• Varshini Sridhar

COVID-19 and Lessons in City Management

When the pandemic hit Dharavi, Mumbai’s densely populated slum, fear gripped the residents. To practice social distancing in a 2.5 sq km area with a population density of 2,27,136 per sq km seemed like an impossible task. Two months later, on July 11th, Dharavi reported only one case, owing to a combination of strategies followed by BMC– aggressive tracking and testing, strong health infrastructure and strategic public-private partnerships. (Shaikh, 2020) While Dharavi has been hailed as a global role model, things have not been so optimistic for the rest of Mumbai, which is struggling to flatten the curve.

For Mumbai and cities around the world, the coronavirus has put the city-level institutions and governance mechanisms to a harsh test. As the pandemic gradually reveals the weak spots and vulnerabilities in cities, some have responded with temporary changes while others have been preparing to adapt to a post-pandemic world. From a strong health infrastructure to empowered city representatives, the pandemic has already initiated colossal changes in cities. Although it is still unclear as to how far these measures will continue in the future, cities are surely playing to their strengths while building resilient structures.

Needless to say, cities have learnt the importance of public health investments the hard way. If Surat’s unique handling of the plague in 1994 is any indication, investment in urban health infrastructure and active municipal bodies at the forefront of public health response are key to building resilient cities. As the plague forced Surat, an Indian city to revamp its municipal health system, sanitation and hygiene improved and municipalities were well-equipped to deal with future crises.

Municipalities are themselves aided by a network of health workers. During a large-scale public health crisis, municipalities often find it challenging to get the public to trust the health-related information published by them. With the abundance of misinformation spreading across social media, a sceptical public gripped by the fear of uncertainty is constantly gauging the authenticity of the information. Community health workers serve to bridge this gap in trust. Their close, everyday interactions with the neighbourhoods put them in a position of advantage to persuade people to follow the government’s health instructions.

Community health workers, who form the next tier of workers, possess a comprehensive understanding of local needs and problems specific to different neighbourhoods. Brazil’s municipalities have coordinated their public health campaigns and directives through their community health workers. Under Brazil’s Family Health Strategy, they collect information and reach out to the more vulnerable sections such as the informal communities. (Family Health, 2017)

Both Surat and cities in Brazil highlight the indispensable role of municipal bodies in improving health outcomes in cities. In cities where large-scale measures have failed to suppress the coronavirus, a macro view of the weak spots in the primary health system has become visible. Since the different components of social infrastructure in cities are strongly linked, inequities in one would hamper the efforts taken to improve another. Surat’s post-plague efforts have proven that public health measures are successful not when the health department works in isolation. It necessitates close coordination between the health, engineering, water supply and sewerage and civil works departments among others.

The economic fallout from the coronavirus is both an immediate and long-term challenge that cities have to deal with. Of the lot, the most vulnerable are the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and informal sector workers. In Bangladesh, 20 million informal workers have lost their jobs. (Corona fallout spells disaster for millions of poor Bangladeshis: Economists, 2020) As a response, cities have tapped into a variety of financial assistance tools. For instance, Tokyo has been extending loans to SMEs. (SMEs, 2020) Cities such as Madrid (Spain) and Braga (Portugal) have provided tax breaks to local businesses. The bigger challenge, however, is for city economies to bounce back as quick as possible with minimum economic loss.

The pandemic has also sparked new trends in city jobs, the most visible being the work from home policy followed by a number of companies. Popular opinion is that work from home is here to stay. For cities, remote working has already helped reduce the need for office space and relieve the pressure on public transport. Along with these, it has also raised the possibility of countering the trend of mass movement to high-density cities. In a recent survey by Harris Poll, 40% of Americans living in urban areas stated that they would consider moving out of high-density areas and move towards less populated ones. (Newman, 2020) There is still a lot of uncertainty around this. However, what these trends do point out to is the likely impact of digitalisation on future jobs.

Owing to the new conditions imposed by the pandemic, cities are expected to see huge transformations in urban mobility. With social distancing and restrictions on travelling and physical activity, cycling has acquired a renewed sense of importance and has, in fact, emerged as an absolute necessity. Although cycling has for long been favoured as an economically feasible and eco-friendly mode of transport, the required push from the government and initiative from the public have been rather low until now. Under the lockdown, cities around the world have rolled out different emergency measures to facilitate cycling as a principal means of transport. In Bogota and Berlin, motor vehicle lanes have been converted into bike lanes temporarily. (Laker, 2020) Some cities have gone one step further to design a long-term cyclist-friendly infrastructure. The latest city to initiate this is Paris. The current conditions signal post-lockdown urban spaces characterised by less congestion, pollution and car traffic. Most importantly, it shows a shift towards sustainable, low-carbon economies.

Interestingly, some cities have dealt with the problem of congestion by sharing information on the same with the public. The city of Fukuoka in Japan and Bali in Indonesia have previously experimented with this. The Fukuoka Municipality publishes information about the peak hours of travel and level of congestion at different times of the day on its website. For the government and transport providers, additional information on the means of transport used to different parts of the city and the routes often taken are shared. A similar project analysing the travel time for each part of the road and the time taken for a selected route was conducted in Bali. (Morioka, Kuramoch, Mishina, Akiyama, & Taniguchi, 2015) These projects offer different ways in which cities can tweak similar measures according to their capacities and local conditions.

