Inclusive, Green, Smart: COVID-19 is accelerating a new urban paradigm shift

Banner image: Shutterstock / Norman Allchin

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future.

To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit our Digital Content Hub.


Contagious diseases and pandemics have always been game changers for cities, whether the Black Plague in 14th century or cholera sweeping across European cities in the 19th century.

Pandemics like COVID-19 are not new to cities. In the 19th century, dingy Paris housing and ancient public hygiene practices, with people throwing sewage into the street, created perfect conditions for cholera to ravage the city. But after Baron Haussmann was appointed Préfet de la Seine, the most extensive city public works programme ever carried out in Europe transformed Paris into the elegant landscape we are familiar with today. Grand parks and gardens, modernised housing, tree-lined streets — and a proper sewerage system.

What changes in urban planning today could take inspiration from the COVID-19 pandemic? With lockdown, social distancing and disrupted production and consumption, the current crisis is making us question how, where and in what ways we live and work. What lessons can we learn to rebuild our cities so they are better suited our needs? Our paper Cities Policy Responses to COVID-19 explores responses from more than 100 cities globally and outlines 10 key lessons, of which the following three are the most critical.

Read the OECD's Cities Policy Responses to COVID-19

Baron Haussmann carried out the most extensive city public works programme in Europe, creating wide, tree-lined streets and homogeneous buildings, transforming Paris into the elegant landscape we are familiar with today. Image: Shutterstock /ShustrikS.

Cities are going digital

Large-scale use of technology allows for better social distancing, and this has potential benefits for how space is used. For cities and their residents, going digital has implications for land use, asset management, urban mobility, infrastructure design, social inclusion and work-life balance. The pivotal role of digitalisation as part of the response to the pandemic has pushed many cities to normalise the use of smart city tools.

Cities are well-positioned to tackle inequality

Housing and urban design have become even more critical as we use local public spaces more intensively and, those who can, work from home more frequently. In the COVID-19 era, the segregation in cities has become very clear and the bold, innovative actions taken by many mayors further highlights this. Several mayors within the OECD Champion Mayors Initiative for Inclusive Growth have put inclusive growth at the centre of their recovery strategies. For instance, Mayor Hidalgo of Paris is prioritising support to vulnerable populations in her pandemic response, including food delivery services and accommodation for the homeless. She has also prolonged initiatives to support small businesses, including "zero-rent" and "zero-tax" measures for restaurant, bar and café owners forced to close. Other responses have varied, from Paraty in Brazil supporting informal workers in its recovery plan, to Vienna in Austria announcing the construction of 1,000 additional affordable housing units.

Cities are going green

Recognising that the recovery from COVID-19 presents an opportunity to make their economies greener, many more cities are looking at how to tackle pressing environmental challenges to reduce air pollution and create jobs. Sustainable urban mobility is among the top of those initiatives. For example, Bogotá, Colombia added 35km of additional cycle paths to the existing 550km, and Seattle in the United States permanently closed 32km of highway to most vehicle traffic to provide more space for social distancing. Energy efficiency investments are also part of recent urban upgrades. Seoul, Korea is installing solar panels on all municipal buildings and a million homes within four years, creating 4,500 jobs.

Also on the Forum Network: A Future in the Balance: Will the recovery be Green? by MEP Philippe Lamberts

More than six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, this is just a sample of what some cities have already done. They are transitioning from the immediate health response to longer-term recovery strategies to be more inclusive, green and smart, and address the economic and social crises. We should applaud the fact that an increasing number of cities are taking bold, courageous decisions and implement ways to rebuild cities that are better adapted to our needs — to build back better.

Related topics

Tackling COVID-19 Housing Climate Digitalisation

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Lamia Kamal-Chaoui

Director, Centre for Entrepreneurship, OECD

Lamia Kamal-Chaoui is the Director of the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities (CFE). She supports the Secretary-General in achieving the OECD’s mission to advance economic growth and social progress as well as contributing to other global agendas such as the G20, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the implementation of the SDGs. Ms Kamal-Chaoui has held several senior positions at the OECD since 1998 and was appointed Director of the CFE in 2016. She holds a Master’s Degree in Macroeconomics from the University of Paris Dauphine and a Master’s Degree in Foreign Languages and History from the University of Paris Diderot.

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