5th avenue New York City during lockdown

Urban Responses to COVID-19


At the end of July, the number of COVID-19 cases in Cape Town, South Africa, was still increasing rapidly. Cape Town was hit the hardest among South African cities, and the highest incidence of COVID-19 was found in areas with concentrations of informal settlements. At the same time, the numbers of new infections were slowly decreasing in Gothenburg, Sweden. The country had adopted a different approach, with strong recommendations on social distancing and washing hands, but no actual lock-down.

The Mistra Urban Futures network of local platforms and partners in seven cities around the world had already been looking at the localization of the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda for several years (see project page with list of publications ). Getting the team together for a similar study of local responses to the COVID-19 was easily done and some of the results were presented at an Urban Thinkers Campus, the World Urban Campaign and UN-Habitat’s series of seminars on urban issues, on 23 July.

At the local scales, the pandemic has emphasized the inequalities of society. In all cities, poorer people and poorer neighborhoods have been worse off or even much worse off than the more affluent parts of the cities.

However, there are some promising signs too – some calling for more research, some for more policy-oriented action.

-    Realising that basic services are crucial, the pandemic highlights the urgency of water and sanitation actually being rolled out in informal settlements
-    In Buenos Aires, preliminary observations and data point at the importance of participatory processes in development programmes
-    Some innovative responses in the UK need further research, not least in relation to the current devolution processes, where previously central government decisions have been left to city-regions. However, there were also concerns that local expertise was being side-lined and not consulted.
-    Local actions in Gothenburg to increase the possibilities to go to work by bike, e.g. by creating more bike-lanes.
-    In India, cycling has become more popular too, and city authorities have formed new partnerships to reduce the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown – partnerships that may help in tearing down “silos” in the future
-    In general, COVID-19 has highlighted the significance of Agenda 2030 in many places by making visible the importance of public spaces, safe housing, basic services and biking lanes.

The observations and conclusions from this sub-project of the SDG localization and implementation work of Mistra Urban Futures, including the discussions at the Urban Thinkers Campus, are being summarized in an article meant for publication later this autumn.   

At the same time and in principle unrelated to the studies above, a group of science communication researchers in 12 countries – incidentally including 5 of the 6 Mistra Urban Futures countries (Sweden, UK, Kenya, South Africa, India) – observed the science-society relations in the first couple of months of the pandemic. The team concluded that the cultural authority of science was reasonably maintained in most countries, but that trust in science and scientists actually reduced later in the process. Conspiracy theories as well as the media’s general balance towards highlighting conflicting views of experts may have contributed to that. This work has also resulted in an article for publication; review is ongoing.

From a Mistra Urban Futures point of view, the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced the work planned for the Sida-funded “Consolidation Phase”. Physical meetings, workshops and conferences have been cancelled but are being replaced by a range of digital formats – such as the Reframe: Aligning Africa’s Urban Agendas organized by the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town in collaboration with, among others, the Gothenburg Centre for Sustainable Development.

A report from the Urban Thinkers Campus is available at the website of World Urban Campaign (pdf) and the articles mentioned will be added to our publication lists as soon as they are published.

Stay safe and healthy and stay tuned!


Photo: 5th Avenue in New York City during lockdown. Paulo Silva/unsplash.com

The work on Urban Responses to Covid-19 is part of the Sida-funded Consolidation Programme for Mistra Urban Futures, hosted by the Gothenburg Centre for Sustainable Development, the joint platform for sustainability research and education for Chalmers and University of Gothenburg.

See our event page for speakers etc at the Urban Thinkers Campus.



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