Cities on the frontline: Managing the coronavirus crisis


CIDOB analyses the role of global cities in handling the coronavirus and reflects on the urban future 

  • Published by CIDOB within the framework of its Global Cities Programme, the report highlights cities’ ability to respond and innovate in the face of the COVID-19 crisis and to generate collaboration and mobilise resources, talent and experience. It also underlines that more decentralised countries have had greater capacity to address the pandemic’s complexity and to articulate more context-specific responses. 

What role have cities played in the coronavirus crisis? 

The COVID-19 crisis has unfolded in an increasingly urbanised world in which globally interconnected cities and urban density have accelerated and intensified the pandemic’s impact. However, cities have also been at the forefront of managing the crisis and supporting citizens, becoming front-line actors and filling gaps in government action. This CIDOB Report makes a critical examination of how 12 global cities have handled the pandemic – Barcelona,Berlin,Buenos Aires,Cape Town,Chicago, Hong Kong,London,Melbourne,Milan,San Francisco, Vienna and Zurich – and how they have coped with most of the crisis’s impacts on the ground. They have provided essential services like mobility and waste management, adapted public space to ensure social distancing, cared for the most vulnerable, supported companies, professionals and workers affected by the crisis, and strengthened healthcare systems. 

Cities, spaces of alliance in times of crisis

Alliances built with civil society and the private and scientific sectors to tackle the crisis have been key in many cities, producing digital spaces for meeting and dialogue, encouraging knowledge transfer, the exchange of experiences and political advocacy processes. “Coproduction has been vital to mitigate the impact of the crisis at local level” says Hannah Abdullah, Research Fellow with CIDOB’s Global Cities Programme and contributing author and co-coordinator of this CIDOB Report. “In cities with a strong civic tradition, new modes of participation have emerged. In Barcelona the makers community has collaborated with the Ateneus de Fabricació to produce personal protective equipment using 3D printers, and in Cape Town civic–public collaboration through initiatives like Cape Town Together has helped mitigate the effects of the crisis on the most vulnerable people during a very strict lockdown”. 

Decentralisation and cooperation to face complex and uncertain scenarios

As Agustí Fernández de Losada, Director of CIDOB’s Global Cities Programme and contributing author and co-coordinator of this CIDOB Report, says “more decentralised countries like Germany, Austria and Argentina have had greater capacity to tackle the pandemic’s complexity and coordinate context-specific responses. Even in countries whose leadership is clouded by denialism like the United States, Brazil and India, decentralisation has acted as a firewall, allowing cities and states to implement confinement and lockdowns that have mitigated the ravages of the virus”. By contrast, the data seems to indicate that the most centralised countries, or those that have recently re-centralised competences and developed uniform measures applied evenly throughout the territory have been less efficient. 

The experiences of two cities with federal status detailed in this publication show that cooperation between different spheres of government is key to providing a more efficient response to citizens: Berlin built a hospital in four weeks and Vienna set up a telephone helpline providing information about the coronavirus in 24 languages to guarantee its citizens the right to reliable information. Cities like London and Barcelona, on the other hand, which have strong metropolitan governments, have found their capacities limited during the crisis. 

Towards the inclusive, sustainable city of multiple centralities

The crisis generated by coronavirus offers opportunities to rethink the city. Measures imposed at least temporarily to ensure social distancing will require aspects to be reviewed of such importance as transport, the use of public space, the functioning of local trade, and tourism. Adapting public space and its uses will be a key factor. Advancing towards the polycentric city (the 15-minute city), with multiple centres that each host administrative, economic and commercial activity, services, cultural, sports and leisure, would greatly reduce internal mobility in the city and improve citizens' quality of life. 

Designing recovery

In this context of social emergency, which punishes neighbourhoods with lower incomes, cities should be able to promote public policies that guarantee prosperity, mitigate the social emergency and technological disruption, and deepen the ecological transition towards zero emission scenarios. Cities such as Milan have already begun designing comprehensive recovery strategies that focus on strengthening the economic sectors with the highest added value, such as ICT, biomedicine, transport, culture and the creative industries. They seek to revise patterns of consumption and bolster local trade and production, the social and solidarity economy, the circular economy and digitalisation processes. 

This CIDOB Report is part of a larger dossier, Cities in Times of Pandemics, which brings together  diverse content produced in the framework of CIDOB’s Global Cities Programme, which has been promoted by Barcelona City Council and whose main objective is to build a research agenda aimed at proposing innovative solutions to the real challenges cities share. 

On June 22nd 2020, CIDOB organised a webinar to reflect on the report’s main ideas with some of its authors and analyse the challenges and opportunities of urban governance in a post-pandemic world.

>> The full video of the event may be watched here.