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Pathways to transformation: The Covid-19 pandemic crisis and emerging lessons for repurposing our cities

Covid-19 has impacted on contemporary society in ways that would not have been contemplated even six months ago. No-one would have considered locking down half the world’s population as remotely feasible in January of this year. Unsurprisingly, much has, and continues to be, written about the current Covid-19 pandemic and its impacts on our lives.

By Llewellyn van Wyk, Infrastructure Policy and Development Analyst, New Zealand

Many of these contributors and writers have also argued that Covid-19 provides a critical moment for societal transformation – an opportunity, as it were, to replace the dysfunctional economic, social, and environmental systems that have accumulated over decades. This collective writing is contributing to the building of a new body of knowledge on how pandemic crisis impacts on our lives, and how governments and people did and can respond to its challenges. The value of these lessons should not be underestimated: never have we had a single pandemic crisis impact on so many people almost simultaneously at this scale. As Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand keeps on reminding us, “there is no playbook for this.”

It just may be that after Covid-19, if there is an after (more on this anon), it may well be possible to construct such a playbook.

BACKGROUND

The opportunity to contribute to such a playbook dawned on me as my mailbox began filling with contributions from writers and thinkers from around the globe. Perhaps among the collective contributions, some lessons could be gleaned that would offer pathways to transformation. It may be argued that trying to create potential lessons from an event that has yet to run its course is premature at best, foolish at worst. After all, a post-Covid-19 could look quite different from what is being currently widely speculated.

Notwithstanding this risk, there seems to me to be a unique opportunity to distill lessons from the many commentaries on the subject especially while passions are still so high. No doubt the learned studies will follow, and these two views – a before and after, spontaneous and considered if you like – will, in and of itself, be enlightening.

Thus, I began a process of curation hoping that these curated insights could help leaders in the public, private, and social sectors overcome the crisis—and remake the future. This has allowed me to draw on some of the wealth of material produced since the outbreak of Covid-19, utilising some of the 300+ articles that came into my inbox. This curated collection represents some of the best I have read; no doubt, there are other excellent contributions that I have probably missed.

What follows is a collection of think-pieces – missives written in the heat of battle from the frontlines – from a wide array of contributors over a period of four months. As to be expected, there is a personal bias in the recording since what enters my email inbox is predominantly invited and firmly grounded in progressive thinking and delimited to placemaking. Given the delimitations of the data collection method (both source and topic bias), I have systematically collected and collated all contributions as they appear daily. From these puzzle pieces, a general picture has emerged as one would expect from the adoption of a grounded theory approach in research. Not surprisingly, many overlaps emerged as well, and they are most likely attributable perhaps to a growing collective awareness and shared philosophies.

PRELIMINARY FINDINGS

What struck me, in the beginning, was the uncertainty surrounding the nature and by implication, the solutions needed to manage the crisis. This reminded me of a scene in the 2011 movie Margin Call. There is a scene in the movie where, at a senior partners meeting called at 4 AM to discuss the potential financial collapse of the company, the CEO, John Tuld (played by Jeremy Irons), following a briefing by a young risk analyst to Tuld on the nature of the problem, replies: “So, what you are telling me is that the music is about to stop, and we are going to be left holding the biggest bag of odorous excrement ever assembled in the history of…..capitalism.” The movie is of course fictitious, although based on the events of the financial crisis of 2007-08 and indirectly referencing the actions of Goldman Sachs at the time. But it is the subsequent dialogue which is of relevance where Tuld sums up the situation as follows, “I’m here for one reason and one reason alone. I’m here to guess what the music might do a week, a month, a year from now. That’s it. Nothing more. I’m standing here tonight I’m afraid that I don’t… hear… a thing. Just…. silence. So, now that we know the music has stopped, what do we do about it?” 

We do not know whether Covid-19 has stopped the music or is just slowing it down. It is too early to say. However, the music has elicited a huge amount of commentary on all social media platforms with responses varying from “hoax” to “overreaction” to “mythical moment for humankind” and everything in-between.

What we do know is that the Covid-19 crisis is a human tragedy and, in that sense, a clear lesson for humanity to not overestimate the resilience of our global society to external shocks.

In the beginning of the pandemic’s spread out of China, the commentary focused almost exclusively on the nature of the virus itself, and potential threats it posed. Very soon, however, as case numbers increased and nation-wide shutdowns started, the topics covered in the commentaries broadened.

Commentators were quick to seize on the opportunity to use the pandemic as a moment to change our consumption and production patterns. Many argue that the underlying systemic weaknesses in our socio-economic structure create the enabling environment for Covid-19-type crisis to flourish. Similarly, questions are asked about our seeming inability as a specie to think about tomorrow. Despite much finger-pointing at the tardiness with which some countries responded to putting containment measures in place, the overall sentiment is one of hopeful optimism that some good can come out of it.

This notion that we are poor at thinking about tomorrow suggested that a short history of epidemics and pandemics was required to assess whether there has been a time or times in the past when we did better. The answer, regrettably, is no.

Changing our consumption and production patterns inevitably means revaluing our relationship with the natural environment and the impacts it causes. This argument is strengthened by early suggestions that the virus spread from a wet seafood market associated with the trade of wildlife. There is significant evidence that links past pandemics to the same source.

Commentators also took the opportunity to draw parallels between fighting climate change, and our response to Covid-19. On this subject, opinion is divided as to whether governments and the electorate for that matter, will connect the dots.

What also emerges very clearly is the implications of global socio-economic and political links. These links are not only founded on the movement of goods and people but also the dependencies that global outsourcing creates together with the lack of a globally coordinated response.

One of the earliest axioms to come out of the sustainable development movement in the 1980s was to “think globally, and to act locally”. This is a timely moment to unpack this notion again in light of the current crisis. The state of national preparedness – or absence thereof – features prominently in this narrative. The state of healthcare and its ability to respond quickly and effectively is perhaps the most poignant question asked, and extensive reviews will need to be done to recalibrate this critical service.

All the above takes us firmly into the study field of human ecology being the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary study of the relationship between humans, and their natural, social, and built environments. Human ecology theory considers the interactions of humans with their environments as a system. This systemic scrutiny provides an appropriate platform from which evaluate Covid-19 and its broader socio-economic and environmental impacts.

While there is considerable commentary on the Covid-19 impacts and lessons for the social and natural environments, it is the third environment i.e., built environment, and its interaction with the natural and social environments that is my real field of study. While commentaries did emerge on possible lessons and impacts on placemaking, they tended to focus on a priori textbook urban design and planning interventions rather than on what the emerging Covid-19 data i.e., planning commentaries are based on theoretical deduction rather than empirical observation. The empirical observation uses a wide enough lens to encompass all the commentaries and observations made to explore and propose a raft of possible responses capable of enriching while repurposing and futureproofing our built environments.

Covid-19 is highlighting numerous structural shortcomings in the way we live as a species.

While they touch on almost all aspects of society some notables include human impact on the natural environment, consumption and production patterns, health care (or lack thereof), infrastructure fragility, and the quality (and absence thereof) of public places. All of these are and will increasingly continue to be severely tested by climate change too. Covid-19, therefore, grants us a unique moment to measure our resilience to forecasted climate change impacts and, if we choose, to recalibrate our adaptation and mitigation instruments.

Over the course of the ensuing months, I will unpack many of the above themes in greater detail and expand on the lessons learned. Without pre-empting the many lessons, there are three standout messages: first, how unprepared governments were (and continue to be) to deal with severe disruptions; second, how fragile many of our systems are; and third, many structural fault lines were already active – Covid-19 has just exposed them.

Now, more than ever, is the opportunity to fix our many broken systems.

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