Around the world, the limited abilities of cities to manage the COVID crisis has cast a particularly harsh light on the bleak state of financial management. City budgets crushed under the weight of falling tax revenues and increasing public health expenditures have taken a massive hit. For cities such as Los Angeles and New York City that source a majority of their revenue from property and sales tax, the estimated fiscal impact of the pandemic is a huge budget deficit. Even in other US cities such as Phoenix where a surplus budget was predicted, the business slowdown in local shops has slashed their main source of revenue. (governments, n.d.)

Post-lockdown, cities will have to revaluate their budgets and look to diversifying their sources of revenue. In New York City, tax revenue is expected to fall by USD 7.4 billion across two fiscal years. According to the Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems (ASICS) 2017 report published by Janaaagraha, the cities included in the study are able to earn a mere 39% of their expenditures in revenues. Ideally, cities must start exploring alternate ways to raise funds. (Nair, V R , & Rao, 2018)

It’s not the first time cities are forced to grapple with the vulnerabilities in their system in the wake of a pandemic. The many benefits of urban life that city dwellers now enjoy were born out of situations of plague that necessitated novel and tangible changes. COVID-19 is no different. In fact, it is already in the process of reshaping urban planning in big ways.

The harsh realities exposed by the pandemic have pushed urban planners to take stock of the “new normal” imposed by it and the inadequacies inherent in the system. With the pandemic inspiring new thinking and bold initiatives, urban architects around the world have come up with solutions that not only address many of the long-unsolved urban issues but also shape a lifestyle that suits the post-pandemic world. Recently, Shift Architecture Urbanism, a design studio based out of Rotterdam proposed the idea of hyperlocal micro markets. Largely motivated by the widespread closure of local food markets and the need for social distancing, these mobile 16 square grids consist of three stalls each and sell fresh produce as packages rather than separate products. (Frearson, 2020).

In a lockdown situation, the design offers the twin benefits of minimised contamination risks and guaranteed availability of groceries. For the lower-income categories, these micro-markets are more affordable compared to the expensive supermarkets that they are forced to buy from. In the long-run, micro markets modelled on a hyper-local scale can ensure that fresh produce is easily accessed in local neighbourhoods while reducing travel time and also facilitating successful operation of local markets. Again, the success of such models hinges upon the ability and willingness of municipalities and city councils.

Among the worst-hit cities, a majority fall into the category of high-density urban spaces. This has rekindled the debate on high-density cities and their relative inability to manage a pandemic. A commonly advocated urban design that best leverages the economic and environmental opportunities offered by high-density cities is the compact city plan. As the name suggests, a compact city is characterised by efficient land use, high residential density, and lower transportation costs and energy consumption. Otherwise referred to as a “city of short distance”, a compact city plan rests on the idea that jobs, local services and all urban activities could be made available in the same place. While the compact city plan in London has been criticized, cities in China, Taiwan and Singapore have made urban planners reconsider. High-density Chinese cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Tianjin and Zhuhai witnessed low infection rates indicating that high density might not always mean high vulnerability to pandemics. (Fang & Wahba, 2020)

As long as municipalities couple compact city practices with complementary strategies that offset their negative effects, its benefits for urban sustainability outweigh its costs. The Municipality in Vancouver and other cities in Canada have focussed on densification in built-up areas while providing affordable housing. Similarly, in Melbourne, Australia, green building has been promoted along with mixed land use in the Central Business District. (Matsumoto, 2011)

Urban planners are increasingly saddled with the responsibility of incorporating affordable housing, sustainable land use and green technologies in their urban designs. The pandemic offers a golden opportunity to design and link the social, economic and environmental aspects of city infrastructure. Untapped synergies between climate change strategies and development policies exist. If urban planners could incorporate these right from the start, there could be more tangible and permanent lifestyle changes. Once cities start to recover from the crisis, the weight of such responsibilities is bound to increase. In that sense, the pandemic has set urban planning on a new path – one that might well be a turning point in city life.

The relative successes in introducing participatory planning processes in the cities of South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe provide useful lessons on citizen participation. In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, the City Council worked in tandem with the Bulawayo Federation as part of a sanitation improvement project in Iminyela. (Mitlin, 2020) Adding to their capacities, the staff and students from the National University of Science and Technology contributed designs and plans while the Zimbabwe Alliance helped raise funds. Planning and implementation is no longer a one-way process. Empowered local neighbourhoods partnering with local institutions and universities have created a feasible and viable multilateral system to meet the needs of the citizens.

