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Last updated: 26 May 2020

Since early March, the OECD has been collecting local policy responses aimed at containing the spread of the virus and protecting residents and local economies. This note provides an update of such measures including those related to the easing of lockdown restrictions. It includes an overview of lessons learned and the main challenges faced by cities in implementing restriction measures, such as territorial and digital divides. It also suggests a set of action-oriented recommendations to help rebuild better cities that can be resilient and future-proof in a post-COVID-19 world.

COVID-19 was spreading through cities around the world, with devastating impact on local communities and the wellbeing of residents, many local governments were at the frontline of combating the outbreak. While most national governments were taking the lead to minimise the spread of the virus, cities in many countries played an important role to complement responses to COVID-19 policy challenges on the ground. In many countries, the role of cities has been two-fold:

  • On the one hand, cities have acted as implementation vehicles of nation-wide measures such as the local support to and enforcement of the confinement measures, thanks to their resources and capacity (i.e. municipal police) or their local prerogatives (i.e. closure of public parks and gardens); and
  • On the other hand, cities have been spearheading more bottom-up, innovative responses while resorting to technology or other resources and building on their unique proximity to citizens (i.e. attention to vulnerable groups).

The examples collected from over 40 cities (accessible in Annex A) are clustered into six categories of policy responses (Figure 1), which have been deployed to varying degrees depending on the level of advancement of the pandemic:

  • Social distancing and confinement
  • Workplace practices and commuting patterns
  • Targeted measures for vulnerable groups
  • Local service delivery, notably water and waste
  • Support to business and economic recovery
  • Communication, awareness raising and digital tools

More than half of the global population live in cities, and this share is expected to rise to 70% by 2050. Cities may be better equipped than the rest of their country to respond to the COVID-19 crisis due to their well-developed health care facilities. However, cities are densely populated places where people live and gather, thus at risk of spreading the virus due to the close proximity among residents and challenges to implement social distancing. Large and secondary cities, in particular, often act as hubs for transnational business and movement, with the potential to amplify the pandemic through increased human contact. For example, in Japan, it is reported that a winter festival (Sapporo) and a live-music clubhouse (Osaka) became clusters from which COVID-19 spread to a large crowd3. Several religious gatherings in cities have also proved ripe for spreading the virus from Kuala Lumpur4 (Malaysia) to Daegu5 (Korea).

In addition, cities marked with inequalities and a high concentration of urban poor are potentially more vulnerable than those that are better resourced, less crowded and more equal. According to scholars, pandemics often emerge from the edge of cities since viral outbreaks are frequently incubated and transmitted via peri-urban communities and transportation corridors at the outskirts of cities before they spread into the downtown core.

Pollution levels, which are higher in cities, are also known to cause lung and heart damage7 and are responsible for at least 7 million early deaths a year8. Residents with pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma or chronic bronchitis, can be more vulnerable to COVID-19. This may have a more serious impact on city dwellers and those exposed to toxic fumes, than on others.

The COVID-19 crisis may provide an opportunity for city dwellers and planners to rethink drastically, from the ground up, their consumption, production and travelling paradigm. To a certain extent “life after COVID-19” will be “life with COVID-19”, hence the need to rebuild cities long term, based on a new approach to urban spaces that takes better account of different needs, and shifts from a logic of mobility to one of accessibility to basic amenities and services. Key concepts such as the “circular economy”, the “localisation of the Sustainable Development Goals”, “tactical urbanism10” and “the 15-min city11” can all help achieve better quality of life while preserving productivity, social inclusion and the environment.