Setting the scene
2020 was a year of radical reckoning and it was a time when we all had to think afresh. Crises like the pandemic provoke a dramatic reordering of priorities, as well as deep reflection and rethinking.
The pandemic wake-up call triggered a dawning of humility as our collective hybris has been humbled. Too many of us have thoughtlessly accepted the ever growing speed of globalization without thinking about the consequences of our development processes.
In order to think through how this crisis might effect cities from the largest megacity scale to our smaller settlements and how this dynamic might unfold we need to look at the underlying causes. Where did this pandemic come from and how might it effect cities more permanently and what current changes are likely to be transitory.
At lightning speed the pandemic spread around the globe. It highlighted sharply the direct connection between the destruction of nature and disease outbreaks whose impacts are greatest in our dense cities. It reminded us of the need to rethink our relationship to nature and to protect and restore nature to prevent future pandemics as well as the relationship between cities and rural areas. Put simply – ‘the global wildlife trade leads human activities to expand deeper into tropical forests with humans increasingly exposed to wild animals and their diseases. Mining and logging mostly destroy wildlife habitats and animals forced into different or smaller areas can become stressed or ill and more likely to come into contact with people and domestic animals. This drives the transmission of disease from wildlife to humans. Animal-borne illness against which humans have no resistance will become more frequent due to the accelerating destruction of nature’. It asks us to reassess whether we understand what sustainability and resilience is and whether our existing growth models create the necessary conditions to lead a stable urban life.
Consequently, old certainties have crumbled. It makes us ask old questions with a renewed urgency and whilst some think the old normal is an exotic destination that goal is impossible if we want to live an urban life that sustains us. All the major international organizations recognize and agree that we are in the midst of a systemic crisis and that a business-as-usual approach will not work given that our economic order is materially expansive, socially divisive and environmentally hostile.
Our dramatic crisis has created both clarity and confusion. In the eye of the storm it is difficult to see ‘where next’ and how to get there. It reminds us that our civilisation is a thin film of order we build around the chaos of events and this can obscure perspective as there is no blueprint as how to move forward, although we know the trajectory of the necessary journey. It focused us on what really matters – the common good and public interest and our health and that of our cities.
It has reminded us what we have lost, yet also let us glimpse a gateway to possible futures. Crises, such as the pandemic, can engender a sense of fear given the feeling of being swept along by events where we are out of control and unable to act, but also of liberation. It thus takes a while for new ethical or moral stances or policy positions to take root and coherent overall patterns will take time to settle and with it to establish a new world view and a vision of our cities with relevant actions to match.
The challenge is vast as the crisis multiple dimensions. It is a health one and also an economic, social and crucially a psychological crisis. It is still to unfold in its fullness, yet the psychological one will be seared into our deeper consciousness as anyone who has witnessed 2020 will always remember it.
Everything is inextricably interwoven, everything impacts upon each other and so if we want to address the consequences of the pandemic we must look at things holistically and in an integrated way and silo thinking does not work. We knew that before but it has become more urgent.
Crisis & change
What drives transformation and systemic change as well as urgency? Typically, crisis is the most powerful catalyst. Disruptive technologies, such as digitization are another. At times a global mood takes hold and spreads like a meme when suddenly with gathering force it’s time has come, such as the acceptance of the ‘15-minute city’ idea. Transformations stem too from new concepts that act as a gathering cry and then guide thinking, strategies and actions. Think here of sustainability and ecological thinking, feminism and its gender equality agenda, acknowledging diversity as an asset rather than as a threat, changing the idea of urban planning to placemaking, the notion of resilience or processes, such as co-creation or thinking culturally. The latter is a mode of thinking that focuses on what is distinctive, special and unique about a place and it uses that knowledge to guide development processes. Reframing issues has potential as when knife crime is defined less as a crime and more as a disease or a mental health problem. Evidence shows we can reduce the problem to dramatic effect. Rarely is it an inspirational leader alone that shifts a system.
Mission-oriented framing is a forceful way to create a common narrative and a goal. It establishes a target and when a ‘mission’ is agreed it guides how decision makers think, plan and act. Within those missions the most effective approach is to be strategically principled and tactically flexible – we know where we are going, but are agile in implementing these as circumstances change.
The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide the globally acknowledged template, priorities and focus as to how the world and cities within them should shift and evolve. That is anchored too in UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda. For instance, taking the climate emergency UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated that ‘cities are where the climate battle will largely be won or lost’.  Whilst cities only occupy 2% of global land, they have an enormous climate footprint, they consume nearly 70% of the world’s energy and account for more than 70% of global CO2 emissions and equally 70% of waste. 
Yet cities are also the drivers and hubs of innovation and the laboratories for solving the problems of their own making. Cities are accelerators of opportunity given their density of connections, their proximities, their capacity for exchanging ideas, their internal markets and ability to scale up creative projects. Here the green transition offers untold opportunities for invention and innovation as does the potential of ensuring gender equality.
Now is the moment to unleash our creativity and we need to take a glass half full approach and try to look at the positives – the silver lining that highlights the opportunities in the challenges. Think here of self-cleaning door handles; new designs for transport; safe elevators; safe travel; new kinds of cinemas/theatres to ensure collective experiences; or of the new ways of coming together that will be discovered by reinventing social interaction at a distance; or reframing urban planning and design so that creating the 15 minute city is possible. This is a place where most necessities of daily life are accessible and where the ecological perspective is placed centre stage.
In many places the impossible also became the possible. Here bureaucracies have played a vital role. Mostly seen as slow and cumbersome public servants suddenly found ways to react and adapt at speed. Often this was driven by unsung heroes who removed obstacles to change and who found new solutions. It is not only leaders that make things happen. Some innovations will be permanent others be transitory – time will tell.