How Innovation Leads the Cities through the COVID-19 Recovery

Covid-19 is changing the way we see everything, from the importance of scientific and media literacy to logistics. “The new normal”, as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says, is here and it seems like it will be like this for a while. And while we continue to confront this global health crisis, Covid-19 exposed some extraordinary fragilities in our systems and infrastructures and we will need the help of governments and social entrepreneurs to recover and ensure resiliency in the future.

Urban spaces had not been prepared for COVID-19

There were news reports about animals coming back to urban spaces. Venice saw the return of dolphins to the canals and clear water, both rarities because of the amount of boats in the city and its harbour. A herd of wild goats took in the sites in North Wales. Deer foraged for food in the abandoned streets in Japan. Not everything was as cheerful as the dolphins and sightseeing goats or as calm as deer, despite the damage they did to people’s gardens. Barcelona saw boar come down from the mountains, and everyone saw the video of the monkeys fighting over food scraps in Thailand. These stories highlighted our interconnectedness with animals in the urban ecosystem and the damage we have caused with our sprawling presence.

Early reports and studies from environmental researchers seem to suggest air pollution wasn’t as problematic during the Covid-19 precautions. Maps showing the near disappearance of dangerous greenhouse gases from the troposphere over China were released by NASA in early March. The curtailing of global tourism, high production levels, and decreased road traffic all played a significant role in the rise in air quality, globally. In Vienna, people opted for more cycling and walking rather than taxis and transit, according to ÖAMTC and this trend has continued afterwards, with more cycle traffic on Vienna’s streets. And this will influence how we see travel, consumption, and cars in the cities as we move forward.

People moving through the city to meet their daily needs also became a concern during the precautionary measures. The longer a person was out, the higher the risk of exposure, and the more likely they could pass the virus to others but our need to use greenspaces and be outside, in addition to purchasing food and other supplies, did not diminish. Green spaces and their use have positive effects on our mental health, even just seeing them, in addition to helping with the climate crisis and positively affecting other environmental aspects of urban planning, including heat management, resilience to destructive invasive species, and biodiversity conservation within the urban ecosystems.


Google Maps Mobility Trends - People visited more parks in Austria during COVID-19
Community Mobility Reports by Google show a month-to-month increase in the number of visits to green spaces in Austria since March 2020.


Supply chain management and logistics became vitally important during the Covid-19 crisis as we saw worldwide reports of food wastage in some countries and extraordinary crop damage in others. We were also forced to confront the reality of how our food is harvested by low wage workers brought in from countries suffering from economic hardship in Eastern Europe. However, other aspects of the supply chain were brought into focus as toilet paper and other necessities sold out across the city within hours of precautionary measures being announced. And while the panic subsided after a few days and stores were fully stocked once more, it still affected vulnerable populations within cities in the moment. Which prompted countries following in the wake of Austria’s decisions to impose different restrictions, enabling the elderly and disabled to get supplies needed earlier than others.

And further, we saw the neighbourhoods, globally, which were the hardest hit were the most impoverished. This exposed an on-going class divide across the world. In Paris, the suburbs with the highest infection rates were the over-crowded, ethnically diverse, lower income areas which were home to the people who were considered necessary to work during the outbreaks – cashiers, security guards, delivery people. Which means, they are the people most at risk of exposure in their daily lives, compared to people who were able to work from home in suburbs in which it was easier to socially distance. And for some in these neighbourhoods, and elsewhere across the world, this meant job losses because their job required them to be there in person or required less staff during restricted opening hours. In the United States and United Kingdom, similar reports flooded the media. This has fuelled discussions across the world about racism and classism and how we can better support each other as we move forward, as humans confronting this crisis.

We are still living through a global cataclysmic event. Our mindset and thinking needs to change to incorporate these lessons learned. Which means many cities and nations are adjusting their thinking on urban development, across a whole host of issues, from socially distanced green spaces to new economic models.

Biking on the rise in the European cities

Across the world, governments are having to rethink their approach to issues. Vienna was given the distinction of being the World’s Greenest City this year. Its myriad of public parks and environmental preservation areas within the city contributing to this prestigious title, and to its much-coveted Mercer ranking as the best city in which to live. Vienna’s thinking on green spaces has long been evident in its urban planning, always ensuring there are easily accessible parks and playgrounds for everyone to enjoy. In the months before the Covid-19 crisis fully hit, Vienna unveiled two new programs to increase the green space and lower greenhouse gas emissions: increasing the pedestrian zones in the city and greening building facades. The new pedestrian zones would take accessibility into account, which meant evening out the roads and cobbles to make walking easier for everyone and extending the boundaries. Vienna has started putting up vertical gardens on building facades and partnered with Dachgrün, a Vienna based landscaping firm which has a full product range supporting green rooves and vertical gardens, to make it happen. However, these were all decisions made before Covid-19 necessitated social distancing.

Precht, an Austrian based architecture firm proposed a design for a socially distanced park. The park is to be installed in a vacant lot in Vienna. It features wide, winding lanes separated by tall hedges and gates which would tell people if walking routes were occupied. Parc de la Distance would enable people to take advantage of green spaces for their mental and physical well-being while taking in their concerns about the highly contagious nature of the virus.

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has committed to a more cycling friendly city to ease concerns about the communicability of Covid-19 on public transport. She has run on environmental platforms before but has increased her efforts and commitment since the Covid-19 measures were put in place. Hidalgo imagines what she calls “the 15-minute city” where people are easily able to meet all of their needs within fifteen minutes of home on environmentally sustainable transport, so on foot, cycling, or public transit. Which means better access to food, vital supplies, and medical care for everyone within the city limits.

