Urban Responses that Makes Future Cities Resilient to Pandemic Shocks - A review of relevant pre-existing UN Guidance


This document was developed by Xuanyi (Maxwell) Nie[1], intern with UN-Habitat and doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (USA), with contribution by the UN-Habitat colleagues from the Future Cities Global Programme team, as well as Pamela Carbajal, from the UN-Habitat Planning and Urban Health Programme.


Human health has been a strong motivation for interventions in urban planning since the existence of cities. Critical attention to urban public health came in during the industrial revolution. The British social reformer Edwin Chadwick’s influential sanitary report in 1842 raised wide discussions on whether the government should intervene in a laissez-faire system. This intellectual stream was paralleled by Fredrich Engels’s critique on the cramped, grossly inadequate housing quarters manifested in the 1842 “The Condition of the Working Class in England”. This was furthered by John Robertson’s “Housing and the Public Health” in 1919 that systematically advocated for healthy environment as a mandatory public service associated with dwelling.

Figure 1 – Cover of ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’

Although the fields of urban planning and public health share a common origin in the efforts to tame the ravages of early industrialization in the 19th century, the two disciplines somehow parted away in the early 20th century since the division of labor moved planners to increasingly focus on the built environment, while public health professionals narrowed in on biomedical causes of disease and disability.  Now health has returned to the forefront of urban planning, and this COVID-19 global threat can be viewed as an opportunity for significant urban planning reforms, and the propinquity of urban planning to preparing for epidemic shocks in the cities is rendered more urgent than ever. While many ongoing studies overly focus on developed countries, it is indubitable that this global challenge ought to be faced together by the entire population, and the insufficient health services and health infrastructures in developing countries brings non-pharmaceutical interventions such as urban planning under the spotlight of researchers and practitioners’ attentions.

This article, “Urban Responses that Makes Future Cities Resilient to Pandemic Shocks”, aims at suggesting essential urban elements that can help future cities resist pandemic shocks, and tries to  summarize key learnings that UN-Habitat’s Urban Lab team has gathered from the responses to the current pandemic, with special attention given to developing countries and especially the work across the 19 cities of the Global Future Cities Program funded by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (UKFCO).


What Key Urban Elements for the Future Cities to Resist Future Pandemics?

In response to the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda, and the ongoing work of Global Future Cities Program at the UN Habitat, this article underscores a list of urban elements effective in resisting epidemic shocks and contributive to future resilient cities particularly in the developing countries: 1) Walkable and Cyclable Environment; 2) Mixed Land-Use; 3) Epidemic Prevention Areas; 4) Building Primary Care Network; 5) Inclusive Planning; and 6) Digital Governance. It also serves as a nexus that links with the best practices, ongoing projects, and relevant publications at the UN.


  1. Walkable and Cyclable Environment:

For most emerging infectious diseases, prevention that mitigates disease risk is economically better than cure of adaptation to an outbreak. Urban population’s everyday life is heavily affected by our built environment especially in the megacities with fast-pace urbanization, and one particular concern is the relationship between the built environment and NCD (non-communicable disease). NCDs includes diabetes, cardiovascular conditions and raspatory conditions which may be risk factor for epidemics including COVID-19 (Gupta, Ghosh, & Singh, 2020; Zheng, Ma, Zhang, & Xie, 2020). It is widely believed that designing pedestrian-friendly and cycling-friendly cities will help to produce healthier living environments (Giles-Corti, et al., 2016). Evidence suggests that diabetes, cardiovascular disease and raspatory conditions could be reduced by better transport and green space planning that promotes physical activity (Nieuwenhuijsen, 2018),  and cleaner air quality which can mitigate the spread of COVID-19 (Zhu, Xie, Huang, & Cao, 2020).

Although this concern is mostly prevalent in developed countries such as the U.S where car-dependent urban forms have led to the creation of obesogenic (‘obesity inducing’) environments, the dominance of motor cycles are equally apparent in megacities of the developing world such as Bandung in Indonesia shown in Figure 2. The GFCP has launched several transportation-related projects in these developing countries, and details can be seen on the GFCP Knowledge Platform. The predominant causes include untailored urban sprawl and lack of public transport infrastructure that lead to over-reliance on private motorcycles, weak municipal capacity in the provision of public goods including good-quality public spaces, streets and sidewalks, and rambunctious private sector development that maximizes land use and density, leading to gated complexes and little public benefits. Ensuring city resilience through planning that enhances urban population health is a long-term yet essential task for building global future cities. Key areas of focus for an effective urban response for COVID-19 can be found in recent UN-Habitat publications on key messages for Public Space and Urban Transportation.