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COVID-19 and planning for climate change

By Isabella Krabbe, research officer for climate change, RTPI

Planning and public health have been inextricably linked since the first Town Planning legislation in 1909,  born out of concerns for overcrowded slum housing and the impact on public health. As with previous pandemics, the world will not be the same after COVID-19 and it will have wide reaching, social, political and economic consequences. Since lockdown, new systems and ways of living have been adopted and created in response to the crisis as people practice social-distancing and retail and leisure services have closed up shop and moved online. This will have an impact on how we plan cities in the future, with the need for a renewed focus on economic recovery and planning for public health. But it is also an opportunity to ensure the transition to net zero carbon is prioritised and integrated into this agenda. Government intervention and urban planning will be key to ensuring a coordinated, strategic approach which balances these priorities appropriately.

In the short term, the imposed lockdowns across the globe have resulted in a drastic drop in carbon emissions due to travel and industry coming to a halt. Carbon Brief estimates that coronavirus is likely to result in the largest ever drop in annual CO2 emissions. However, this sharp fall in the face of economic crisis is not something which should be immediately celebrated as a victory for reaching carbon emissions targets. The analysis also finds that even this cut in emissions would not be enough to meet the internationally agreed levels.  In the midst of this, and rightly so, governments are also having to divert funds to tackle the pandemic, cancel platforms for collective action such as COP26 and postpone discussions on vital environmental law. Reaching zero emissions targets will require a long-term, well-planned and funded strategy, supported by the right policies and structural mechanisms.

One of the biggest shifts we have seen as a response to the pandemic is the almost overnight transition to home-working. As people move their lives online – to teleconferencing, online shopping, streaming videos and socialising through video calls - it is increasingly important to ensure a resilient energy supply to the home. Having a decentralised, low carbon energy system which is resilient to shocks is becoming increasingly important and the focus on energy retrofit programmes for existing homes and enforcing zero-carbon standards for new development should remain in the spotlight.

Renewed focus on active transport

The way we travel around cities has also transformed overnight and the shift to homeworking means that people have cut out their daily commute and are only making essential trips. While staying at home and not travelling at all is unsustainable and not the answer to reducing emissions targets, thinking more carefully about why we are travelling will become more important. The long-term impact on car use and public transport is yet unknown - people may rethink their journeys and make fewer trips or people may feel a lingering sense of unease about using public transport, associated with overcrowding and the spread of disease. Planners will need to be flexible in responding to this and be prepared to place a renewed focus on active transport and reducing over-crowding and encouraging re-use of public transport post-pandemic. In Bogota for example, bike lanes are already being extended to curb the spread of the virus by reducing overcrowding on public transport and improving air quality. New Zealand has become the first country to fund pop-up bike lanes and widened pavements during lockdown and it is hoped their success may lead them to become a more permanent feature.

Spatial inequality

Long-term strategies for improving air quality through investing in active travel, restricting polluting vehicles and promoting clean energy should continue to be a key priority for planners. The link between poor air quality causing chronic health conditions and increasing vulnerability to COVID-19 has been well-documented. The pandemic has shone a light through the cracks of spatial inequality that exists across cities with asthma, diabetes and lung disease for example being more prevalent among disadvantaged communities. Recent research in the US has also highlighted an alarming trend that African Americans are significantly more vulnerable to being infected and dying from COVID-19. Multiple studies have found that African Americans and other people of colour are more likely to live close to polluting industrial sites such as coal plants which emit fine particulate matter. In the same way, climate change will be a challenge that hits the most vulnerable the hardest. As our paper Five Reasons for Climate Justice in Spatial Planning outlines, it is crucial these vulnerabilities are recognised early, mitigated and planned for.

On a positive note, the pandemic is helping reshape city resilience in terms of investment in smart city technologies, which help to identify and plan for these vulnerabilities.  In the US, spatial data is being used to identify vulnerable populations, mapping for example where older or at-risk populations may be concentrated, areas with poor access to supermarkets or high concentrations of households without access to a car. Smart tools which have been developed to fight climate change are now also being used to fight the pandemic, such as the COVID-19 Mitigation Roadmap planning tool. Previously used for installing smart street lights and parking, it is now being used to help cities assemble teams and create a framework for planning and funding the fight against COVID-19. This investment in technology to help identify vulnerabilities and plan on a variety of spatial scales will be a crucial element of the mitigation and adaption of cities to climate change.

Post pandemic therefore, we should be planning not just for economic recovery, but for healthy, socially just cities with fewer emissions. This month is was announced that the municipality of Amsterdam will become the first city in the world to trial a new economic model for recovery, which moves away from the idea of growth towards balanced sustainable development. The new “doughnut model”, proposed by British Economist Kate Raworth, focuses on how to meet the core needs of all (Based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals) but within the means of the planet. The challenge, but also opportunity, will be doing this in the context of potentially altered systems of work, healthcare, shopping and travel. It will require excellent partnership working and information sharing not only among national governments but also among local councils and wider stakeholders such as business and service providers, something which is already being tested during this pandemic. Coronavirus is the ultimate test of our urban resilience and lessons on governance and the way we plan for the future need to be learnt.   In the wake of the pandemic, economic recovery will be a top priority and there is a danger that environmental regulations could be relaxed to encourage this. It is vital that we ensure the long-term pressing issue of climate change does not take a back seat and that planning for economic recovery complements rather than distracts from the climate change agenda.

The RTPI will be publishing a document in due course on what the pandemic means for places and planning.

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