In Defence of Urbanism

COVID-19 and City Resilience

Nigel Smith
October 20, 2020
3 minute read
This is an abridged version - To read the complete referenced article, please click here.

“Generational Catastrophe - How COVID-19 could reshape Melbourne”

“Pandemics are an Urban Planning Problem”

“Poll: One-Third of Americans Thinking of Moving to Less Densely Populated Areas”  

Headlines such as these suggest that urbanism is a lost cause and reveal two ‘new’ reactionary ideas to urbanism:

  1. COVID-19 spreads in urban areas; therefore
  1. we should no longer live urban lives.

Commentators and journalists hope to change the way we think about and deliver human settlement in a post-COVID-19 era. To say that we should no longer live urban lives ignores centuries-old human behaviour that has made different cities what they are today, and arguably has led towards remarkable improvements in our well-being.

With the media’s tendency to express extreme positions and present unlikely scenarios extending to urban issues – namely, how will the city adapt to COVID-19, social distancing, and its impacts on human health – we have to remember that cities are not subject to urgent changes, fear-incentives, or overnight trends.

Cities and their built environment evolve over decades and centuries, not days and weeks.

Factors like human desire, market behaviours, and economic models exert concerted pressure on these elements and eventually we identify urban trends. Sadly, the professional sphere of city planning that has built up expertise over centuries of practice and evidence appears to be easily swayed in new and extreme directions, particularly by media.

Considering the lead time for changes in human behaviour to become manifest in the built environment is upwards of 10 years, are COVID-19 impacts long and severe enough to reverse decades of policy gains towards urbanism?

This article explores how we work within this contested ideas space.  

The nexus of pandemic response and good urbanism is summarised by five defences:  Diversity in Transport, Diversity in Employment Location, Diversity in Housing Price, Diversity in Food Source, and Diversity in Encounter. The five nexus can interact positively in our cities, and make cities more liveable and sustainable. Urbanism and cities are only just beginning in their dominance of human settlement. Rather than seeing a waning of the urbanisation trend, COVID-19 may actually connect people more strongly to the idea of quality urbanism and the life it offers.

Additionally, COVID-19 isolationism might interact positively with a more sociable form of sub-urbanism - over time, trends and factors could see the urbanising of our suburbs and the urbanising of suburban lifestyles. They and we will become more diverse, more active, and more welcoming.  

Ultimately, we need to see the built environment as a complex adaptive system that shifts and flexes by degrees, not revolution.

Sudden changes in human behaviour cannot radically and immediately change the built fabric of our cities – these adaptations can take decades to appear. The summary of the five positive ideas about the nexus between COVID-19 and adaptive urbanism is as follows:

  • a sustainable resurgence in walking and public transport at lower densities;
  • the increased vibrancy and economic activity of main streets and mixed-use areas;
  • increased mixing of affordable apartments and denser forms with detached housing;
  • greater mix of healthy food sources and reduced dominance  of shopping malls; and
  • the social revitalisation of dormitory suburbs to more active urban forms.

‘Relocalisation’- the idea that everyday life could be conducted within a short distance from where you sleep - is the mega-trend that usefully captures these five positive ideas in one term. Its appeal is due to reduced transport-related greenhouse gas emissions; more sustainable local economies and job retention; more sociable, connected, and resilient communities; and a more diverse built environment that has something for everyone. Relocalisation is an adaptation of our cities and suburbs to places of greater flourishing. This localisation adaptation can be summed up in the term ‘diversity’ or ‘mix.’ Places that are not mixed will become so in order to grow their resilience and survive. Places that are already mixed will flourish from the start.

The momentum of the global urbanisation mega-trend of the last 50-100 years proves that urbanism offers significant advantages to human flourishing over dispersed settlement alternatives. Cities will adapt to COVID-19 impacts, as with other historic disruptions, and they may actually advance through the pandemic due to the nexus of issues outlined. These nexus fall under the banners of mix, density, and relocalisation; the urban conditions for flourishing communities. The denser forms of settlement offered by local mixed urbanism provides more opportunity for individual and communal encounter. Urbanism offers stronger preconditions for the kinds of encounters that address basic needs, belonging, contribution, purpose, ritual, and meaning.¹ COVID-19 might cause people to temporarily re-evaluate the health risks of urban places, but urbanism will win out in the end.


1. CBBC’s Flourishing Framework® recognises these as the six elements required to create a path towards flourishing as explained in this video.

A complete reference list is available at the end of the full article - click here to explore these ideas in more detail.

If you would like to contribute your expertise to the review or writing of articles for CBBC’s Journal, please get in touch with our Editorial Team at

Header Photo by Francesco Patrinostro on Unsplash

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