How to put the city at the service of people in de-escalation

Isabela Velázquez Valoria is a consultant for the Gea21 network and technical coordinator of the CIVITAS ECCENTRIC project. Madrid, the 6th of May 2020, in confinement situation

In these difficult times in which we have lost, in addition to 250,000 lives (for the moment), the certainties, the sense of security and, again, the pulse of the economy, we are at the moment of opening paths through the undergrowth, of taking quick decisions in a context of changing data, to redefine our lifestyles and our plans to get out of this critical risk situation. It is urgent to replace fear with caution and recover the difficult balance between security and quality of life to which we were accustomed.

From urban planning and mobility, there are latent changes and decisions to be made because the way of working, moving, relating, organizing and using public space is bound to change as long as safety and distance regulations remain the only ones. viable to defend against this pandemic or similar risks.

Coexistence rules that challenge the basic principles in the city's projects and improvement strategies. And that severely limit some essential activities. All this without forgetting that, behind the curtain of COVID-19 that absorbs all the attention at the moment, the threats related to the climate emergency or to other latent crises that, according to the scientific community, may also emerge in the near future.

Decision time 2020


At this time of de-escalation, strategies are already being developed in all cities to temper the effects of this new coexistence. There are clear measures in the field of mobility that many cities are promptly implementing. Active mobility offers all the guarantees: if a large part of the trips could be made on foot or by bicycle, even other personal vehicles, not only would health be improved, but public transport would be decongested and the private vehicle would be less used. It should not be forgotten that, as a recent study by Harvard University(1) suggests, higher COVID-19 mortality is associated with poor air quality.

Public transport has to rethink its entire operation to address the lower offer derived from distance measures, The great leap in travel planning and organization, which we encompass in the concept of Mobility as a Service (MaaS), has the opportunity to challenge yourself to achieve this adaptation, maintaining the level of service necessary for the city to function. The direct relationship with users and real-time information offer possibilities to drive this change, along with the organization of frequencies and services that are attentive to the needs of people.

The multimodality includes the private vehicle in the sections in which it is really the most suitable option and taking into account that, if at the individual level it can be a solution, motorized mobility is rather a problem for the city.

Achieving this balance in the way of moving in the city includes other vectors that are related to the location of activities, with schedules, with the shift to tele activities and even with the distribution of responsibilities. That is why substantive solutions are needed for urgent measures to be truly effective.


Temporary measures, tactical urban planning has an accumulated experience of value for the current moment. The changes to widen sidewalks, install necessary bicycle networks or calm traffic with quick and low-budget solutions that are already underway in various cities and will also be experiences from which to draw conclusions. Fortunately, there is a lot of planning work done that can bring consistency to these emergency plans.

Fortunately, in this rethinking of the city, more ambitious strategies are being recovered on how to reorganize the big cities that start from urban planning centred on the car and the specialization of uses, which are wrong on the ground. Concepts such as the quarter-hour city, which is proposed from Paris, the city of the short distances suggested by German cities, or the city of the 5 '(to public transport) of the Nordic cities are valid suggestions for a necessary decentralization . Also, the reorganization in superblocks or environmental islands of some Spanish cities encourages us to think of a friendlier environment, close to most of the activities of daily life in which this mobility with priority for walking and cycling would be possible.

To advance in this regard, it is necessary to improve the quality of life in the peripheral neighborhoods. We can imagine a city of proximity in the environment of the multiple opportunities of the central areas of the city, but it is difficult to do it in neighborhoods where there are hardly any job opportunities, public space is still hijacked by parked or circulating cars (often in paths) or accessibility is not well resolved even among its various fields.



After the temporary measures, we are already talking about public investments to tackle the economic and employment crisis. On the tables of the administration there are plans for urban regeneration, improvement of public spaces, promotion of the circular economy, living laboratories associated with European projects, zero carbon strategies, plans for renaturation and the fight against climate change in all cities. 

And there is an agreement on the Urban Agenda as a framework for actions in cities.

Isn't it time to act, to launch all this accumulated work in a real improvement of the neighborhoods? Putting urban planning at the service of people can be the road map so that every euro invested in this recovery time has positive effects of social inclusion, environmental improvement and economic recovery in the long term.


(1) Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States: A nationwide cross-sectional study (Updated April 24, 2020) Harvard University. Xiao Wu MS, Rachel C. Nethery PhD, M. Benjamin Sabath MA, Danielle Braun PhD, Francesca Dominici PhD. All authors are part of the Department of Biostatistics, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, MA, 02115, USA