APR 29, 2020

[REFSA DISCUSS #3] COVID-19: Reflections on our urban model


COVID-19 presents us with an opportunity to rethink our living environment and urban model.

Panel of experts discuss measures to create an inclusive and resilient social city at REFSA’s Webinar.

The COVID-19 crisis is not only a health crisis, but also one that is forcing us to rethink our living environment and urban model. It shows that where we live, and how our cities are designed, matters a lot in our ability to respond to the pandemic. Meanwhile, the need for sustained social distancing also makes us rethink our use of space and question some of the benefits of densely-populated urban areas.

In our recent REFSA Discuss Webinar, luminaries in the field including Her Excellency Maimunah Mohd Sharif, the Under Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN-HABITAT who dialled in from Nairobi, Kenya, renowned architect Ar. Dr. Tan Loke Mun and the Managing Director of Think City, Mr. Hamdan Majeed, weighed in on this pertinent subject.  

Ar. Dr. Tan Loke Mun, Director of Archicentre Sdn. Bhd. and Former President of the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM), kickstarted the webinar by sharing lessons and case studies on the COVID-19 crisis. “We must get it into our head that our lives have changed”, he said. Given that we do not know how the scenario will pan out, we must assume the worst, where there might be a second or even third wave of infection. He suggested that we should look into China’s response in handling the crisis and how China, the first country to be locked down and first to come out of it, realisticized the “new normal”. As the pandemic drags on, Dr. Tan expressed the need to re-examine concepts of separation – in that certain building’s functions and types should not be linked together, as well as that on the utilisation of space as commercial workplaces will reduce and evolve to accommodate work-from-home arrangements. There could be a revival of the village community and the opportunity for a new code of social ethics. Meanwhile, the new future living environment will likely be well connected by information technology, with an increasing usage of virtual rooms and gathering spaces. The desire for a safe space for rest and recreation may prevail, together with a more secure and able to self isolate and lock down defensively space. 

Mr Hamdan Abdul Majeed, the Managing Director of Think City underlined the fact that before the pandemic, cities were thought of as the pathway for prosperity and there was intense human interaction. However, this changed in light of the crisis, and there is a need to embrace a new reality which allows cities to function whilst keeping the disease at bay. 

On the global level, countries are now opting for a more decentralised government than a mega scale government post COVID-19 – viewing it as more efficient. Mr Hamdan highlighted how discussions have also begun in New Zealand and Australia’s Tasmania to move towards a ‘virtual unionism’ concept. Another shift is the focus on size towards a ‘small yet beautiful’ concept. Local economic development could empower small businesses to achieve self sufficiency. 

Mr Hamdan also stressed that there is a need to balance urban growth to avoid diminished marginal returns. Governments used to push for mega cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia instead of tapping into other cities in a more effective manner. The pandemic has therefore prompted ideas of shifting development from large cities to second and third tier cities, which would be better than urban sprawling. Moving forward, he suggested that creating more digital connectivity effectively is key.

Nevertheless, he finished on a high note: “COVID-19 is a silver lining which allows countries to hit the pause and reset button to rethink their economies and developments”. The  World Economic Forum has also proposed to move beyond the shareholder economy to achieve more sustainable developments and perhaps, this is the best time for the United Nations (UN) to achieve their Sustainable Development Goals.

Her Excellency Maimunah Mohd Sharif, the Under Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN-HABITAT deemed COVID-19 as a pandemic that was both forcing us to respond quickly and revisit our approaches as “it is possible that existing institutional models and entire economic systems would need to be reconfigured – business as usual will not be an option anymore… [and] the way central and local governments coordinate actions will need to be drastically changed”. For this, Her Excellency presented four suggested recovery priority areas identified by UN-HABITAT as essential for the functioning of cities alongside the need for an integrated, holistic and sustainable development plan post COVID-19. 

The first, is a rethinking of the state and re-organising local governance mechanisms. Her Excellency highlighted the instance of basic public goods like water and sanitation found to be ill suited and ill-equipped as a result of reduced funding and attention to education and health – both structural problems to respond to crises of this magnitude. This, Her Excellency said, presents an opportunity to revisit social and democratic structures, rethink the state and its institutions, redesign social contracts and advance inclusive systems of governance. In this is an essential need for a whole-of-government and whole-of-cities approach with cities empowered to assume stronger leadership in coordination roles in the provision of public goods with strong participation of all actors including small business, private industries and investors. 

Secondly, increased poverty and exacerbation of inequalities in cities due to a rise in unemployment will have heavy social and economic tolls on families, further polarising society. Her Excellency shared that over 150,000 cities in 210 countries were now affected by COVID-19, with 95% of people affected living in informal settlements, and 2.4 billion people lacking adequate access to safe water and sanitation. The pandemic will increase the urban divide and national governments must set clear social development targets and support local authorities in its implementation. 

Thirdly, there is a need to rethink urban morphology and promote the advantages of ‘good density’ and of  ‘good functional mix’. Her Excellency elaborated that the crisis demonstrates that the “level of physical building density is not an indication of protection, but rather (it is) the adherence to layers of adequate standards in terms of decent quality housing and non-crowding occupancy rates in each housing unit”. Her Excellency reiterated the need for considering the human behaviour factor in the space that brings about the health issues at hand. 

Fourthly, there is also a need to reduce the risk of failure of the current urban economic and business model as national governments will be forced to redirect public investment, redefine priorities and eventually reduce the transfer of resources to cities. As cities face fiscal shocks associated with the pandemic, adjustments in budgetary expenditure will be required. 

Her Excellency also commented that while there is an uptick in services setting up operations on the digital platform, approximately 50% of the urban population does not have access to the internet. For this, infrastructure development (like the provision of internet access) must focus on what is needed, rather than being vendor driven as there is a need for “an integrated, balanced development; leaving no one, and no place left behind”

Reported by REFSA Interns Miao Ling Ng and Benedict Sun. 

Watch the full video “COVID-19: Reflections On Our Urban Model” webinar from REFSA’s website here.

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