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Post-COVID-19 Cities: New Urban Models to Make Cities Healthier

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Photo: Martí Petit / Barcelona City Council - Via Laietana, Barcelona. Safe route during COVID-19 confinement.

World Cities Day 2020


The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call. Our world will never be the same again and neither will be our cities. But the crisis may be an opportunity to build better and more sustainable societies and cities. The pandemic, and the restrictions it has imposed, give us time to reflect and think about long-term solutions while dealing with a major short-term problem. What kind of changes should we make to secure beneficial health impacts in the long term?

Cities are centres of innovation and wealth creation, but also hotspots for air and noise pollution, heat island effects and a lack of green space—all factors detrimental to human health. They are now also hotspots of COVID-19. Cities are complex systems that attract people because of the jobs, social ecosystem, events and unlimited opportunities they offer. At the same time they are characterised by close personal contact and marked inequalities, both aspects that have become more apparent because of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call. Our world will never be the same again and neither will our cities. But the crisis may be an opportunity to build better and more sustainable societies and cities.

In cities, the noticeable visible impacts of the pandemic include the absence of tourists, shop closures, and underused public transport. Preventive measures like mask use and social distancing have made us rethink how we use public space, which mode of transport to use and where we work (more teleworking).

One of the great problems in our cities is suboptimal urban and transport planning, with streets in many cities dominated by cars. Barcelona, for example, has some of the highest traffic density and worst air pollution and noise levels in Europe, a combination responsible for an estimated 3,000 premature deaths per year. While 60% of the public space in Barcelona is used to accommodate cars, only one out of every four trips is by car, and so this space could be allocated for use in a healthier way.

During the COVD-19 pandemic, cities have started to push cars aside and increase the space allocated to active transportation and bike lanes. Cycling rates have risen. In one study, around 90% of car drivers said that they did not miss their daily commute at all during lockdowns, or only certain aspects of it, while around 90% of cyclists reported missing commuting, or some aspects of it, a lot. At the same time, air pollution and noise levels declined considerably.

So, is it time to rethink our urban models? In the twentieth century cities appeared to be designed for cars, but in the twenty-first century should our aim be to create cities for people? Should we work to create cities that are smart, sustainable, liveable, equitable and healthy, cities that use nature-based solutions, have a circular economy and favour active mobility and green space?

New Urban Models

In a number of cities, novel planning concepts are being introduced that go some way to address the urban planning issues: the compact city, superblocks, the 15- minute city, the car-free city, or a combination of these. What are some of the likely impacts of these initiatives?

The Compact City

Compact cities are characterised by higher residential density, shorter travel distances and greater diversity. They have lower CO2 emissions than sprawling cities and are healthier because of more diverse land use, shorter trips and healthier mobility opportunities. Making cities 30% more compact could prevent the loss of around 400 to 800 disability-adjusted life years per 100,000 people annually depending on the type of city.

Source: Stevenson et al 2016.


Barcelona is planning to create over 500 superblocks to reduce motorised traffic within some streets of a superblock to provide more space for people, active travel and green space. These superblocks will reduce air pollution, noise levels and heat island effects and will increase green space and physical activity. It is estimated that they could prevent nearly 700 premature deaths every year in the city. Similar principles are applied in low traffic neighbourhoods.

Superblocks, Barcelona

The 15-Minute City

Paris is introducing the model of the 15-minute city, a place where work, school, entertainment and other activities can all be reached within a 15-minute walk of the home. The 15-minute city will require a fairly radical rethink of our cities and is likely to reduce inequalities because the model involves mixing different population groups rather than maintaining the model of residential zoning by socioeconomic status currently used. It will also reduce the need for long distance travel and thereby reducing CO2 emissions, air pollution and noise levels.

Source: Paris en Commun's “15-minute city” concept sketch. Clockwise from the top the headings read: Education, Work, Knowledge Exchange, Shopping, Recreation, Community Engagement, Health, Public Transport, Exercise, and Nutrition. (Image credit: Ubique)

The Car-Free City

Hamburg plans to be car free by 2034, partly to address the climate crisis. Car-free cities reduce unnecessary private motorized traffic and provide easy access to active and public transportation. They reduce air pollution and noise levels, increase physical activity and create space for green areas. One successful example is Vauban in Freiburg, Germany, a neighbourhood without cars and with sustainable housing.

Vauban, Freiburg, Germany

Common Principles

What all these new urban models have in common is that they invert the transport planning pyramid so that rather than prioritising cars, planners prioritise public transportation, walking and cycling.

Expanding cycle networks and by extension increasing cycling rates is one way to reduce motorised traffic and CO2 emissions and increase active mobility. The resulting increase in physical activity also improves people’s health. Active mobility affords people the opportunity to build physical activity into their daily lives during the daily commute, as they have often do not have enough time to go to the gym. Great progress has been made in creating and expanding bicycle lanes, but these will only work if they are safe and form part of a network.

Cycling city, Utrecht. 

The other aspect all these concepts share to some extent is access to green space, which is important for many reasons, including mental health, cognitive functioning and life expectancy. There is not only a need to create new green spaces, such as parks, but also to introduce more vegetation in our streets. We need to dig up asphalt and plant more trees, which will reduce heat island effects and contribute to CO2 sequestration and better health.

Recent Developments

During the pandemic, many people have started to work at home (teleworking) and this has reduced the need for commuting and consequently air pollution and CO2 emissions. The question is whether this trend will persist, but we should encourage and incentivise teleworking even if only for at least a few days a week. Unfortunately, e-commerce (online buying) has been growing dramatically and this may lead to the closure of local shops, creating dead shopping streets in the long term and increased traffic and pollution in the short term as a result of all the (home) deliveries. Pedestrianising streets and reducing traffic are good ways to increase retail sales. We need to support the local economy and discourage e-commerce.

Systemic and Holistic Approaches, Policies and Investments

Cities are complex systems and to address their challenges we need systemic and holistic approaches that take into account many different factors and feedback loops and simultaneously address sustainability (the climate crisis), liveability, health and equity. Too often we find sectoral silos in cities, which are an obstacle to the implementation of approaches that address multiple challenges. We need approaches that involve multiple stakeholders and disciplines.

One of the great problems in many cities is outdated legislation and zoning laws that prevent land use diversity, an essential precondition to achieving active mobility and better health. New legislation, including the regulation of new urban developments, should include planning indicators designed to improve health, which to date have often been omitted. Health impact assessments should be used to evaluate projects and identify the healthiest planning scenarios.

The European Green Deal offers a comprehensive road map aimed at making the European Union more resource-efficient and sustainable and represents a great opportunity for making our cities carbon neutral, more liveable and healthier through better urban and transport planning

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently published a manifesto for a healthy recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, which included building healthy and liveable cities. These ideas need support and investment. The European Green Deal may be an opportunity. This strategy offers a comprehensive road map aimed at making the European Union more resource-efficient and sustainable and represents a great opportunity for making our cities carbon neutral, more liveable and healthier through better urban and transport planning. Let us take this opportunity and make our cities better.