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When Covid-19 brings public health and hygiene to question urban planning

By Ambassador Bernard Valero, Director General of the Agency for Sustainable Mediterranean Cities and Territories (Avitem)




(photo : F.Dubessy)
(photo : F.Dubessy)
The Covid-19 pandemic was truly revealing and raised many questions: about the meaning to be given to the so-called international community at a time when borders were closing and when the temptation of every man for himself was trampling on the desire for solidarity, about territorial and social inequalities brought to light by confinement, about the credibility of the scientific word and political discourse, about solidarity between generations and between peoples, about the place of nature and our relationship with the environment. This crisis, which is full of questions, must now give way to a fruitful time for answers.

Often intuitively due to a lack of scientific knowledge, cities, as their population and territory grew, have since the 19th century undertaken urban planning work inspired in particular by the atavistic fear of the scourges of insalubrity and epidemics: the law of 1765 forbidding cemeteries in cities, the appearance of the first large urban parks and Baron Haussmann's breakthrough in Paris during the Second Empire, or the arrival of water from the Durance River in Marseilles in 1849. Just a stone's throw from our border, the design of the Example district in Barcelona is in line with the change of mindset observed in the 19th century.

Although illustrations abound of the consideration of public health in many urban planning and/or development operations, these were induced at the time by the demographic growth of urban territories, by the collective and painful memory of epidemics and health crises of past centuries, and finally by an intuition, gradually confirmed by scientific progress, of a proven relationship between the quality of the urban environment and the health of city dwellers.

Covid-19 questions urban development

Two centuries later, the Covid pandemic19 , which has put whole swathes of the planet into pause mode, brutally returns to question the urban development model on which contemporary cities are built: Sprawl and densification of the urban fabric, the place of the car, intensive, even excessive, use of the water-food-energy nexus, the scarcity of space given over to nature, air quality, all these issues are increasingly linked to cancer, stress, cardiovascular accidents and respiratory diseases, Beyond the high economic and social cost of these urban diseases, the individual suffering they cause, the tensions they exert on the medical-hospital chain, they increasingly highlight the social and territorial inequalities that crack urban areas and profoundly alter the way people live together.

Although the results are heavy, the awareness of the link between urban planning and health and the need to correct the trajectory is not only in the minds but also in the projects of citizens, political authorities and public policy makers. In this context, Covid-19 will have been an accelerator of maieutics to the benefit of :
 
  •     The growing attention paid to the quality of air, water and waste treatment,
  •     From the necessary reduction of space and investments that have been left to the car for 70 years, to the development of public transport and soft mobility,
  •     The return of Nature in the city (vegetalisation, green spaces, urban forests, green flows and patterns, urban agriculture, biodiversity in the city, nature-based solutions, the fight against heat islands),
  •     The reanimation of the hearts of the city,
  •     Living together, urban lifestyles, organisation of work, use of public space,
  •     Architecture (energy efficiency of buildings, opening of dwellings to the outside, luminosity of interiors, multi-use of buildings, coworking spaces),
  •     Frugality (renewable energies, social and solidarity economy, recycling, sorting, green economy)

Cities and health: a major subject of cooperation for the Mediterranean people

At all levels of public policy, from national to municipal, but also in the vast field of citizen initiatives, project dynamics are being set in motion everywhere and are the subject of increasingly vigorous multi-level international cooperation. In this respect, the creation by the WHO, as early as 1986, of the Healthy Cities Network opened the way for a change in the way we look at cities and their relationship with the people who live there.

The Mediterranean people consider this to be a major subject for cooperation at a time when they are mobilising for revival and, for the most daring among them, for transformation. From Casablanca to Barcelona, from Tunis to Venice, the questions about cities and health are the same, the expectations of urbanised Mediterranean citizens, whatever their latitude, are the same, the aspirations for better living in cities are the same, so it is important to act without delay to ensure that the answers are constructed and shared collectively between all the urban actors.



 

Bernard Valero, Director General of the Avitem


Friday, July 24th 2020



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