Urban experts discuss city wellbeing post-Covid-19

People during a car-free day outdoor exercise session in Kigali. The city was named the Public Health Laureate for 2019 Wellbeing City Award, for its mass sport activities and screening of non-communicable diseases. / Photo: Sam Ngendahimana.

The novel coronavirus has changed the way we live in cities. Roads are no longer bustling with the working class and corporate buildings are near empty because most people are working from home. Chat rooms are the new convention centres. 

This is the new normal.


Notably, the pandemic has put all aspects of public health in jeopardy – from vaccination to mental health. 


But it has also provoked many into unleashing their innovative minds and this will probably continue to be the case way after Covid-19 has gone, according to experts.


The situation has triggered soul-searching among urban authorities and partners keen to advance the wellbeing of city residents and visitors.

The pandemic’s impact on urban life is the subject of discussion at the ongoing Wellbeing Cities Forum where urbanisation experts from more than 80 countries are attempting to predict and shape the outlook of cities in the future.

The three-day virtual summit commenced September 15 and has attracted corporate leaders, policymakers, urban innovators and academics to address pressing challenges that cities face, including public health and social inequalities, both worsened by the pandemic. 

“The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically underscored the need to reflect on issues of health and wellbeing, the need to reflect on the way we think about wellbeing, the way we plan cities, the way we inhabit cities,” said John Rossant, Chairman of NewCities organising the summit at the virtual opening session. NewCities is a major global nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of life and work in cities.

“Urban leaders need to take an active role by placing wellbeing at the heart of their policy and planning,” Rossant said. 

The pandemic, experts say, offered a glimpse in history which informs optimism that cities will flourish later, if they learn.

“This is not the first time cities are under stress and so far cities have been resilient to that stress,” said Fernando Straface, Secretary-General and Foreign Affairs of the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. “Cities are still the best unit for congregating talent, innovation, diversity. I cannot think of any other organisational arrangement better than cities to conglomerate all that competitive advantages.”

Straface added: “Cities will come back, probably different in terms of urban design and trends, but they will maintain the vitality and vibrancy that brought them here.”

However, collateral damages caused by the Covid-19 outbreak such as pressure on public health systems and economies are likely to spread further and persist for the long haul, experts said.

Health experts have been linking growing threats of mental stress and obesity to measures put in place in countries around the world to contain the virus.

Since 2000, according to Novo Nordisk, a Danish international foundation focusing on medical treatment and research, the number of diabetes patients has doubled and one in eight people will have the illness by 2045. 

Currently, two thirds of people with diabetes live in cities.

“We might be worried about the impacts of Covid-19 now but we should also start worrying about the long-term effects of the rising tide of obesity and diabetes and what Covid-19 has done to the trajectory of this tide,” said Niels Lund, Vice President for Health Advocacy in Novo Nordisk. 

According to the former Executive Director of UN-Habitat, Dr Joan Clos, the shifting of poverty levels from rural to urban areas should also be addressed. 

“Cities are now becoming the places where the new poverty is concentrating,” Dr Clos said, noting that the migration affects urbanization policies. He noted that management of resources will determine how cities survive the pandemic.

“Urbanisation is going to accelerate in space because people will need more support and the way for states to provide and finance the support is through increasing efficiency of resources,” Clos said. 

This is the second edition of the Wellbeing Cities Forum and the first to be held virtually. During its first edition last year, Kigali was named the Public Health Laureate for 2019 Wellbeing City Award, thanks in large part to its car-free day, the city’s bi-weekly event involving mass sport and screening of non-communicable diseases.


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