After Covid-19 we must build better cities

Impoverished residents living in the peripheries have been hit especially hard by the lockdown. Can cities be designed to make life better for everyone, especially impoverished people?

It should not be controversial to note that cities are good. They can offer high standards of living to their residents with a lower resource cost, and produce social surplus for the rural areas that support them in various ways. Built right, cities can offer the best set of tradeoffs between living standards, economic activity and sustainability.

They are also worldwide, but particularly in South Africa, among the greatest sites of opportunity: people flock to cities for the better life that they offer. Cities are for the most part where jobs are to be found; where services are available; and where people can carve a life for themselves unencumbered by their origins. For millions of people, what cities offer is freedom.

But in South Africa, our cities are not built right. Their low average densities mean they miss out on the economic benefits of agglomeration, while being environmentally and financially unsustainable to service. They confine the poor to the periphery, leaving them to languish without jobs, pay exorbitant transport costs to commute, or take matters into their own hands as to where they live, frequently over the objections of the state and the landowners.

The lockdown has hit pause on urban life. By freezing residents in place, it prevents both the economic activity that characterises cities, but also many of the costs of urban life—not least the enormous financial and environmental costs of a car-dependent transport system.

28 July 2016: Alexandra township in Johannesburg, where thousands of South Africans who lack the financial means to buy a house live in shacks. (Photograph by Reuters/ Siphiwe Sibeko)
28 July 2016: Alexandra township in Johannesburg, where thousands of South Africans who lack the financial means to buy a house live in shacks. (Photograph by Reuters/ Siphiwe Sibeko)

Major changes are needed to reduce the future spread of infectious diseases such as Covid-19 and to allow for the rebuilding of cities and urban lives, so they are better than before. We should join the many cities around the world that are taking the opportunity to make much-needed changes to their urban systems.

One of Covid-19’s major co-morbidities, and a leading cause of untimely death in its own right, is lung disease caused by air pollution. The heavily polluted air of Johannesburg and other South African cities is partly due to heavy industry, but also largely because of residents’ car dependence.

Now that the streets are empty, and the air clear enough for us to think, we can consider how, and under what conditions, to let the cars back. Milan, another heavily-polluted city and one of the urban epicentres of coronavirus, has set out to limit the return of cars after lockdown. The Strade Apert (Open Roads) plan involves expanded pavements, cycle lanes, lower speed limits, and other pro-pedestrian measures. Other forward-looking cities such as Berlin, Paris, Manchester and New York are rolling out similar initiatives.

Cycling and walking infrastructure are often treated as middle-class luxuries, but they’re nothing of the sort. Every public transport user walks for some portion of their journey, as do a great many people who can’t afford public transport; they are all almost entirely unserved by infrastructure and urban design. Cycling is less popular, but could offer a great many people the ability to get around cheaply, quickly and independently.

Of course, walking and cycling are only good for certain distances (although better infrastructure helps). That’s why we need to be looking ahead, to build a city more amenable to these sustainable, healthy and affordable ways of getting around.

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The goal must be density without overcrowding: small, high quality, well-serviced dwellings in centrally located areas, mostly within a few minutes of an economic node. That means taking advantage of underdeveloped state land; encouraging and incentivising private development; and generally intensifying use of one of our scarcest resources: urban space.

That will be a start, but more will be needed with regard to transport. There is no viable future for South African cities that doesn’t involve greater public transport use. But expanding public transport systems now will be a challenge as there is the risk of exacerbating the spread of infectious diseases.

The biggest intervention might be demand management, to spread ridership more smoothly throughout the day. South African commuting patterns are highly tidal, with concentrated traffic at peak times and very little movement off-peak. Staggering business start times, encouraging or enforcing flexible working and strongly discounting travel outside of peak hours can all help to move commuters to quieter times of day.

July 2002: Two domestic workers cross a bridge in Cape Town, backlit by the sun setting over the city as they return home. (Photograph by Reuters/ Mike Hutchings)
July 2002: Two domestic workers cross a bridge in Cape Town, backlit by the sun setting over the city as they return home. (Photograph by Reuters/ Mike Hutchings)

Meanwhile, greater service frequency is the most straightforward way to reduce crowding while improving service quality. Among transport experts, 10 minutes is regarded as the key threshold. When the bus reliably arrives every 10 minutes, then people stop trying to time their journey to make a specific bus and use the service more freely.

One of the major trade-offs of urban life is between public and private space. To take advantage of the benefits of density, we put up with having less space for our private lives. But South African cities do not offer enough public space in return: as life returns closer to normal, we need to offer urban residents adequate space to be outside of their dwellings.

Parks and other public spaces are not “nice-to-haves”, they are part of the minimum conditions of urban life. Wide pavements that allow large numbers of people to move without crowding are essential too. We cannot expect people to isolate at home indefinitely. They must have adequate space in the city too.

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What is common between these adaptations is that they are almost all public goods. Cities are microcosms of modern life, in that they offer enormous potential benefits, but depend on a strong infrastructure of public goods to make them possible.

The liberatory potential of cities is real, but the freedom they offer is not freedom from other people. If Covid-19 has taught us anything it’s the unavoidable interconnection and interdependence of our lives. It has also put attention where it should have been for years: on the reality that many South Africans live in unlivable conditions. The necessities of life under this lockdown –  a space to retreat to, clean water for hand washing, and nearby sources of essential goods – are in fact just everyday necessities of life.

The best time to start building the post-coronavirus city was many decades ago, but the second-best time is now.

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