Covid-19 is teaching us how to design healthier cities

Do you remember how much time you used to spend in traffic before Covid-19? I do. It was two hours in traffic. Every single day. And that was on a good day. 

Americans spend more than 100 hours in traffic each year at an annual cost of $1 400 a person, according to the 2019 Inrix Global Traffic Scorecard, which analyses congestion and mobility trends in more than 200 cities worldwide.

Commuters in Bogota, Rome and Dublin spend the most time in traffic globally, with an average of 272 hours, 254 hours and 246 hours per person per year, respectively. 

In Nairobi, Kenya, where residents spend at least 56 minutes a day in traffic, congestion has led to more than $500 000 in losses a day to the economy. 

With the Covid-19 pandemic causing 1.7-billion people to work and go to school from home, the traffic-free streets make it glaringly obvious that congestion is a consequence of city design — and the pandemic has given us a chance to do something about it.

Congestion is expensive, not only for the economy, but also for the environment. Each passenger in Nairobi traffic causes the production of more than 1 400kg of CO2 air pollution a year, which requires 16.4 trees per person to produce enough oxygen to compensate. 

And we have not even considered the more than 1.35-million people killed on roads globally every year.

Healthwise, studies show traffic-related, long-term exposure to air pollutants and its associated stress contributes to heart disease, asthma, obesity, ageing and high blood pressure. Time spent in traffic is also time spent away from family, friends and personal growth.

Modern urban planning intentionally segregates cities with specific zones for commercial, office and residential areas with high-speed, motorised links in between.

As a consequence, commercial activities and offices are separated from residential areas, which means that you need to commute to get to work, school or the nearest supermarket.

Although this kind of planning makes cities the centres of great productivity, it also makes them vulnerable to the spread of disease, and has led to them being the areas hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

And this is not the first time this has occurred. The 1337 Black Death p killed a third of Europe’s population, and the Great Plague of London in 1665 claimed the lives of a quarter of the population. The closely packed, high-density cities helped the bacteria to thrive and spread, forcing city authorities to make changes after the pandemic had subsided. 

City designs thereafter were directly connected to public health: streets were made wider, materials required approval, population density was controlled, and sewage and sanitation systems were carefully monitored.

These measures deal in part with congestion of people. Vehicular congestion on the other hand is a modern problem. This happens when the demand for road space exceeds supply. Over the years several countries have stepped up with solutions. So far, traffic congestion has been dealt with in three ways.

The first solution has been to improve public transit to reduce the number of private cars on the road. This is usually a long-term, high-expense endeavour for any city and often does not keep up with urbanisation rates. The second is to create new cities for people to move to — also an expensive, long-term project. The third solution is to implement incremental design and planning regulations that are manageable, short term and show gradual city transformation.

In the United Kingdom, counties regulate the home-to-school distance in relation to school admissions, which reduces congestion from school buses and school runs, as well as ensuring better safety for students because of schools’ proximity to home and reduced time spent on the road.

In Amsterdam in the Netherlands, 3 300 traffic accidents  in 1971 inspired an anti-car movement. Now the city boasts that 38% of all transit is using bicycles, with 58% of its residents cycling daily.

Earlier this year, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, announced a “15-minute city” campaign that will ensure every resident can meet all their essential needs within a short walk or bike ride. Portland, Oregon, has a similar “20-minute neighbourhood” campaign.

With more than 1.7-billion people globally asked to stay home because of the pandemic, cities all over the world have already reported  a significant reduction in air pollution, which kills an estimated seven million people every year, according to the World Health Organisation

New York has reduced its CO2 levels by 50% and in London, Kolkata and Mumbai, nitrous oxide levels have gone down 40%, 74% and 85%, respectively. 

Covid-19 adds to the long list of infectious diseases such as the plague, cholera, the so-called Spanish flu, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Ebola that have transformed how we use and move through the city.

Urban planners can take this opportunity to rethink their cities. 

First, we should consider turning two-way vehicular roads into one-ways and use the extra space to widen walkways and introduce cycle lanes. Creating one-way circulation loops means longer travel distances for cars, but they will reduce the number of junctions, which, in turn, reduces traffic. 

Second, whether in a commercial block or residential block, neighbourhoods should embrace multifunctional uses, especially on their ground floors, to reduce people’s travel times to buy basic items such as food, groceries and other essentials. How about suggesting to your landlord that a kiosk is set up on the ground floor instead of another office or a flat?

Third, let us move away from car-centric design by embracing medium-density, mixed-use city neighbourhoods, with commercial, offices and residences in close proximity. This allows short, pedestrian-and-cycle friendly, non-motorised transits and encourages active and healthier lifestyles. It also reduces congestion, pollution and road accidents.

Fourth, we need to decentralise services by ensuring that zoning allows schools, healthcare centres and supermarkets to be well distributed and in walking or cycling distance within a neighbourhood.

Lastly, the slums of a city, with their poor infrastructure and sanitation, are hubs of infection spread and transmission. Provision of affordable housing has to be a main driver that shapes our future cities.

The pandemic has transformed the way we live, attend school and do our work. It has also brought with it many possibilities of rethinking our spaces. 

It is a wake-up call to design congestion-free, healthy cities.

Etta Madete is an architectural designer at BuildX Studio and lecturer at the University of Nairobi. She is passionate about using design and innovation to bring economic, social and environmental development to Kenya, and beyond. Madete is a 2020 Aspen New Voices Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @ettamadete.

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