Living Cities: How COVID changed cities — Cocaine capitals — Relics of past pandemics

Опубликовано: Thursday, 23 March 2023 15:55

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Happy Thursday, city-lovers, and welcome back to Living Cities.

City life changed dramatically after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March of 2020, confining everyone to their homes and imposing curfews and mask mandates.

This week we take stock of how cities changed as a result of the pandemic — and what stayed the same. Join us on this — fun, we promise! — journey from the dark days of lockdown to our new normal.

TALK TO US: Next Thursday we’ll be celebrating Living Cities’ first birthday by hosting a live conversation with you, our dear readers; scroll down for all the details.


CITIES’ COVID-19 RENAISSANCE: It turns out the most influential urbanist of this century is not some Danish academic or British architect, but the deadly respiratory disease that caused the world to grind to a halt three years ago. The urgency of stopping the spread of COVID-19 meant local leaders had to enforce emergency measures that reshaped city life in a radical way. Three years later, life may feel like it is mostly back to normal — but those measures have left their mark on the urban landscape.


The provisional bike lanes installed during lockdowns have now become permanent in most cities | Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images

What stuck: The provisional bike lanes installed during lockdowns have now become permanent in most cities. Local authorities are paying attention to how we use public space more than ever. Buildings have been redesigned to facilitate air flows. And business centers are still struggling to find a way to survive in the wake of the work-from-home revolution.

What didn’t: Despite the disruption caused by COVID, some aspects of the city didn’t change: Traffic levels are back to what they were before lockdowns — with all that implies for air quality. So too are housing prices, mass tourism trends and overcrowded subway trains.

Check out my story with colleagues Joanna, Mari and Gio for more on what changed, what didn’t and why the city didn’t die after all, as we predicted it might back in the early days of the pandemic.


EU SUPPORT FOR REBUILDING UKRAINE: The European Commission launched a new training program this week to help Ukrainian cities take on the challenge of rebuilding in the wake of the Russian invasion. Throughout April teams from municipalities in Ukraine will be able to attend online seminars on reconstruction. The modules are part of the Phoenix Initiative and the Commission’s larger New European Bauhaus scheme, both of which aim to mobilize the EU’s urban planners, architects and engineers to help Ukraine “build back better.”


Berlin’s huge subway network seeks to expand service beyond the city center | Carsten Koall/Getty Images

U-BAHN EXPANSION: Berlin’s huge subway network may be about to get bigger: Local media reports the city wants to double the network’s size by 2050, expanding from its current 147 kilometers to 318 km. It’s unclear how much the enlargement, which seeks to expand service beyond the city center, would cost.

A BUDGET FOR ALL: For the first time, Strasbourg’s 2023 budget has been crafted to ensure public spending favors women as much as it does men. An analysis of last year’s budget revealed that only 0.5 percent of the city’s operating expenditures and 2.9 percent of investments are considered to be positive for gender equality; in contrast, more than 60 percent of expenditures and 54.5 percent of spending this year has been deemed to be “gender sensitive.”

COCAINE CAPITAL: Antwerp may be Belgium’s second city, but it’s number one in Europe when it comes to blow. That’s according to an analysis published this week by the EU drugs agency (EMCDDA) and SCORE group, which evaluated wastewater from around 54 million people last year in over 100 participating European cities. Last year, Belgian authorities seized a record amount — 110 tons — of cocaine in the city’s port, and consumption is up in nearby Amsterdam, Brussels, Utrecht and Eindhoven.

It’s an honor to just be nominated: Beyond Benelux, the EMCDDA’s analysis revealed cocaine consumption to be highest in Spanish and Swiss cities: Tarragona, Lleida, Valencia, Zurich, Basel and Geneva were all in the top 10 of the 100 cities whose wastewater was tested by the agency. Lisbon also made the cut.

BEAVERS ARE BACK: Everyone’s favorite semiaquatic rodent is coming back to the British capital. Some 400 years after they were hunted to extinction across the U.K., the city is investing £39,154 to reintroduce the animals as part of a wider plan to “rewild” London. Locals will soon be able to go on evening “safaris” in Ealing’s wetlands to try to spot the wet beavers, whose dams experts say can help ease climate-related flooding.


London wants to reintroduce beavers to its wildlife as part of a wider plan to “rewild” | iStock

BURROWING BADGERS: Speaking of furry animals, badgers are wreaking havoc in the Dutch cities of Den Bosch and Boxtel by burrowing under train tracks. Because badgers are protected species in the Netherlands, rail operators have to get permission to move them before repairs can begin; until then, rail service between the two cities has been suspended.

