30 September 2020

This article is one of two published by the UN Chronicle providing commentary by a distinguished scholar on the Secretary-General's Policy Brief: "COVID-19 in an Urban World". Click here to read the other article.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to large cities. The high levels of global and local interconnectivity of cities leave them particularly exposed to deadly epidemics, as they have been throughout history. The recent Policy Brief: COVID-19 in an Urban World, issued by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, emphasizes that vulnerable sectors of urban societies are especially harmed both by the incidence of the virus and the economic impact of related shutdown measures.

Large European capital cities are not protected from these negative effects. Madrid leads Spanish regions in the ranking of per capita income. Nevertheless, it also registers very high levels of inequality and large economic gaps between its districts, with average income per household ranging from a minimum of 20,000 euros to 89,000 euros in 2017.

As elsewhere, job losses caused by pandemic-related shutdown measures tend to affect informal and low-paying jobs the most. This exacerbates existing inequalities. For example, the unemployment rate in Madrid currently hovers around 14 to 16 per cent in the more disadvantaged districts, while it falls to 4 to 5 per cent in more prosperous zones, according to the most recent municipal statistics.

These figures reflect structural problems that are difficult to tackle in the short term. In Madrid, residents of relatively poor areas are mainly employed in sectors that offer limited opportunities for distanced work. Their mobility depends mainly on public transportation, which tends to become overcrowded during rush hours. These residents experience long commutes from peripheral locations to their places of work, often with multiple transfers, thus increasing their risk of contracting the virus. They live in smaller and relatively overcrowded dwellings, which makes self-isolation more difficult and contagion more likely. They are also greatly affected by the digital divide, which limits their access to remote services that facilitate working from home.

Juan Romo, Rector of the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M). Photo provided by the Director's Office, UC3M.

The effects are already visible. As Spain heads inexorably towards a second wave of the pandemic, with the virus spreading among younger age groups, epidemiological data show that Madrid’s poorest districts are disproportionately affected.

What can be done? As stressed by the Secretary-General, we should not miss the opportunity that COVID-19 has afforded us to rethink how we live and interact in our cities. To build back better urban environments we need to move towards new models of urban mobility that reduce the risk of contagion and make cities more resilient, sustainable and inclusive at the same time.

Public policies should promote working from home whenever possible to reduce unnecessary travel to workplaces. When travelling for work is unavoidable, the use of electric cars, car sharing and alternative transportation options, such as conventional biking and e-biking, should be encouraged.

In large metropolitan areas, public and private transportation systems need to be better integrated at the regional and local levels, and, more importantly, redesigned to fit new models of urban planning. In fact, the post-COVID-19 period will provide great opportunities for cities to improve their neighborhoods through the expansion of green infrastructures and pedestrian zones. Public and private actors should also coordinate their efforts to bring essential services, including supplies, purchase and delivery, closer to their customers. Although the “15-minute city”—one in which all residents are able to meet their needs within a short walk or bicycle ride from their homes—may seem a distant ideal for large metropolitan areas, careful urban planning can gradually transform this goal into a reality.

Universities will play a key role in planning the future of post-COVID-19 urban environments, in line with the principle of the “right to the city” envisioned in the United Nations New Urban Agenda for safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient and sustainable cities. As the United Nations Academic Impact hub for Sustainable Development Goal 11, we at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid regard research and education on urban and mobility planning as one of our priorities. For this reason, we promote an interdisciplinary approach that combines technical, legal, economic and social perspectives.

A memorial to the victims of the coronavirus crisis in Cibeles, Madrid.  Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Thomas Holbach

Sustainable mobility is also an essential part of our management. With four campuses spread over an extended territory, our University conducts regular surveys of mobility patterns of its students and employees, subsidizes the use of public transportation and offers parking stations for bikes and e-bikes, e-motorbikes, and car-sharing, as well as charging stations for electric vehicles.

As part of the University’s engagement with society, our researchers cooperate with municipal governments in the design and implementation of Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans. The University also promotes Science Shops as a new key instrument to engage social actors, citizen groups, non-governmental organizations and private firms in the identification of problems related to urban mobility and environmental sustainability.

Breaking down barriers between universities and society and promoting an active engagement with cities also inspire our participation in Young Universities for the Future of Europe (YUFE). This is an alliance of universities in 11 countries, based in 15 cities and urban ecosystems, whose principles include the development of university-citizen communities and the promotion of multidisciplinary, intersectoral approaches to addressing societal challenges.

YUFE partners are committed to building strong quadruple-helix models of open innovation, together with their local governments, enterprises and civil society, and want to bring the challenge one step further for the mutual benefit of all European citizens.

The more universities succeed in their ambitions, the more our societies will be able to produce innovative and sustainable solutions to the challenging problems of our cities in the post-COVID-19 world.

The UN Chronicle  is not an official record. It is privileged to host senior United Nations officials as well as distinguished contributors from outside the United Nations system whose views are not necessarily those of the United Nations. Similarly, the boundaries and names shown, and the designations used, in maps or articles do not necessarily imply endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations.