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Cities / Healthy Cities


Cities matter more than ever as we battle the coronavirus pandemic

16 Apr 2020 | 0

Cities need to reject the notion that they are the pandemic problem. Instead, says Stephen Engblom, they need to assert their collective brainpower, humanity and economies as the solution to emerging from this current crisis – smarter, kinder and more prosperous than ever.

When COVID-19 first made headlines, cities as centres of density and global gateways became the antagonist; yet, while social distancing and closing of borders are the near-term mitigation measure, shutting down global networks and deserting dynamic city centres cannot be the long-term solution.

New York City has become the US epicentre of the virus outbreak, which certainly suggests urban density is a factor. However, timing and co-ordination of the response have also contributed, as evidenced by the fact that San Francisco, the second densest city in the US, and Hong Kong, the densest city in the world, have co-ordinated a much more successful flattening of the curve thus far.1 Recent reports on the spread of the virus in rural counties further demonstrates it is not only urban cores of our cities that are vulnerable to the virus.2

As an architect who practises urban design around the world, I lived in Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic. I witnessed the short-term response and recovery and have long admired that city’s ability to deliver infrastructure at a pace and scale like nowhere else. Now living in San Francisco, I’m working with US cities to respond to COVID-19, and I’m watching how various models of collaboration between jurisdictions and levels of government affect epidemiological response and prepare for economic recovery.  

This existential health threat presented by COVID-19 is challenging us as never before, both in loss of life and economic devastation. Urban and societal challenges long simmering beneath the surface are now magnified by the pandemic: decaying infrastructure; lack of response to climate change; and growing inequities. 

New York, New Jersey and Connecticut governors are co-ordinating their tri-state COVID-19 response with the federal emergency response. The Regional Plan Association3 in New York has long advocated for long-term investment in infrastructure and economic development. Yet, over the past several decades, national inaction and fragmented local interests have paralysed action on key projects, such as the Gateway Tunnel across the Hudson or the completion of Lower Manhattan Coastal Protection. Perhaps the tri-state COVID-19 response can serve as a model moving forward to advance long-term strategic infrastructure needs of the region. 

San Francisco, along with five other Bay Area counties, issued the US’s first shelter-in-place orders on 16 March, 2020, paving the way for a statewide policy and setting the stage for California to collaborate emergency response in co-ordination with federal efforts. Pre-pandemic work by the California Office of Planning and Research restructured its budget to realise economic, environmental, and social resilience.4 This work should be given greater weight as the framework for long-term recovery. 

How we prioritise, fund and implement these programmes will require a debate on new ways to collaborate; reallocating tax revenue to enrich and empower cities and regions to determine, fund and implement strategic programmes. This would require taking a long-term look at the ineffective boomerang of sending money to Washington and the paralysing effect of local NIMBY (not in my back yard) interests. 

The idea of a mega-region is well-documented. Regions like Boston/New York/District of Columbia (DC); Southern California (SoCal) and Northern California (NorCal); the Texas Triangle; London/Leeds/Manchester; and Hong Kong/Shenzhen5 are on the front lines of the pandemic response, in partnership with world health organisations. They will be the entities that re-ignite the economy, address climate change, and close the inequity gaps. However, they also need to act locally to deliver regional economic opportunities for everyone, not just urban elites.                                                              

Leaders are positioning their cities for stimulus funding to address short-term economic challenges and to fast-track infrastructure and social programmes. To accelerate and deepen the impact of these stimulus packages, it’s incumbent on us to champion ways in which cities/mega-regions are best positioned to guide both short-term pandemic survival and long-term recovery.

Opportunities and solutions for global cities to lead

Several ways that major international cities can lead resilience and recovery are highlighted below:

  • Co-ordinate urban and rural development: In China, the central government now requires all cities to develop long-range plans for their urban cores and their rural hinterlands, as part of its overall 10-year plans.6
  • Empower regional authority:
    The Greater London Authority (GLA) was established in 2000 to allow London to overcome fragmented governance and compete globally. The GLA has powers over transport, policing, economic development, and fire and emergency planning. Notably, its platform also has a strong COVID-19 guidance mandate.
    In Australia, New South Wales established the Greater Sydney Commission to lead and guide the planning for development, transport and housing, so Greater Sydney will be a productive, liveable and sustainable city for all, as it grows by an additional 1.2 million people over the next 20 years.7
  • Lead through NGOs: In the US, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have proven an effective strategy platform for thinking beyond jurisdictions. The Regional Plan Association (RPA) in New York,3 the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) in Chicago,8 and San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) in San Franciscohave become valuable advisors to local and state governments, as well as conveners of dialogues among private and philanthropic interests.
  • Re-connect the city with the surrounding areas and effectively re-establish a working hour-city:10 Successful cities can provide economic opportunity for all their citizens within an hour of their home.  
  • Move away from over-dependence on the global supply chain: Early traces of COVID-19 originated from animal-to-person contact in a large seafood and live animal market11 in China, before spreading along global supply routes. This not only helps us understand the short-term crisis but also shines light on the fact that much of the world’s inequity and carbon footprint are a result of overdependence on the global supply chain. 

Without doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic will change how we live in cities; however, to re-imagine an urban renaissance where our public health and local economies are more resilient to future pandemics, and where we have addressed climate and social challenges with a new generation of infrastructure, cities must move to the centre of real economic, social and political power. 

Further information

Stephen Engblom AIA is an architect, urban designer and executive vice-president at AECOM. He recently spoke to New London Architecture's Peter Murray about COVID-19 and the future of cities, Watch a video of their conversation here.


  1. Cheung, E and Ting, V. ‘Coronavirus: Hong Kong has flattened the curve but can it stay the course – or will imported cases and complacency derail efforts?’ South China Morning Post, 24 March, 2020.
  2. Healy, J, Tavernise, S, Gebeloff, R, Cai, W. ‘Coronavirus was slow to spread to rural America. Not anymore.’ New York Times, 8 April, 2020.
  3. Regional Plan Association, New York –
  4. Governor’s Budget Summary – 2021/21. California Government.
  5. Florida, R. The real powerhouses that drive the world’s economy. CityLab, 28 February, 2019.
  6. Chen, C, LeGates, R, Fang Chenhao. From co-ordinated to integrated urban and rural development in China’s megacity regions. Journal of Urban Affairs, vol.41, 2019; pp150-169.
  7. Greater Sydney Commission –
  8. Metropolitan Planning Council, Chicago –
  9. San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) –
  10. Engblom, S. Hour city: how to fix the world’s urban challenges in one hour. AECOM.
  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 situation summary.

Organisations involved