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Healthy Planet. Healthy People.

Cities / Public health

Sustainable development experts debate urban density correlation to COVID

By Andrew Sansom 15 Jul 2020 0

UN-Habitat and World Health Organization (WHO) recently held a side event as part of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) to look at the relationship between the shape and density of towns and cities and disease transmission and prevention, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taking place on 7-16 July, HLPF is the United Nations’ main platform for follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). More than 350 people including policy makers, practitioners and research institutions, attended the virtual event entitled ‘Urban form and COVID-19: Thinking through issues of density, overcrowding, public space and health’.

In her keynote address, UN-Habitat executive director Maimunah Mohd Sharif said COVID-19 had brought into focus the relationship between health outcomes and management of the pandemic and the development of cities.

“The issue of overcrowding linked to urban inequality and lack of access to services is emerging as very important,” she said. “We’re finding that density with diversity of uses and with adequate housing conditions is not only not associated with higher incidence and impact of COVID-19 but actually supports communities to better endure lockdowns, and facilitates public actors to provide health services.”

She also mentioned the importance of public spaces as a lifeline for many and a key resource for the delivery of emergency services and support.

The executive director also spoke about a report that UN-Habitat is working on called ‘The future state of cities in a world with pandemics’, which will identify key strategic areas of sustainable urbanisation and discuss the most significant potential impacts of COVID-19.

In June, UN-Habitat launched a joint publication with WHO on ‘Integrating health in urban and territorial planning’. This sourcebook looks at various areas of urban planning and how health consideration can shape and find answers in urban planning and design.

Dr Naoko Yamamoto, the assistant director-general for the Healthier Populations Division in the WHO, said the importance of the urban environment and health had been demonstrated during COVID-19 and called for a collective global effort to address the pandemic.

Dr Yamamoto described how cycling and walking were now being promoted and said previous disasters had led to improved parks and green spaces. She added that cities could be champions for healthy, green places by preserving nature, using clean energy and supporting healthy forms of energy transmission.

Panellist Damià Calvet, counsellor for sustainability in Catalonia, Spain emphasised the need for density under hygienic situations.

“Cities will remain the living spaces for humanity and we must plan toward territorial planning where opportunities exist,” he said. “Urban density is part of the health problem related to climate crisis. The crisis has reinforced our commitment to the New Urban Agenda as a key to develop more resilient density as the solution, as well as part of the problem.”

Dr Oxiris Barbot, commissioner of the City of New York’s Department of Health, spoke about the importance of housing.

“We see high levels of transmission where there is overcrowded housing and frontline workers, and in our response to reduce transmission, we’ve had to account for importance of housing,” she said. “Initially, we provided safe havens for frontline workers and quickly went to providing housing for those discharged from hospital.”

She said the city had repurposed unused housing space, and used public spaces for field hospitals and hotel rooms to allow people newly identified as being infected to isolate safely.

Shi Nan, the executive president and secretary-general of the Urban Planning Society of China (UPSC) referred to a study it had conducted on density in 300 Chinese cities and confirmed that it had not found a relationship between COVID-19 and density.