Cities must prepare for a new post-pandemic normal

By Agustín Botteron, Head of the Resilience Office, Santa Fe, Argentina. (Global Resilient Cities Network) Civil Engineer (UTN-FRSF), MS in Civil and Environmental Engineering (Tufts University), with a specialty in water resources.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has called our society and way of life into crisis. Experts claim that social distancing is the best and only alternative to stop the virus from spreading since there is no vaccine available yet. Governments, the economy, and human relations have been shaken, and the population is waiting for all of this to end in order to go back to normal. However, there is no going back to how we used to live, and we should start preparing for a new post-pandemic normal.

The pandemic has brought a crisis to our everyday lives. The implementation of social distancing measures and control mechanisms to ensure their compliance has unchained a series of public policies, as well as personal and collective actions that have put certain oddities of our society, government, and economy into evidence, all of which should be rethought. This is necessary in order to prepare us for the next emergency that may arise, whether it is a global sanitary crisis or any minor scale event, and for when we go back to normal after this pandemic is over, which could take weeks or even months.

The pandemic has affected our cities in different ways, paralyzing some economic sectors, and cutting social ties. On one hand, hundreds of events have been postponed, like festivals, fairs, sporting events, and private parties. On the other hand, the economy is almost paralyzed, with some essential sectors working with reduced hours, others learning how to function online, other more robust business hanging on and living off of financial reserves, and the fourth group of the informal or partially formal economy, which is frozen or functions somewhat illegally and with no protection whatsoever, mainly in the outskirts of the cities, where they are less visible to authorities. The dilemma is clear, at a government and economic level, and even at a family level: health versus economy, the possibility — remote or not — to contract a disease versus the need to make ends meet.

Nobody knows exactly what will come, how life will be in one month, six months, or a year. Everyone is expecting “all of this to pass” in order to go back to normal. But we must accept that we won’t go back to living like we used to. More importantly, we should not allow ourselves to live like before because, if we did, it would mean that we haven’t learned anything from this pandemic which has paralyzed the entire world. The emergency will pass, and we will slowly get back to our daily activities and our obligations, following the experts’ recommendations. As a health professional recently said, “faucets will be opening”, referring to who will be allowed to go out and restart their activities, and when. But without a doubt, what is coming will be a “new normal”, of uncertain features, for which we must prepare to start today, during the emergency.

A new normal

How is this new normal? How will it present itself? How will we know that we are facing the new normal? For now, nobody has the answer to these questions. However, there are certain lessons learned throughout this emergency, which can help as guidelines for us to prepare for this new normal. They arise from different sources, such as statements from experts and TV journalists, mouth to mouth, or social media comments, and are pretty valid. To name a few:

i) Education is key, especially one that helps face risk situations. We must educate people to abide by the law and respect authorities, to be able to recognize fake news or question inaccurate information; ii) Health is underrated and is taken for granted and unlimited. Having access to health professionals, medical supplies, drugs, and hospitals is more important than other superfluous things that we often demand as a society; iii) The demand and supply relation and the value chain of first necessity goods are fragile. We cannot solely appeal to people’s kindness, because prices go up uncontrollably, and it is common that the first person to get to a store will take everything, not caring about who is behind; iv) The vulnerable population can be anywhere in a city, not just the outskirts or informal settings. Senior citizens are at-risk groups that are often alone at their homes and lack the digital tools and other resources to survive in isolation; v) Internet and mobile phone services are some of the most important assets in times of prolonged isolation. These services are some of the few that are not in the hands of the government, and which grow faster than the state’s regulation abilities. We all follow the #StayHome motto, but the digital infrastructure is not there with us; vi) People can work remotely at different times and under a goal-oriented working mode. Many employers, public or private, have noticed that they can somewhat change to less strict and more efficient work modes; vii) The planet can heal itself if we stop doing what we used to do before. The pandemic led to the reduction of energy consumption and consequent carbon emissions. It also limited or stopped the presence of people in tourist spots, giving way to nature’s renovations and restoration of biodiversity. It wasn’t impossible to stop, we just didn’t want to; viii) Last but not least, this is the lesson that impacted me the most: We must “appreciate the huge gesture of trust that a handshake entails”. And this encompasses two big things: on one hand, a purely sanitary matter and, on the other hand, the recovery of that physicality so innate to our Latin-American culture. These are just a few of the lessons we have learned, and which must guide the next phase of our lives in the cities if we still want them to be the people’s choice to live in and to develop in a sustainable, safe and healthy way.

The most affected cities have found this new normal as the emergency begins to fade. However, it is possible and convenient to anticipate, which is an approach encouraged by the Global Resilient Cities Network. The closest and pioneering example is that of Milan. The capital of Lombardy, the Italian region most affected by COVID19, is working on three fronts: managing the emergency, supporting those who are not sick but who are under isolation, and designing a Plan Zero for when the emergency ends.

The Plan Zero has three pillars that incorporate the lessons learned in the pandemic: green wayfinding, digital infrastructure, and environmental transition. Before the coronavirus outbreak, Milan was working on an ambitious tree-planting plan, with a goal of planting three million species by 2030. This plan will now incorporate specific guidelines regarding pedestrian mobility and social distancing. On the other hand, given that this pandemic has shown how important the Internet is in our lives, Milan has stated the possibility for the government to own and manage a larger part of the digital infrastructure, which will facilitate communications and data transmission. Lastly, the city is proposing accepting the environmental recovery caused by the cease in activities and start a profound change in mobility and production processes, to make them more environmental-friendly, as well as the development and implementation of renewable energies and energy efficiency measures.

Each city must develop its own plan for the new normal. There are no templates or forms for it, but some guidelines can be taken into account. The plan must begin now, it must be strategic and must be in charge of a team different from the one managing the emergency. It must start implementation now because people and economic sectors affected by the quarantine measures are suffering now and decisions have to be made. Secondly, the strategic nature of the plan involves the participation of citizens, government officials, opinion leaders, the region and the country to reshape the existing government programs, to include everything learned in the pandemic. Finally, the work in rethinking this plan must not weaken the current and demanding attention to the emergency. Therefore, a new taskforce must be defined, with members who aren’t under the stress of the everyday response, who can outline a recovery and growth post-pandemic plan as soon as possible.

The pandemic has paralyzed us, and it is normal to feel disoriented and uncomfortable. But this should be temporary. We must stop thinking that everything will go back to normal and embrace the idea that there will be a new normal. As individuals and as a society, we are faced with the opportunity to create something new, something different. This global tragedy gives us unique lessons that humanity rarely gets to experience. We have the chance to learn, to recover, and to grow stronger, as the best example of resilience. A journalist said a few days ago that we are a marked generation, that we will be remembered as the generation that lived and suffered the coronavirus pandemic. I believe that we have the opportunity to be remembered as something else. For example, we could be remembered as the generation that changed consumption habits, that reconciled with the environment, that reshaped the way of working, that eradicated massive commutes of people and vehicles towards city centers, that left fossil energies behind and moved towards sustainable mobility means. A generation that learned and became resilient.

Cities must prepare for a new post-pandemic normal