8 Lessons for African Cities from the Covid-19 Pandemic

Summary

  • The Covid-19 pandemic impacted difference classes of society differently with the low-income groups hit hardest by the pandemic.
  • The Covid-19 also revealed spatial vulnerabilities that make African cities less resilient such as transportation, architecture and ICT infrastructure.
  • To make cities more resilient to disasters, African governments need to adopt long-term, holistic approaches to improve socio-economic, environmental and governance systems.

Cities have been the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic, hotspots where the coronavirus spread and leading to lockdown regulations that put economies at stand still. As African cities also suffer the consequences of the pandemic, critical lessons can be drawn on planning, development and management of cities across the continent. If African cities are to become more resilient, the Covid-19 provided an important policy window for such reform. Eight lessons can be drawn to guide such a crucial reform process.

8. Environmental Health is Crucial for Healthy Cities

Environmental health of cities across Africa proved influential in determining resilience to health pandemics such as the Covid-19. Indicators such as air pollution, water quality and waste management ensure good health for inhabitants of cities. Given that Covid-19 impacted people with pre-existing health conditions more, environmental factors that causes such health conditions need to be minimized. Availability of clean water, proper waste collection impacted how people cope with the Covid-19 under lockdowns. Access to environmental amenities such as green space, sports and leisure facilities at neighborhood level helped people cope with lockdown restrictions and where no such facilities existed people struggled to cope with the lockdown restrictions.

7.  Socio-Economic Status Influenced Vulnerability to Covid-19

The socio-economic status of people in cities impacted significantly their vulnerability to the Covid-19 pandemic. On a continent where a significantly high population in cities does not have access to adequate housing, proper sanitation and are unemployed, such population was affected heavily by the pandemic. They could not observe the health regulations to combat the virus under their poor housing conditions and lack of clean water. Their lack of employment as they trade in informality for survival pushed them to worse poverty and had to break lockdown regulations to survive.

The population that had better socio-economic status were impacted less by the pandemic as they had housing that allowed practice of health regulations, had access to clean water and had better savings to survive through the pandemic. While many commentators took the socio-economic disparity to highlight the spectacle of inequality in cities in a polarising approach, the pandemic was rare window to appeal to the better-off classes in cities to also take care of the vulnerable communities given that resilience of a city is influenced by the resilience of all. Therefore, it was important to elevate the lowest common denominator to improve cities’ resilience.

6. Access to Health Services Influence Resilience

The Covid-19 pandemic in African cities impacted various classes of people differently. The impact was determined by access to health services, environmental factors and the socio-economic factors. People that had better access to health services were in a better position to recover from the complications of the coronavirus while people with poor access were more vulnerable to the virus. It also influenced the inhabitants’ pre-existing conditions which also complicated the recovery for coronavirus patients. Given the poor state of public health facilities in most African cities, low-income  earners without good health insurance policy had poor access to health services.

5. Architecture Has Significant Influence on Health of Cities

The architecture of buildings was crucial in determining the cities’ vulnerability to Covid-19. Modernist buildings that are fashionable in cities that have no direct access to natural air circulation proved to promote the spread of airborne diseases as people were confined in places with poor air circulation. As natural light proved important to neutralise the corona virus, architecture that promote outdoor living was crucial for cities to cope with the pandemic. Buildings typology also proved crucial in determining how cities cope with disasters such as the Covid-19 pandemic. High-rise building with more than six floors proved riskier to people during the Covid-19 pandemic given their need for use of elevators that can be crowded. It calls for African cities to consider midrise building as the common type building in cities for more resilience.

4. African Cities Need to Revise their Zoning

The Covid-19 pandemic revealed the rise of working from home that was already emerging. Working from home reshaped city form with development of home offices. In most cities across Africa however, establishment of home offices is under blanket regulation across the city. The pandemic revealed the need for differentiated zoning regard office land uses in residential areas. The suitability for office use differs from one zone of the city to another. This difference calls for variation in how permission to establish home offices is administered from small individual offices to medium sized offices in residential areas.

3. Africa Cities need to Improve their ICT Infrastructure

The Covid-19 lockdown regulations pushed people to work from home and to make use of the internet to remain connected to the socio-economic activities in cities. In this connectivity however, internet access in African cities proved to be supported by poor infrastructure and very expensive for accessibility by majority of the citizens. As the notion of smart cities is gaining momentum, African cities need to improve and attract investment in ICT infrastructure as a way to improve internet connectivity.

2. Social Safety Nets Are Weak in African Cities

The national lockdowns that were implemented by governments shut down economies across Africa. With economies shutdown, majority of citizens in cities that are self-employed were most vulnerable with no source of income to sustain their livelihood. Given lack of savings to sustain themselves during such difficult times, citizens were forced to break lockdown regulations to resume their trades as a form of survival. This proved most cities across Africa did not have social safety nets to support the vulnerable groups during the pandemic. It calls for local and national/federal governments to establish programs that provide safety nets in cities.

1. Polycentric Cities Are More Resilient to Disasters

The spatial connectivity of most African cities proved too vulnerable to disasters. This is caused by their high dependency on the centre to connect one part of the city to another. The monocentric city is highly vulnerable disasters, contagious diseases such as the corona virus. When lockdowns were imposed in cities restricting movement particularly access to the city centres, citizens struggled to move from one part of the city to another without passing through the city centre. In some cities, key supermarkets for everyday shopping were located in the city centre inaccessible to residents during lockdowns. The Covid-19 pandemic was a rude awakening to cities to consider polycentric design of cities to ensure better connectivity of the city. While initiatives of decongestion of cities and decentralisation of cities were on the table, polycentric design requires higher considerations of better connectivity.

As cities across Africa recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, there is need to draw solutions for improving the resilience of cities to disasters and unlock the socio-economic potential of a rapidly urbanising region. To triumph requires collective effort and long-term planning and generalist approach that articulate shortcomings of cities in a holistic way.

Maryjane Chikukwa
Maryjane Chikukwa
Maryjane Chikukwa is a researcher and programmes director at the African Urban Institute. She is a city planner with research focus on land use planning, urban economic transformation and environmental sustainability.

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<ul> <li>The Covid-19 pandemic impacted difference classes of society differently with the low-income groups hit hardest by the pandemic.</li><p> <li> The Covid-19 also revealed spatial vulnerabilities that make African cities less resilient such as transportation, architecture and ICT infrastructure.</li><p> <li>To make cities more resilient to disasters, African governments need to adopt long-term, holistic approaches to improve socio-economic, environmental and governance systems. </li> </ul> 8 Lessons for African Cities from the Covid-19 Pandemic