LET’S GET DIGITAL: Brussels this week became the latest city to adopt a smart-city strategy aimed at expanding the use of digital technology to improve urban life. Among other projects, the Belgian capital wants to use tech to map the city and figure out how to ensure basic services are within a 10-minute walk or bike trip from every inhabitant. Check out my story from last May on how Barcelona is using a supercomputer to carry out a similar analysis.


RELICS OF PANDEMICS PAST: For many, the pandemic may feel like a distant dream (or rather, a nightmare). But COVID-19 is still a presence in many of our cities — if not in record case numbers, then in the physical infrastructure cities built to curb transmission and adapt to a distanced lifestyle.

Stickers, plastic screens and gel dispensers: The most easily ignored reminders of those early months of the pandemic are the faded signs and peeling stickers reminding public transport users of masking requirements that, in many cases, no longer apply. Few have bothered to take down the plastic safety screens installed in post offices and other municipal buildings, and most sanitzer dispensers installed in public spaces have also been left alone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as they could be useful in fighting seasonal flu outbreaks and promoting better hygiene. But it’s unclear if cities will go to the trouble of repairing or refilling the dispensers; in Brussels, many seem to have been neglected.


Faded signs and peeling stickers reminding people to social distance in public spaces in many cases no longer apply | Koen van Weel/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

Recycle, reuse: Perhaps they can be recycled, like what China is doing with its thousands of COVID testing booths. In Shenzhen and Changsha, the booths have gotten a new lease on life by being used as fever clinics and medicine distribution sites. Meanwhile, in Suzhou, authorities have converted them into food and souvenir stalls. A promising reuse of infrastructure developed for a very dark time.

Wine windows: Infrastructure developed in response to past pandemics have stood the test of time — and some found renewed purpose during COVID. Across Tuscany, cities made use of countless buchette del vino (wine windows) carved in the stone walls of ancient buildings in the 14th century, when the bubonic plague spread across Italy. Shopkeepers developed these small openings to sell wine to patrons with as little physical contact as possible. Hundreds of these wine windows got a new lease on life during the COVID pandemic in cities like Florence, Pisa and Sienna.


These windows allowed shopkeepers to keep selling wine during the bubonic plague | Creative Commons

Clean walls: Cities also learned an important lesson from the 1918 flu pandemic: Tiled walls in public buildings are easy to clean and keep disinfected. Antwerp’s Sint-Annatunnel, which links the two sides of the Schelde river, and countless metro systems built during the 1920s and 30s across Europe were designed with these walls. The rationalist buildings in Madrid’s University City, inaugurated in 1931, also feature the hygiene-focused design.


Antwerp’s Sint-Annatunnel has allowed pedestrians and cyclists to go beneath the Schelde river to access Linkeroever since 1933 | Creative Commons




HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BABY: Next week marks the first anniversary of our Living Cities project. To celebrate our first full trip around the sun, Gio and I will host a Twitter Space event in which we’ll answer your questions on anything and everything related to Europe’s cities. Submit your queries here and make sure to tune in next Thursday at 4 p.m.!


— I urge all non-Flemish speakers to break out their translation apps to read Bruzz’s excellent report on the world of Brussels bike thieves: Risking only a small fine if they’re caught, gangs have set up organized networks to ship and resell the purloined cycles in places like Barcelona.

— I love this clip released by Catalan broadcaster TV3 featuring the folks who voice the recorded station announcements on Barcelona’s metro and regional train network; their mellow tones are a key part of the city’s soundtrack.


Call me by his name | Creative Commons

— If you see a dog in Brussels feel free to call him Max: According to data from the region’s Ministry for Animal Welfare, that’s the most popular name among the 89,167 doggos in the Belgian capital. Ministry figures also show that, for the first time in a decade, chihuahuas are no longer the most popular breed in the city: That honor now goes to the humble canis vulgaris — everybody loves a mutt.

MANY THANKS TO: Helen Collis, Joanna Roberts, Charlie Cooper, Zia Weise, Ana Fota, Sarah-Taïssir Bencharif, my editors Esther King, Kelsey Hayes and Stephan Faris and producer Giulia Poloni.

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POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab is a collaborative journalism project seeking solutions to challenges faced by modern societies in an age of rapid change. Over the coming months we will host a conversation on how to make cities more livable and sustainable.