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Place, planning and how to recover from COVID-19

By Robin Hambleton

The RTPI aims to promote a wide variety of views in its blog section. The views expressed by authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the RTPI.


The government’s mishandling of the latest round of lockdown measures is driving a growing number of local leaders to distraction. This is not surprising - they have been saying for months that the government’s over centralised approach to decision making is failing the country.

Largely overlooked in Westminster-centric policy debates, some cities and communities across the world have been responding with great imagination and foresight to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

More than that, planners are playing a critical role in shaping post COVID-19 recovery. This is because they understand not just the importance of place in people’s lives, but also the power of place.

It is useful to examine international examples of effective civic leadership as this can enhance our understanding of how to bring about progressive change. In my new book, Cities and communities beyond COVID-19, I provide examples of inspirational community leadership and, just as important, new thinking tools that can help planners and other civic leaders co-create imaginative solutions.

Civic leaders need to address three major challenges at once: post COVID-19 recovery, the climate change emergency and the disastrous growth in social and economic inequality in many countries. The good news is that many cities and localities are already doing just this.

Inspirational civic leadership in action

Take Copenhagen, a city already recognised as the healthiest capital in Europe. Lord Mayor Frank Jensen and his colleagues are now aiming for the city to be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital in 2025 – yes, that’s in five years.

Interestingly, the city is promoting cycling as an effective way of responding to the COVID-19 emergency. Political leaders know that, while the city already has more bicycles than cars, much more can be done. Their strategy recognises that cyclists incur a lower risk of infection and that promoting cycling is a good strategy for reducing obesity levels in the population.

Freiburg, Germany’s southernmost city, has established itself as a world leader in relation to good city planning and urban design. As in Copenhagen, citizen participation in decision-making is highly developed and this promotes an approach to civic leadership that is both collaborative and community-based. 

The Freiburg hält zusammen (Freiburg holds together) digital network, launched in April, bundles together numerous citizen-oriented information services and activities designed to help local people recover from the COVID-19 calamity.

Over the last four years Bristol, in the UK, has developed a truly innovative ‘One City Approach’ to urban problem solving. Instigated by Mayor Marvin Rees in 2016, this inclusive way of governing, orchestrated by a small city office, has built trust, strengthened the civic capacity of the city and led to the co-creation of a ‘One City Plan’ setting out a 30 year strategy for the city. This approach has brought into being what Mayor Rees describes as ‘a readiness to move’. 

This readiness has enabled civic leaders from the public sector, business community, trade unions, third sector, universities and others to interact effectively right through the lockdown, and new strategies have been co-created – for example, the innovative Bristol One City Economic Recovery Plan, due to go live later this month.

My recent research on post COVID-19 urban strategies suggests that Copenhagen, Freiburg and Bristol are not alone in providing inspiring examples of how imaginative civic leadership can change our future for the better. 

What lessons emerge from this analysis? 

First, while place clearly matters a great deal in public policy, it is seriously neglected by ministers in Westminster. The current super-centralisation of decision-making in Downing Street, as many Members of Parliament and most local authority leaders already recognise, needs to be reversed.

The international evidence shows that empathetic local leadership, not top-down edicts, can provide numerous routes forward for post COVID-19 recovery. The remarkable upsurge in compassion and caring that we have witnessed in recent months in communities across the country provides the lodestar for societal recovery. 

These inspirational efforts are place-based, they stem from local understanding and are rooted in rich social networks that, in many cases, are hyper-local.

Second, values matter. The window of political possibilities needs to move towards caring for people and the planet and away from unregulated markets and individualism. It is clear that the core value of caring – for each other, for ourselves, and for the environment on which we all depend – should now take centre stage.

Third, planning matters. This is a key finding from the disaster studies literature. Cities and localities that look ahead, develop a far-sighted vision for their area, and have firm strategic plans in place are far better placed to respond to a crisis. Having a vision, preferably a well-known vision that enjoys public support, enables leaders to move swiftly from being reactive to being proactive, even as disaster strikes.


Professor Robin Hambleton BA MA PhD MRTPI FRSA FAcSS

Robin Hambleton is Emeritus Professor of City Leadership at the University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol and Director of Urban Answers. He has been an advisor to UK local government ministers, to Select Committees of the UK House of Parliament, and has worked on place-based leadership with cities in many different countries.  He was the founding President of the European Research Association (EURA) and was the Dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago (2002-07).

For more information on his book, Cities and communities beyond COVID-19, visit:


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