By leveraging the power of organised communities, cities can achieve cost-effective and timely delivery of services. Bulawayo’s experience is a testimony to this. The positive effects of participatory planning become more visible during acute crises such as the COVID. When such practices become deeply embedded in the local governance mechanism, city-level institutions can reach out to the more vulnerable and informal sections of the city. Moreover, such partnerships can go a long way in strengthening local capacities and introducing alternative channels of planning. In cities such as Nairobi, Denver and Bulawayo, informal neighbourhoods have come closer together, making themselves visible to local decision-makers in order to gain from their service delivery.

A rather unnoticed but common factor that contributed to the success of early coronavirus responses in South Korea, Singapore, China and Taiwan is the credibility of government representatives. In Seoul, transparency was the cornerstone of its coronavirus strategy. In no time, the government gained the trust of the public through active dissemination of public health information, a clear list of preventive measures and frequent updates on the status and number of coronavirus cases and the response measures taken by the government. Seoul also attributes its success to a well-planned coordinated response based on the devolution of power and responsibilities at various levels of the government. Clearly, societal trust in the accuracy of government information and the local capacity to manage the crisis takes precedence over other factors – something that these South-East Asian nations were able to build and use effectively during the pandemic.

Trust, however, cannot be built on sand. It stands sturdy on clear and regular communication. Singapore is a sterling example. Explicitly stating the facts on COVID-19 and the response measures taken without inducing fear requires good leadership and communication skills. Singapore’s officials seem to have demonstrated these abilities. Moreover, gaining public trust through public awareness campaigns during crisis situations can go a long way in strengthening the relationship between city representatives and the public.

All of this further leads us to the question of how empowered city representatives are in practice. While some have taken leadership in the absence of a timely response from national governments, others have been constrained by the lack of power and resources to respond effectively. In San Francisco, city officials’ prompt response helped minimise the spread of coronavirus to vulnerable sections. Seattle’s Emergency Food Voucher Program has been extending $800 worth vouchers to provide for grocery and household goods. Such initiatives have broken the boundaries within which cities are expected to operate. When they are empowered, proactive city officials can reach out to every section of the population in ways that national governments cannot.

As cities undergo a paradigm shift in the way they function and respond to pandemics, there is an evident need to move away from conventional thinking. Elements such as trust and communication that have been ignored thus far gain importance. Gradually, as city institutions and their inefficiencies are placed under a magnifying lens, people have begun to view them differently. Even for a sustainable recovery from the pandemic, cities will have to continue these new changes in the medium-term.

Although it is too early to predict how things might pan out, in a post-pandemic world, cities will have a new, important role to play. Countries that are quick enough to recognize this will make substantial gains. Those city governments that fail to better its relationship with the public might be left out of the race.


  • Corona fallout spells disaster for millions of poor Bangladeshis: Economists. (2020, April 2). Retrieved from The Independent : http://m.theindependentbd.com/post/243332

  • Family Health. (2017, August 17). Retrieved from Ministry of Health: https://www.saude.gov.br/artigos/772-acoes-e-programas/saude-da-familia/41285-saude-da-familia

  • Fang, W., & Wahba, S. (2020, April 20). Urban Density Is Not an Enemy in the Coronavirus Fight: Evidence from China. Retrieved from World Bank Blogs: https://blogs.worldbank.org/sustainablecities/urban-density-not-enemy-coronavirus-fight-evidence-china

  • Frearson, A. (2020, April 3). Shift Architecture Urbanism designs social distancing into the food market. Retrieved from Dezeen: https://www.dezeen.com/2020/04/03/shift-architecture-urbanism-designs-social-distancing-into-the-food-market/

  • governments, W. a. (n.d.). Briefing Book. Retrieved from Tax Policy Center: https://www.taxpolicycenter.org/briefing-book/what-are-sources-revenue-local-governments

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  • Matsumoto, T. (2011). Compact City Policies: Comparative Assessment . Retrieved from International Society of City and Regional Planners: http://www.isocarp.net/Data/case_studies/2028.pdf

  • Mitlin, D. (2020, February 19). Advancing participatory planning in Zimbabwe: Lessons from Bulawayo. Retrieved from Global Development Institute Blog: http://blog.gdi.manchester.ac.uk/advancing-participatory-planning-in-zimbabwe-lessons-from-bulawayo/

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  • Nair, V. A., V R , V., & Rao, S. (2018). Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems (ASICS) 2017. Bengaluru: Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy. Retrieved from http://janaagraha.org/asics/report/ASICS-report-2017-fin.pdf

  • Newman, K. (2020, May 6). Survey: Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, Urbanites Are Eyeing the Suburbs. Retrieved from U.S. News: https://www.usnews.com/news/cities/articles/2020-05-06/a-recent-survey-suggests-the-pandemic-has-urbanites-eyeing-the-suburbs

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Views expressed are solely those of the author.

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About the Author

Varshini Sridhar graduated from Christ University in 2019 with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics, Political Science and Sociology. She aspires to a career in international affairs and as a step towards the same, she completed the Summer School Program in International Political Economy at the London School of Economics. After valuable internship stints at NITI Aayog, PwC and Greenpeace she is currently at Janaagraha while pursuing her long-distance Graduate Diploma in Economics from the University of London and learning Mandarin. A trained Bharatanatyam dancer she enjoys performing on stage.

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