Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

COVID-19 in an Urban World

United Nations Sustainable Development Group



This policy brief attempts to place COVID-19 risk in its urban context, exploring the types of precarity that especially expose low-income people in overcrowded and underserviced urban areas. It situates the coronavirus crisis alongside the urban housing crisis and the climate crisis. These intersect in a number of ways; air pollution is associated with more COVID-19 deaths, for instance, while the 1 billion people who live in informal settlements cannot easily observe social distancing.

The brief aims for breadth rather than depth, touching on a number of issues that condition urban vulnerability to COVID-19, as well as necessary changes to rebuild from the pandemic while remaining attentive to the many other challenges facing cities in transition. It recommends action in three broad areas: reducing inequality, strengthening local capacity, and pursing a resilient and inclusive economic recovery. The aspiration is to take the right lessons from the pandemic, for instance the importance of urban compactness and walkability rather than an agenda of de-densification and car-centric design.

The brief also lists a number of promising initiatives from around the world. Often these rely on community-level forms of care, rather than individualized tech initiatives. For instance, collective food purchasing is being organized in Wuhan, China; and bartering has had a resurgence in Fiji.

Though much is bleak about plummeting public transport ridership, gender-based violence, hunger, diminished livelihoods, and of course the excess illness and mortality caused by the pandemic, history suggests that there may be grounds for optimism (pages 4–5):

There is an urgent need to rethink and transform cities to respond to the reality of COVID-19 and potential future pandemics, and to recover better, by building more resilient, inclusive and sustainable cities. We know that this is possible. The rapid shifts in society due to COVID-19 present a powerful lesson that society is capable of near-overnight transformation that is needed to confront our most urgent threats, such as the climate and pollution crises that threaten the very viability of cities. Indeed, previous disease outbreaks – such as the flu pandemic (1918) and localized epidemics of tuberculosis and cholera – have driven several positive urban transformations – such as the introduction of sewage systems, public parks, and housing regulations to improve sanitation and reduce overcrowding.”


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Further reading:

Duque Franco, Isabel, Catalina Ortiz, Jota Samper and Gynna Millan (2020), “Mapping repertoires of collective action facing the COVID-19 pandemic in informal settlements in Latin American cities”, Environment and Urbanization Vol 32, No 2, available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956247820944823.

Wilkinson, Annie (2020), “Local response in health emergencies: key considerations for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in informal urban settlements”, Environment and Urbanization Vol 32, No 2, available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956247820922843.

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