus and to develop resilience to and preparedness for events of a similar nature.

Kosovo - Implementation during Covid-19. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space ProgrammeIncreasing Hygiene in local markets in Niamey, Niger. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space ProgrammeImproving Livelihood for Street Vendors during Covid-19 Dhaka and Khulna, Bangladesh. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space ProgrammeSupporting market vendors’ relocation to open fields in Kisumu, Kenya. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme+ 19

Impacting people’s quality of life, Covid-19 restrictions are “more disproportionately hurting the urban poor, many of whom have lost their livelihoods, pushing them to the edge and threatening the economy, safety, and security, peace and stability”, according to UN-Habitat’s annual report. Demonstrating how uneven public space is distributed, the pandemic has underlined the need to create more shared spaces in underprivileged neighborhoods, as a first priority. To rebuild trust with citizens, both during and after the pandemic, UN-Habitat has drafted key messages on COVID-19 and public space for local governments, focusing on accessibility, flexibility, design, management and maintenance, connectivity, and equitable distribution. Discover 12 principles for short, medium, and long-term interventions, and their descriptions.


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Public Spaces and the Challenges of Covid-19: UN-Habitat’s Small-Scale Urban Responses in Vietnam, Bangladesh and India

Faces of COVID-19: Providing safe spaces for LGBTQI+ community in Quito, Ecuador © Dialogo Diverso. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme
Faces of COVID-19: Providing safe spaces for LGBTQI+ community in Quito, Ecuador © Dialogo Diverso. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme

Short-Term Interventions

1- Public Spaces Are an Important Asset in a Time of Crisis

Faces of COVID-19: Providing safe spaces for LGBTQI+ community in Quito, Ecuador © Dialogo Diverso. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme
Faces of COVID-19: Providing safe spaces for LGBTQI+ community in Quito, Ecuador © Dialogo Diverso. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme

Public spaces are essential in providing space for the swift and rapid establishment of temporary and secondary facilities which may be used longer than originally expected so, therefore, need to be flexible, multi-functional, and adaptable. Public spaces are a crucial asset in a time of crisis supporting alternative mobility, providing such important opportunities for recreation and sport, and for many poor people, a livelihood.

2- Well-Connected and Integrated System of Public Spaces Including Streets

Kosovo - Implementation during Covid-19. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme
Kosovo - Implementation during Covid-19. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme

With roughly half of the global population under a lockdown or coming out of lockdown, vehicle traffic has reduced dramatically on our streets and public transit ridership has dropped by as much as 80% in some cities. Cities are temporarily and some even permanently reallocating road space from cars to provide more space for people to move around safely, creating a network throughout the city, easing movement, and respecting physical distancing rules. Creating more walkable streets and investing in greening the city results in reduced CO2 emissions and better air quality, which also impacts people’s health and well-being and reduces COVID mortality.

3- Expand the Amount of Land Allocated To Public Space Including Streets

Creating Mobile Pop-Up Playgrounds for Children in Response to COVID-19 Hanoi, Vietnam. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme
Creating Mobile Pop-Up Playgrounds for Children in Response to COVID-19 Hanoi, Vietnam. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme

Physical distancing requires the possibility to leave adequate space between people when out in public space. The amount of land in cities allocated to public space will have to be extended to be able to create more resilient cities. The expansion of streets for active mobility is seen as an impactful measure to make physical distancing possible on sidewalks, particularly in countries that already have high shares of pedestrians walking on inadequate footpaths, such as in informal settlements and slums.

4- Embrace Flexibility of Functions

Kosovo - Implementation during Covid-19. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme
Kosovo - Implementation during Covid-19. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme

To be resilient in times of crisis, public spaces need to be multi-functional, flexible, and continually adapt to the situation.  We need to build resilience through agile adaptation, for example, incorporate (temporary) food markets into neighborhood/community- spaces such as parking lots or streets to decongest existing markets. Transform small neighborhood spaces into pop-up community health centers, spaces for food distribution, or providing space for food gardens in marginalized communities and slums where food is essential. Programming streets and spaces to allow for organized street vending on select days or times of day, ensuring multi-use and shared use of the spaces. Repurposing street space by expanding sidewalks to facilitate safe walking, skating, and jogging, and introducing (temporary) bike lanes to enable safe mobility.

5- Public Space and Public Facilities Can Provide Essential Services Required For Marginalized Communities during a Pandemic

Increasing Hygiene in local markets in Niamey, Niger. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme
Increasing Hygiene in local markets in Niamey, Niger. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme

Providing clean restroom facilities, water points, and/or appropriate cleaning products that can help unhoused or poor people to protect themselves. Many open spaces in informal settlements can offer handwashing facilities to ensure that families without running water stay safe.

