PDU, COVID-19 and healthy cities

It so happens that this experience and the subsequent collective reflection that has placed health at the centre of the debate about the places where we live is taking place at the same time as the process as the drafting of the Metropolitan Urban Master Plan (PDU) for the metropolitan area of Barcelona. The opportunity to see how urban planning, and the PDU in particular, can cope with episodes similar to the present circumstances more effectively and to reflect on the lessons that can be learned in order to design a healthier metropolis cannot therefore be missed.

PDU, COVID-19 and healthy cities
The specific opportunities that this crisis has provided should be identified and considered how they can be transformed and incorporated into everyday life in the future on a permanent basis: how can urban planning take advantage of the social, economic and cultural changes that the pandemic will create to turn the city model it wants into a reality? And in the specific field of health: to what extent could the importance of health-related aspects increase, not as regards the treatment of pandemics, but above all in preventive terms by creating healthier environments?

The following article is a summary of a longer essay lead by the AMB Area for the Development of Urban Planning Policies, through the PDU Drafting Service. You can find it in this document


There are recent health crises, also serious as this one or perhaps more. From the Spanish flu that killed tens of millions of people around the world at the beginning of the twentieth century to Zika or Ebola outbreaks in the twenty-first century.
With these precedents in mind, it is worth considering whether these pandemics and epidemics led to a change in the urban model where they occurred. And we can see that in every occasion, there is the desire to change the crowded and unhealthy city in order to make it more liveable, but none of them call into question the city itself.
Two types of question need to be answered at this point. The first involves a short period of time, and the response to the crisis: what can urban planning do to adapt the city to possible similar situations in the future? The second type of question refers to what will happen in the long term, identifies the specific opportunities that this crisis has provided, and considers how they can be transformed and incorporated into everyday life in the future on a permanent basis: how can urban planning take advantage of the social, economic and cultural changes that the pandemic will create to turn the city model it wants into a reality? And in the specific field of health: to what extent could the importance of health-related aspects increase, not as regards the treatment of pandemics, but above all in preventive terms by creating healthier environments?
Let us try to answer these questions based on the four areas related to urban planning where this crisis has in principle had the greatest impact: facilities (especially healthcare facilities), mobility, public space and housing. All four are closely related to each other and have obvious synergies, and it is important that planning considers them on a holistic basis, with the other factors, for this reason. However, their specific characteristics are worth considering here.


If this crisis has made one thing clear, it is the importance of the quality of our health services, and especially the public healthcare system, in responding to it. The provision of health and social-health facilities, from pharmacies to leading hospitals to primary healthcare centres and mental health centres, is certainly an issue for planning.
The PDU must consider two points in its proposals for facilities. First, it must ensure dialogue and coordination with sectoral planning in order to guarantee the best location and conditions to meet the demands of the population at the highest possible levels of proximity and efficiency. Second, it must design and locate facilities which are sufficiently flexible to perform the primary role for which they have been designed, while at the same time able to adapt to changing social demands and to possibly meet the needs arising from a pandemic crisis situation or any other unexpected emergency.

Three major issues have focused the debate on mobility planning in cities as a result of the COVID-19 experience: changes in the modal distribution of travel, the possible decline in mobility itself due to teleworking, and the opportunity to introduce some degree of flexible hours in workers' working days.
These three ideas are probably connected by the most important factor arising from the COVID-19 situation: many people's discovery and subsequent reflection on the benefits of and even the need for a new mobility model. The perception that it is possible to use urban space in another way if there is a change in the mobility model, and that improved air quality, the freeing up of areas allocated exclusively to vehicle traffic and even social harmony itself can improve the conditions in which we live, has made a large proportion of the population begin to be willing, to some extent, to give up routines that were until recently considered indispensable, in favour of an improved quality of life. Urban planning must take the lead in and guide this process of transformation, so that it takes place in an orderly manner.

The lockdown was perhaps not a relinquishment of the public space, but instead a reduction in its use to minimum levels. First of all, it is necessary to consider whether planning public space based on criteria for dealing with an exceptional situation in which it had to be used as little as possible is a worthwhile exercise. Moreover, if we accept that the public space is a space for social relations, does it make sense to plan it in a way that minimises interaction with other people? And in any case, to what extent can we make green spaces, squares or pavements fit into our cities based on the proportions of the current health precautions?
The lockdown does not require a remodelling of public space, but instead a minimal use of it. The requirements of the lockdown should not therefore define how the public space is designed. However, as mentioned above, the issue is not one of planning for exceptional circumstances, but rather of taking advantage of the new opportunities that these exceptional circumstances offer us in terms of rethinking our city. The PDU should not focus on planning strictly for the pandemic, but instead on the citizens discovery of the advantages of using public space in a way that is different from how it is currently used, particularly when this new conception of public space is moving towards a more liveable and more sustainable city which the Plan itself advocates. To achieve so, actions for the improvement and expansion of the green infrastructure, increase of the performance of natural spaces and maximisation of ecosystem services should be developed.

Being forced to remain at home for a prolonged period of time due to the lockdown has also added a new dimension to a problem which is unfortunately a long-standing issue in Catalonia, i.e. access to housing and housing conditions. Apart from the subjective perceptions about their own home that many individuals did not have until they were forced to spend extended periods of time there, there have been three main aspects to the housing problem: the space available, habitability conditions and opportunities for relations outside the home.
These three issues, which the lockdown has arised (as well as many others), show that there is a greater need than ever for instruments which ensure that everyone can have access to and remain in a decent home. The reservation of land for officially protected housing, especially in the built city, and the construction of non-residential accommodation that ensure reception facilities for vulnerable people in independent housing remain priorities in the urban planning sphere.