Amsterdam is looking deeper and tackling the issue of overall economic models in its post Covid-19 planning. It will be adopting the “donut model” of economics, developed by Kate Raworth at Oxford University. The model is designed to help cities, nations, and states to thrive in balance with the planet. Her theory is described as “a breakthrough alternative to growth economics” by The Guardian. In brief, the theory uses the United Nation’s sustainable development goals to define the basic standard for everyone and everything, which is the interior ring. The outside of the donut is the ecological limit of the planet; the boundary we should avoid crossing to limit our damage to the earth and its inhabitants. The dough which forms the ring, the tasty sugar confection we all enjoy, and the part we can still all enjoy. It represents economic stability, meeting the needs of everyone, and ensuring the planet thrives. The model takes into account everything from economic disparity to building new infrastructure using environmentally sustainable materials. City officials in Amsterdam are hoping this new economic model will help them navigate the post-Covid-19 recovery economy.

Redesigning shared city spaces for safety

It is more than just the overarching ethos of a city that is affected, whether it is green spaces, alternative economic models, or accessibility. Urban environments are home to large buildings which house lots of people, whether it is in flats, offices, or hotel rooms. During the precautionary measures for Covid-19 people worked from home, people shared spaces in their homes for longer lengths of time with more people than usual, and normal hotel operations were shut down and some buildings were co-opted as a place to house residents in quarantine or as surge capacity for the health care system. Enterprising design firms have already put thought into how these spaces might look as the world restarts after 2020.

The London architecture firm of Weston Williamson + Partners has turned their considerable talents towards reimaging work places and office buildings. Their proposal takes into account more people working from home and allows for rotating use of the office space which enables larger gaps between desks and open spaces for socializing while maintaining social distancing. They are proposing environmental measures like bicycle rental and scooters to enable people to get to and from work with ease and building wider pedestrian sidewalks outside of new developments to handle the increase of people while maintaining distance. The say it is a chance “to green a city” according to an interview in De Zeen, an online design magazine. They also make space for food vendors, testing areas, and open windows to allow better air circulation rather than relying on climate systems which recycle air.

Another UK based architecture firm, The Manser Practice, envisions a new way for hotels to operate in the post-Covid-19 environment. Their proposal includes automated temperature checks at equally automated check-in desks. And it incorporates individual exercise pods in rooms with spectacular views and old fashioned dumb-waiters to provide room service to guests.

Woods Bagot, the global design firm headquartered in Australia, has put their considerable effort and talent behind devising a split-shift flat. The moveable modular flat incorporates space for exercise, play, and work.  It has three modes, day, night, and play. The design firm also tried to address issues in fragile agricultural supply chains by incorporating aquaculture gardens in its proposal.

Space for Social Entrepreneurs

At Impact Hubs throughout Europe social entrepreneurs have been tackling the issues brought to light by Covid-19. Impact Hub Berlin held a hackathon to discuss and propose solutions to the issues the virus presented in Berlin. Their hackathon will present a series of innovative solutions to political and business leaders from the over 1200 submissions they received. The social entrepreneurs proposed everything from medical alarms to apps to connect you with local services to avoid an Amazon purchase. Urban connectivity, sustainability, staying local, and social impacts were the focus of these entrepreneurs.

In Vienna, Lenkerbande is helping people access bicycles through the sharing economy.  Which was helpful, given the Austrian government advised avoiding public transit during the precautionary measures and there has been no decline in cycling in the city since, one only needs to look at the morning bicycle traffic near Schwedenplatz to see it. This innovative start-up enables people to fix their own bikes and offers tools and expertise to help keep riders moving. They also repair donated bicycles, making them road ready again, giving access to people who might not be able to afford access to the expensive cycling market. This focus on sustainability and social impact is what will help Vienna navigate the post-crisis world.

Vollpension, the innovative social impact cafe who employs grandparents to make delicious baked goods, needed to find a way to navigate the post-Covid-19 restrictions for restaurants but had the added difficulty of a vulnerable population making up part of their workforce. They came up with and tested a new business model, which included time slots for reservations and a fixed price set menu. They also offered delivery options during the precautionary measures. These social entrepreneurs were leading the way during and post-outbreak.

The solutions, proposed by cities and design firms, can only address so much. Which creates a huge space for social entrepreneurs to work in and innovate complimentary strategies. The myriad of problems and the fragility of our existence exposed by the Covid-19 crisis mean that cross segment and sector cooperation is necessary to solve the issues. In an interview with the World Economic Forum Sarah Jensen Carr, an assistant professor of architecture at Northeastern University in Boston, says that illnesses like Covid-19 and other historical outbreaks have galvanized people to work together to create safer futures, better environments, and more supportive social ventures. Impact Hub Vienna’s entrepreneurs know their city unlike anyone else. They have already proposed ideas and solutions to Vienna’s challenges, from the invisibility of the homeless to using the coffee grounds from local restaurants to grow mushrooms. We know these groups will be able to propose new ideas to help Vienna navigate the post-outbreak world while improving our environment and creating social impact.


Banner photo by 贝莉儿 DANIST on Unsplash

Jennifer Cornick - Impact Hub Vienna
Jennifer Cornick Freelance journalist and blogger for various publications in Vienna. When I am not writing, I can generally be found with a book (or anything with words on it - even […]