6- For Many, Especially the Poor, Public Space Is Important For Their Livelihoods

Supporting market vendors’ relocation to open fields in Kisumu, Kenya. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme
Supporting market vendors’ relocation to open fields in Kisumu, Kenya. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme

Some of the most affected in the pandemic are poor families, many of whom depend on public space for earning a living. Over 60% of urban employment in Africa is in the informal sector and each group of informal workers produces goods or services that are essential to the functioning of the economy.  During a lock-down, it is therefore important to allow street vendors to continue to operate and provide space for that. Streets can be adapted to provide space for vendors at sufficient distance from each other to sell their wares and providing the street vendors with protective gear to continue to earn a living.

7- Public Space Can Be a Platform for Sharing (Connecting Places and People)

Improving Livelihood for Street Vendors during Covid-19 Dhaka and Khulna, Bangladesh. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme
Improving Livelihood for Street Vendors during Covid-19 Dhaka and Khulna, Bangladesh. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme

Public spaces that remain open for use provide opportunities to share information about prevention measures such as the importance of physical distancing and hand-washing hygiene. Government can provide clear and accessible information in these public spaces as there is a lot of misinformation floating around. These spaces can also provide a platform for dialogue and negotiation to enable the government and the poor and informal workers to discuss and jointly come up with the relevant frameworks to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.

Medium and Long-Term Interventions

8- Equitably Distribute Public Spaces across All Scales

Faces of COVID-19: Providing safe spaces for LGBTQI+ community in Quito, Ecuador © Dialogo Diverso. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme
Faces of COVID-19: Providing safe spaces for LGBTQI+ community in Quito, Ecuador © Dialogo Diverso. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme

The pandemic has demonstrated how unevenly public space is distributed throughout many of our cities, especially in poor neighborhoods, where there are few shared spaces such as parks, gardens, and playgrounds within a 10-minute walk from home. Whilst parks, green areas, and playgrounds are so important in contributing to reducing stress levels, improving mental health and wellbeing, and contributing to children’s development, they are still considered a privilege. Local governments need to ensure that open spaces are evenly distributed across the city, connected through a web of streets promoting walking and cycling whilst embracing physical distancing and guaranteeing the multi-functional, flexible use of public space and streets so as to reduce the spread of the virus but still ensuring that we are not leaving anyone or place behind.

9- Plan for the Self-Sufficient Neighborhood or “15-Minute Compact City Neighborhood”

Improving Livelihood for Street Vendors during Covid-19 Dhaka and Khulna, Bangladesh. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme
Improving Livelihood for Street Vendors during Covid-19 Dhaka and Khulna, Bangladesh. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme

With the pandemic and restrictions on movement, the self-sufficient and 15-minute compact city is a model that could contain the spread of the virus as all residents can have all their needs met—be they for work, school, shopping, health, leisure, or culture—within 15 minutes of their own doorstep, not having to venture across the city. This can only function if there is an equitable distribution of essential services, streets, and public space.

10- Design, Materials Used, Management, and Maintenance of Public Space Are Key In Fighting the Spread of the Coronavirus

Kosovo - Implementation during Covid-19. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme
Kosovo - Implementation during Covid-19. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme

The COVID-19 virus can linger in the air and on surfaces for extended periods of time. Public space should be designed so as to allow for physical distancing and public space managers need to ensure that these spaces can be cleaned frequently and thoroughly, particularly on high-touch surfaces like doors, handles, and furniture.

11- Build “Social Resilience”

Faces of COVID-19: Providing safe spaces for LGBTQI+ community in Quito, Ecuador © Dialogo Diverso. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme
Faces of COVID-19: Providing safe spaces for LGBTQI+ community in Quito, Ecuador © Dialogo Diverso. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme

The COVID-19 virus has both negative and positive impacts on how people interact with each other in public and as part of the social fabric. The pandemic and nature of the virus affect the way we socialize, challenging existing cultural and familiar practices, which can create tensions in public spaces. The social and connection elements of public spaces remain important and can serve to strengthen resilience in communities, i.e. balconies above streets, where community members gather to socialize with one another, neighborhood streets being transformed into cinemas, theatres, or gym classes.

12- Systemic Change Doesn’t Happen Without Supportive Policy

Covid Proofing of Public Spaces in Informal Settlements Bhopal, India. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme
Covid Proofing of Public Spaces in Informal Settlements Bhopal, India. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme

Finally, the experience from the COVID pandemic may lead to richer partnerships across sectors, from health care to public housing authorities, to community development finance and community-based organizations, to philanthropy and research which can influence policy. Creating a shared policy agenda where urban planning, community development, architecture, green building, public health — all have incentives to work toward better policies to reduce the spread of the COVID virus.

Info Via UN-Habitat.

We invite you to check out ArchDaily's coverage related to COVID-19, read our tips and articles on Productivity When Working from Home, and learn about technical recommendations for Healthy Design in your future projects. Also, remember to review the latest advice and information on COVID-19 from the World Health Organization (WHO) website.

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Cite: Christele Harrouk. "12 Key Principles for an Effective Urban Response during COVID-19" 05 May 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/961166/12-key-principles-for-an-effective-urban-response-during-covid-19> ISSN 0719-8884
Kosovo - Implementation during Covid-19. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme

疫情期间,12项关键的城市响应原则

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