WORDS BY JENNIFER O’MAHONY
ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHAZ HUTTON
We tend not to think of cities as places where nature can thrive. But with peacocks on the streets of Madrid and deer wandering through London suburbs, nature has asserted its dominance during the COVID-19 crisis—and, as writer Jennifer O’Mahony points out—some European cities are determined to keep their blocks green after enjoying car-free, unpolluted, and untamed urban spaces.
Isabelle Anguelovski recalls the first two months of the COVID-19 pandemic in Barcelona with a shiver. “It was a ghost town, just really gloomy and scary at the same time. We went from a very dynamic, active city where everyone is outdoors all the time to a complete lockdown,” she said. “It was like the end of the world.”
Anguelovski, the director of the Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability (BCNUEJ), pays more attention than most to the ways cities work—or don’t—for their residents. She is part of a group of environmentalists, mayors and urbanists who have seen Europe’s historic cities brought to their knees by the pandemic, and who are determined to transform them for the better as they open up again.
Despite its hardships, the coronavirus outbreak has allowed many Europeans to experience an urban environment free of cars, pollution and mass tourism for the first time, and many are asking how they can revive fragile economies while eliminating stressors in cities that are not built for millions of residents—and vehicles.
Several cities including Barcelona, Lisbon, Milan and Paris are variously transforming and expanding green spaces, low income housing and public transportation, while trying to reshape the tourism industry while travelers are absent. It marks the beginning of a healing process for a continent which is home to four of the six countries worst hit by COVID-19 deaths.
Back in Barcelona, the city government has awoken the Catalan capital from enforced hibernation with a reset plan. “Twenty-one kilometers (13 miles) of new bike lanes are planned or already being built on the main avenues of Barcelona, 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) of new public space, different types of transit mobility interventions like new bus lanes, hygiene and disinfection protocols,” listed Anguelovski. Not all of these policies are all brand new, but the pandemic has catalyzed a process that was rolling out too slowly, she believes.
One example is Barcelona’s “superblocks,” neighborhoods divided into nine blocks where traffic can only circulate on the perimeter of the area, leaving the internal roads free of traffic. Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, has described such zones as “the place for democracy: this space that belongs to all of us.” The superblocks have existed as a concept since 2012, but only half a dozen had been constructed due to opposition from conservative councilors. “COVID is accelerating sustainable mobility policies that were already deployed before the pandemic, including strategic urbanism, superblocks and the recuperation of public space for pedestrians and cyclists,” Anguelovski told Atmos.
Barcelona is far from alone in expanding cycle lanes and making life easier for pedestrians. Paul Chatterton, Professor of Urban Futures at the University of Leeds, has written about COVID-19 creating a “laboratory” for cities to test policies that faced inhibitive opposition before the pandemic. He cites Paris and Milan as key examples. “Paris is doing the 15-minute neighborhood, the idea being you can get everything you need within 15 minutes of your home,” he said. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, announced the 15-minute city concept back in January as part of her re-election bid. The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed Parisians to test the concept for themselves with so many working and studying from home. Hidalgo has also pointed out that COVID-19 has severe effects on the respiratory system which could be exacerbated if pollution returns to pre-pandemic levels. “Pollution is already in itself a health crisis and a danger—and pollution joined up with coronavirus is a particularly dangerous cocktail,” she told a special city council on May 11. So it’s out of the question to think that arriving in the heart of the city by car is any sort of solution, when it could actually aggravate the situation.” Paris plans to add 50km (31miles) of temporary cycle lanes in the city centre and 100km in the suburbs.
Milan’s plan, known as strade aperte, or open streets, will introduce temporary cycle lanes, wider pavements, and streets with priority for pedestrians and cyclists, while bringing down speed limits to 20mph in the city center. The city had tried to cut car use for years, and Milan’s deputy mayor Marco Granelli has said the economy should now be run “on a different basis to before.” This is a view shared by David Miller, a former mayor of Toronto and current director of international diplomacy for C40 Cities, a network of the world’s megacities. “The big philosophical challenge is the idea of the past, that somehow what we had a few months ago was something that was so good we have an imperative to return to it,” he told Atmos. Any chance of sustaining pandemic-level environmental trends in cities “requires building on the things that people appreciate right now, like clean air, like being in their neighborhoods,” he added.
Miller coordinates conversations between mayors from Los Angeles to Nanjing, and notes that lower income people in any city are more likely to work in jobs that expose them to COVID-19. “There are class and economic differences here. Some people cannot work from home,” he noted. Key workers, many of whom are low income, can only travel to work safely if mass transit systems are adapted to mandated social distancing. “If public transport is at 20% of capacity because of social distancing, then if everyone gets in their cars there will be complete gridlock and a lot of air pollution,” noted Chatterton, the urbanist. Key workers need priority for mass transit, and those working from home “can just walk and cycle to get what they need,” he said, noting that “half of all car journeys are under two miles.”
But Anguelovski cautions that any permanent measures to expand green spaces and active transport links must serve the entire community. “Gentrifiers see these spaces as aesthetically and environmentally attractive. They move back to the city from the suburbs because they see the attraction of density, proximity, commercial spaces and leisure that fit their lifestyle,” she said. “These spaces are not equally beneficial for everyone.”
Ultimately, experts are cautiously optimistic that the relief felt by so many European city dwellers can be sustained beyond the pandemic. COVID-19 has also provided unexpected opportunities to deal with shortages of low income housing. Portugal’s capital was one of the European cities transformed by the arrival of Airbnb often, at the expense of long-term residents. By September last year, 55 percent of the housing stock in Lisbon’s historic Alfama district was short-term rentals. But when it became clear the coronavirus would prevent tourists from arriving for the foreseeable future, Portuguese local councils offered to rent 2,000 such properties, with the aim of subletting them to low-income residents. In Dublin, Edinburgh, and Madrid, Airbnb owners are voluntarily switching to the long-term rental market, according to the EU Observer newspaper. Progressives in Barcelona have spent years trying to wrest back control of the rental market, as “a huge driver of inequality in the city,” according to Anguelovski of the BCNUEJ. “Those Airbnb properties were being used for tourists but can now really reinvite lower income people to repossess the city, and people who own those properties can get some income,” said Miller of G40 Cities.
On May 27, the European Union announced that it would place a European Green Deal at the heart of member states’ recovery plan for COVID-19. The key pillars will be renovation of buildings rather than new construction, investment in renewable energy, charging points for electric vehicles, and a focus on developing skills for workers that will be useful in a sustainable European economy. While Europe has suffered terribly from the novel coronavirus, environmentalists have been thrown a lifeline to show that green policies can slow such pandemics—and that quality of life in urban centers requires thinking sustainably.