COVID-19 and the ‘old-fashioned’ idea of neighbourhoods

Dr Patrícia Canelas and Dr Idalina Baptista write on the opportunity COVID-19 provides to rethink the neighbourhood as an appropriate scale for addressing urban quality of life problems.

Originally published on on 8 June 2020.

Dr Patrícia Canelas
Departmental Lecturer, Sustainable Urban Development Programme, University of Oxford

Dr Idalina Baptista
Associate Professor, Sustainable Urban Development Programme, University of Oxford

On behalf of the Oxford COVID-19 Evidence Service Team
University of Oxford

Correspondence to

COVID-19 offers an opportunity to rethink the neighbourhood as an appropriate scale for addressing urban quality of life problems, especially for disadvantaged urban dwellers, with a view to facilitate just sustainability in cities.

We examine how COVID-19 has been experienced unevenly across the world and by different segments of the population. While many middle-class/white-collar workers in countries such as the UK seem to be plotting a move to the countryside, this option is not readily available to many ‘essential workers’ – whether they are valued NHS doctors, nurses and support staff, council workers collecting bins, workers refilling supermarket shelves, or the workers who have kept the myriad supply chains going throughout the pandemic. At the same time, in India, a return to the countryside seemed the only option available to millions of migrant workers who, deprived of their informal city jobs, had nowhere else to turn but their rural villages of origin. In South African townships, residents are equally struggling to make ends meet as a result of strict lockdown rules. Around the world, disadvantaged urban dwellers, many of whom are citizens of colour and/or migrants, have been disproportionately affected by the impacts of COVID-19. Despite these disparities, urban planning responses remain problematised within the framework of white-collar, middle-class, white, developed-world urban dwellers. There seems to be a great focus on avoiding a return to the car through pedestrianisation, rethinking office layouts, and accommodating holiday makers back into cities. These mainstream solutions seem to bypass the needs of the many disadvantaged urban dwellers living in underserviced, job-less neighbourhoods.

The pandemic creates an opportunity to refocus attention on quality of life at the neighbourhood scale. We suggest revisting the idea of neighbourhoods as mixed-use, mixed-income and intergenerational spaces promoted in the 1960s by Jane Jacobs, updating it to reflect contemporary just sustainability concerns. This includes reflecting on circular economy principles, for example, rescaling food production, distribution and food waste management. It also requires a greater focus on the provision and renovation of infrastructure which may include basic sanitation, internet and mobile communications and soft mobility alternatives. Furthermore, it must pay attention to the systemic inequalities and exclusions embedded in the urban fabric, whereby citizens of colour and/or migrants are afforded poorer quality of life than their counterparts in predominantly white (and wealthier) neighbourhoods, not least in lower-income countries. What counts as a mixed-use, mixed-income and intergenerational well planned neighbourhood today will be highly context-specific and mediated by historical processes of exclusion and uneven development characteristic to different cities. These must be taken into account if we are to strive for more just and sustainable cities.

At any rate, a focus on the neighbourhood scale should seek to improve and create places that require limited travel for work, care, and leisure. There is significant evidence that shows current urban planning/design add an unreasonable number of extra hours of unpaid work for women around the world. Transport systems are designed with male commuter patterns in mind (i.e. home-work travel patterns), but do not account for the travel that women have do for care-work (e.g. taking care of children and relatives, food shopping, etc.). These design flaws are ever the more evident in lower-income countries, where women (and girls) also have to fulfil basic services functions on a daily basis, such as fetching water or fuel for their households.

Despite the obvious need for rapid action to protect public health in this pandemic, we should note that decisions we take today will stay with us for a long time. We argue that the neighbourhood scale offers an adequate scale of analysis and action while enabling to put those most in need at the centre of our thinking.

Disclaimer: the article has not been peer-reviewed; it should not replace individual clinical judgement and the sources cited should be checked. The views expressed in this commentary represent the views of the authors and not necessarily those of the host institution, the NHS, the NIHR, or the Department of Health and Social Care. The views are not a substitute for professional medical advice.

Patricia Canelas is a Departmental Lecturer in Sustainable Urban Development at the University of Oxford. She is an architect and an urban planner, and holds a PhD in Planning from the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London, and a M.Arch from the University of California, Berkeley.

Idalina Baptista is an Associate Professor in Urban Anthropology at the University of Oxford. She holds a PhD in City and Regional Planning from the University of California, Berkeley.