The examination of the four subjects separately – facilities, mobility, public space and housing – has suggested that all of them are subject to the same underlying issue: the ongoing debate between the dense and compact city model versus the dispersed low-density city.
Some studies of the impact of the pandemic have come to the conclusion that the disease is most prevalent in high-density areas. More thorough analyses will undoubtedly be required to determine the extent to which this higher incidence of the virus is a direct consequence of population density levels, or is simply due to the fact that more interactions take place in urban centres because more services are located there. Careful consideration should be given to the extent to which the population's socio-economic situation rather than urban density is the reason for this difference, as the most disadvantaged social groups often live in the most impoverished neighbourhoods in large cities.
However, regardless of these issues, there are three reasons that clearly tip the scales toward the dense, compact city.
The first of these reasons is related to the ability to respond to crisis situations like the one created by the coronavirus emergency. The cohesive and complex proximity-based city, the city with equipment and facilities, is the model which has been able to provide a swift and effective response to healthcare needs throughout this crisis, since this is where healthcare facilities are located, as well as the professionals who have cared for the sick and investigated the pandemic.
The second argument in favour of the dense and compact city is sustainability. The consumption of land, high levels of individual mobility based on motorised means of transport, higher consumption of water and energy and the fragmentation of natural and agricultural environments as a result of an increased need for infrastructure are impacts associated with the dispersed low density city. If this model became widespread, the metropolitan territory would experience irreparable damage while encouraging a model that has never proven itself to be more resilient to pandemics, as mentioned above.
The third argument is the simplest and therefore probably the strongest: the dense and compact city is preferable because in the Barcelona metropolitan area at least, a low-density model is impossible. It is not simply that the extensive model of occupation of space would force us to give up many of our environmental and landscape assets like the ones currently provided by the natural and agricultural spaces in the metropolitan area, but also the fact that we simply do not have enough physical space. The residential fabrics in the metropolitan region of Barcelona, with their streets and other local systems, occupy approximately 40,000 hectares. If we wanted to reduce the density of the densest fabrics without increasing the density of the less dense fabrics, the land required would increase significantly up to environmentally and functionally unsustainable levels.  Moreover, if the spacing were to be consistent with the values of the lowest density residential developments, the residential land required would far exceed the total area in the region.


The city of the future must be the result of shared reflections rather than hurried decisions hastened by temporary emergencies and the serious nature of the circumstances. The PDU works to promote a model of a healthier city that is more stable over time. This model is based on three principles of sustainability: society, the environment and economics. We are thinking in terms of a city that can offset the effects of climate change over the years, while improving the quality of the territorial and urban matrix, and reducing social inequalities. This paradigm – the COVID-19 experience – will not change that.
However, the lockdown we have experienced in order to fight the epidemic will have some consequences. First, it is creating a new economic crisis, with a further growth in social inequalities and a worrying increase in poverty levels in the population. The PDU must help to generate new economic activity by regulating activities flexibly, while at the same time ensuring urban quality and compatibility with residential uses.
Another lesson we have learned from the pandemic has been how facilities have been used, both in general terms and healthcare facilities in particular. The former have metamorphosed, with sports facilities being equipped to create makeshift hospitals, while hospitals have changed the internal distribution of their services at incredible speed. This leads us to reconsider what form the regulation of the uses of facilities should take. In short, the urban planning regulation governing uses must be much more flexible than the current one.
The public space has clearly been shown to be lacking in some very dense urban areas, and although the PDU will add some new areas of squares and parks with great difficulty, what is obvious is that we cannot give up any of those we currently have. We will need all our road areas, despite changing their roles, because if we want to reduce the areas of lanes for private vehicle traffic, we will need more space for bicycles, pedestrians and public transport. This is without losing sight of the fact that private vehicles will always be a fact of life due to their links with economic activity, with the logistics involved in home deliveries, and with mobility to the workplace without sufficient public transport.
The PDU therefore calls for road and rail infrastructure to be a single interrelated system to support much more active mobility, facilitate public transport and limit private mobility to the levels that are strictly necessary. The PDU must guarantee sufficient reserves of road systems, parks and facilities to create a city in which the high quality distribution of those services reaches all neighbourhoods to the same extent.
The needs for social housing, which were already significant before COVID-19 due to shortcomings in the stock of social housing in the rental sector, will now be even more acute because new groups of the population will join the vulnerable groups that are unable to access a rental at the market prices. This will create a more tense situation which calls for urgent solutions and long-term solutions. Intensive urban management, which develops the areas where housing can be built, can solve the most pressing problems. The PDU may establish a more distant timeframe and incorporate new measures that create a public housing stock that is sufficient to address all future housing emergencies by means of the urban development of new sectors.
All these approaches are not only set out in the objectives, but have been discussed in the purposes set out in the PDU Proposal. However, the COVID-19 experience has provided a twofold opportunity that the PDU must seize. First, these proposals must be improved, based on the lessons learned from the health crisis and the multiple contributions made by the public. Second, some dynamics of change that were already taking place which are consistent with its goals and approaches must be accelerated.
Finally, we must understand that the PDU will not be the best tool for dealing with emergencies. However, it will be the spatial planning instrument that we must use to create a city which is better prepared to cope with future emergencies, which is healthier, which takes care of its most vulnerable people, and which is more humanitarian.