Here’s how cities can recover from the COVID-19 pandemic


  • With cities hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to create sustainable cities that promote health has been highlighted.
  • We should create more walkable neighborhoods, reduce the number of overcrowded households and increase the number of mixed housing, write two sociologists.
  • Cities should tailor the rebuilding process to meet the diverse needs of residents in low- and high-income neighborhoods.

Cities have become the epicentres of the COVID-19 pandemic: approximately 90% of COVID-19 infections worldwide have been reported in urban settings. And poor urban neighborhoods have been particularly hard hit.

Researchers have often attributed the vulnerability of cities to high population density, overcrowding, and poor air circulation. The vulnerability of cities during the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to create sustainable cities that promote health.


Less density, more diversity

As sociologists interested in urban settings, we have examined how the physical environment of neighborhoods has shaped the spread of COVID-19 in Toronto. Our findings suggest some things cities should keep in mind as they rebuild after the pandemic.

First, we should create more walkable neighborhoods. COVID-19 has spread at a much slower rate in neighborhoods that are very walkable. Residents of these neighborhoods can walk shorter distances on wider, better-maintained sidewalks, which can reduce their exposure to the COVID-19 virus.

Second, we should reduce the number of overcrowded households. Soaring real estate prices have forced many socio-economically disadvantaged families to live in overcrowded housing. Space constraints in these housing units may make it more difficult for residents to practice adequate physical distancing. It may also have deprived them of the space to self-isolate if they contracted the virus. These factors may have increased their risk of contracting COVID-19. Increasing the supply of affordable housing could be the key to reducing the urban poor’s vulnerability to infectious diseases.

Third, we need to increase the number of mixed housing and better integrate our neighborhoods. COVID-19 has spread much faster in working-class neighborhoods. Housing affordability may have driven disadvantaged families out of high-income neighborhoods and forced them to settle in low-income areas with fewer amenities.

Displacement and higher density due to limited housing affordability may have increased the concentration of residents who were exposed to the COVID-19 virus. Residents of low-income neighborhoods are more likely than their peers in affluent neighborhoods to live near someone infected with COVID-19.

Tailored responses

Residents of low-income neighborhoods are more dependent on neighborhood amenities than their peers in affluent neighborhoods because they have fewer personal resources at their disposal. And even when communities have the same amenities, those in lower-income neighborhoods are more likely to be poorly maintained. For example, low-income neighborhoods may lack wide, well-maintained sidewalks.

a graph showing the presence and width of sidewalks in residential neighborhoods in San Diego

The state of San Diego’s sidewalks.

Image: Direct Science

They also have fewer health-promoting facilities, such as grocery stores with fresh produce or high-quality healthcare facilities. Therefore, the physical environment of a neighborhood contributes differently to the spread of COVID-19 in low-income and high-income neighborhoods.

Our study finds that population density increased the spread of COVID-19 in low-income neighborhoods, but lowered the infection rate in high-income neighborhoods. In more affluent neighborhoods, even high-density apartment buildings have amenities and safeguards — like better ventilation systems and extra staff to properly sanitize common areas — that similarly dense buildings in neighborhoods lack. low income.

Similarly, green spaces mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in low-income neighborhoods, but not in high-income neighborhoods. Housing in low-income neighborhoods is likely smaller, overcrowded, less well-maintained and poorly ventilated. Residents of low-income neighborhoods may therefore have more difficulty adhering to stay-at-home policies. Large green spaces in these neighborhoods can provide a safe space where residents can breathe clean air and safely practice social distancing.

Additionally, the walkability of the neighborhood helps mitigate the spread of COVID-19 more in lower-income neighborhoods than in higher-income ones. This trend likely emerges because residents of low-income neighborhoods are less likely than their counterparts in affluent neighborhoods to own a car. They are more likely to use public transport for errands that cannot be done on foot. For residents of low-income neighborhoods with low walkability, running errands may require longer trips and multiple transfers in the transit system.

Cities are responsible for 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions and are home to more than half of the world’s population, a number that will reach two-thirds by 2050. By becoming greener, cities could contribute to more half of the emission reductions needed to keep global warming below 2°C, which would be in line with the Paris Agreement.

To achieve net zero urban emissions by 2050, the World Economic Forum is partnering with other stakeholders to lead various initiatives to promote sustainable urban development. Here are a few :

To learn more about our initiatives to promote zero-carbon cities and to see how you can be part of our efforts to facilitate urban transformation, contact us here.

After the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for us to build sustainable cities that promote health and reduce vulnerability to infectious diseases among their inhabitants. Future urban planning efforts should not take a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, they should tailor the rebuilding process to meet the diverse needs of residents in low- and high-income neighborhoods.

Specifically, reconstruction efforts should prioritize low-income neighborhoods and address their high population density, build more green space, and improve their walkability.


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