The regions were on the front line managing the crisis. Having lived on “minimum service”, with key services only, cities are now preparing for the post-Covid era.
“Local communities kept the country afloat”, affirms André Laignel, Vice-President of the Association of French Mayors. They are playing a major role in managing the Covid-19 public health crisis, which has now mutated into an economic and social crisis.
Implementing national measures, such as an unprecedented lockdown lasting for two months, also means answers key questions, such as how do we provide food aid for some families? How can we rehouse people who are living in close quarters in substandard housing? How can we care for the homeless during this period? And since 11 May, when lockdown restrictions were eased, they also had to address how to get children back to school and how to help shopkeepers and tradesmen who were acutely affected by the crisis. “Local needs are best understood at the local level”, indicated Michel Fournier, Mayor of Voivres (in the Vosges region) and first Vice-President of the Association of French Rural Mayors.
ON ALL FRONTS
Services provided by local town halls are the preferred point of contact for finding out information. Many town halls put a telephone service in place to answer questions related to the crisis, they anticipated certain questions and posted information on their websites or social networks, and put up information panels providing health and safety measures in buildings and shops. The April edition of the magazine Maires de France noted that companies turned to the local town hall “to find out more about the aid packages put in place at the national government and regional level”.
In addition to ensuring the continuity of essential public services, such as the Civil Registry (recording births and deaths), maintaining water supplies, collecting rubbish and ensuring a local police service, on 21 March municipalities who were able were asked by the French government to help with “4 key missions”, “for which volunteers are needed now more than ever: food and emergency aid, emergency childcare for children of key workers or child welfare services, contacting those who are vulnerable and isolated, and providing local neighbourly support”.
Some municipalities put in place tailored procedures for contacting and supporting senior citizens, as well as those who were isolated and vulnerable, by accessing the same database used during a heatwave or an extreme cold snap. A delivery service for food, meals and medicine was also organised by the local authorities. Some local businesses, traders and small producers were listed on the local town hall website or a dedicated platform, enabling communities to support these businesses and residents to continue to have access to basic necessities. It was also the town hall that organised childcare for key workers, prior to the gradual return to school for primary, elementary and secondary school pupils. And it was often at the local level that manufacturing aprons and masks was organised.
“It’s 24/7 crisis management, with our obsession being to save lives”, said David Lisnard, Mayor of Cannes, nicknamed “the 100,000 volt Mayor”.
With four billion people locked down around the world in April, this crisis was testament to the resourcefulness of our towns but also highlighted their weaknesses. The Covid-19 map of France, for example, highlights the “strong correlation between population density and the epidemic”, said economist Laurent Davezies in an interview published in Le Un on 13 May 2020. “Paul Krugman, recipient of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Economics, highlights the benefit of urban concentration in his work. According to Krugman, density is the philosopher’s stone of growth and innovation. However it is also the philosopher’s stone for Covid-19, which thrives on crowds (…). The virus is like Robin Hood, attacking towns and sparing rural locations”.
In addition, “Hospital coverage is more favourable in outlying and rural areas. Even if it is counter-intuitive, less densely populated departments benefit from more employment in hospitals per thousand resident than urban areas”.
The transport strikes at the end of 2019 and now the Covid-19 crisis remind us that in large cities, housing for key workers (medical personnel, shop assistants, binmen, etc.), who are often labelled as “heroes”, is located far from their place of work – so far, in fact, that town halls had to quickly find temporary accommodation for some of these workers.
The threat of a shortage of medicine and medical equipment during lockdown, as well as energy and food “if the hauliers were to invoke their right to withdraw”, as the Deputy Mayor of Paris, Célia Blauel, feared, highlights the “weaknesses in our logistics chains at all levels and, especially, at the international level”. This was highlighted by Lydia Mykolenko, who is in charge of haulage and logistics studies at the Institut Paris Région. “The debate over whether to bring strategic activities back to France has already be opened”, adds Mykolenko.
MOVING TOWARDS A POST-COVID WORLD
For many elected officials, urbanists and architects, Covid-19 is seen as a great opportunity for inventing a more environmentally- and human-focussed city model. The hour of exercise allowed per day during lockdown enabled city dwellers to see just how the car – which was banned from roads unless the driver held an exemption – had redrawn our urban environment. And that travelling on foot or by bicycle enabled them to move around relatively quickly and a reasonable distance.
Tactical urbanism has been developing since the end of March in Bogota, New York, Montreal and Paris, where an addition 50 km of temporary cycle lanes have been created. Pedestrianised areas and terraces are encroaching on roads. Célia Blauel has said that she was inspired by Nicolas Soutier’s work entitled Reconquérir les rues, exemples à travers le monde et pistes d’action (2012). “He invites us not to think about streets and roads but as areas running alongside living spaces, and he encourages us to break free from town planning principles in order to make life spill out into the street, by creating green spaces next to houses”. The drop in traffic of nearly 50% in large urban areas at the end of May, according to data collected by TomTom, supports this vision.
The Covid-19 crisis revealed contemporary urban weaknesses and caused us to question the way we use the land, notably by rethinking urban density, space sharing, building design and the place afforded to nature. What kind of towns will we live in, in the post-Covid world?