10 Ways Cities Came Back in 2021
The social and economic fallout of the pandemic forced cities to challenge the status quo.
(Bloomberg) -- Even as Covid-19 continues to disrupt urban life around the world, some cities this year still made transformative — and in some cases unprecedented — changes toward improving residents’ health, safety and overall livability.
Leaders announced policies and initiatives to tackle issues from climate change to inequality, and they experimented with cutting-edge technology to bring cities into the future. In many cases, the social and economic fallout of the pandemic also forced cities to rethink the ways they’ve always done things, and implement solutions that challenge the status quo.
Here are 10 ways cities, and the people in them, not only continued to move forward in a hectic year, but also brought ingenuity and innovation to residents.
Architecture: Rethinking building ventilation
In March, Uber Technologies Inc. opened its new San Francisco headquarters, two buildings skinned in glass and connected by a transparent sky bridge. But the 180 glass panes that cover much of the facade are more than just for aesthetics. Designed by the technologically innovative SHoP Architects, they open and shut automatically throughout the day, allowing for natural air flow and temperature regulation. While plans were first unveiled back in 2015, the design addresses two of today’s most urgent crises: the pandemic and climate change. The spread of Covid-19 spotlighted the need for adequate ventilation in buildings, while cities are also rethinking their reliance on heat and air conditioning.
Urban Planning: The ‘One-Minute City’
Inspired by the 15-minute city concept popularized by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo in 2020, Sweden is rethinking neighborhood design one street at a time. An initiative called Street Moves is pushing for the one-minute city, and invites local communities to become co-architects of their own streets’ layouts. While the 15-minute city aims to give residents access to daily essentials within walking or biking distance of their homes, the one-minute city focuses on the public space just beyond the front door. Through consultants and workshops, residents will contribute to decisions about how that space gets used and what services they want access to. The concept is currently being tested in a handful of cities, including the capital Stockholm, but the Swedish government is planning to take it nationwide with a goal to make every street healthy, sustainable and vibrant by 2030.
Water: Affordable vending machines
Water may finally be easier to access for some residents of Nairobi’s informal settlements, where cartels sell it at extremely inflated prices. The city is in the final stages of a program to install 10 vending machines in the Mukuru slums, home to more than 600,000 people. The stations will be token-operated — money can be put on the tokens via the M-Pesa mobile money platform — and charge as little as 50 Kenyan shillings (less than 50 U.S. cents) for enough water to fill a jerrycan. Officials have begun digging boreholes across the city’s major slums, and each can feed water to four dispensers.
Technology: A smart city breaks ground
In Japan, Toyota is set to build a 175-acre high-tech metropolis from scratch at the base of Mount Fuji. The automaker, making its first foray into city development, broke ground on Woven City in February. The plan is to make it a living laboratory to test how urban centers can adapt to fully autonomous transport, with hand-picked residents that are expected to move in following the project’s completion in 2024. A network of sensors and cameras will be used to create a “digital twin” of the living city. That virtual, synthesized data would be used to teach cars to safely navigate through the real world without human intervention. Some experts predict more than 30 million self-driving vehicles could be on the roads globally by 2040.
Public Health: U.S. gets its first injection sites
New York City opened the first safe injection sites in the U.S on Nov. 30. The two centers, in the Washington Heights and Harlem neighborhoods, come as the nation’s drug crisis worsened during the pandemic. Overdose deaths rose 29% between April 2020 and April 2021, topping 100,000 for the first time over a 12-month period, according to federal data. Advocates have long called for legally sanctioned injection sites in the U.S., where health care workers can prevent overdoses or reverse them using the nasal spray naloxone. They can also connect willing users to social services. But these sites remain controversial, and efforts in several cities have stalled — particularly under the Trump administration, which threatened legal action under a federal provision intended to ban crack houses.
Energy: Latin America’s first thermosolar plant
A $1.4 billion thermosolar energy plant opened in the Atacama desert of Chile this past August, the first in Latin America. Unlike photovoltaic solar plants, the roughly 1,730-acre Cerro Dominador can store the sun’s heat in molten salts to generate electricity for up to 17.5 hours, including at night. Along with a nearby photovoltaic plant, the complex can produce some 210 megawatts of renewable energy, which Chile hopes will help supply power to the nation’s grid as it moves away from coal-fired power in its bid to become carbon neutral by 2050. The plant could save Chile more than 600,000 tons of CO2 emissions each year, equivalent to taking 300,000 cars off roadways, according to outgoing President Sebastian Pinera.
Justice: An alternative to police
In May, Washington, D.C., launched a six-month pilot program to divert 911 calls about behavioral emergencies away from police, and toward social workers. That initiative, along with similar ones launched by cities from New York to Denver to Los Angeles, aims to reduce fatal interactions between law enforcement officers and people experiencing mental health crises. And they came amid calls for police reform following the 2020 killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In D.C., dispatchers were trained to screen calls that could lead to violence, or that involved people under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Just 330 mental health-related calls — an estimated 2% of all such calls — were rerouted in its first phase, though the district expects to be able to take on more cases as it extends the program and recruits more clinicians. If these programs prove successful, they could help pave the way for other cities to experiment with alternative police models, and begin changing the way law enforcement engages with communities.
Climate: Chief heat officers
Scorching summers, rampant wildfires, massive power outages and hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths worldwide each year have pushed extreme heat to the top of cities’ climate resilience agenda. This year, for the first time ever, cities hired chief heat officers — a person, potentially with their own team, dedicated to developing cooling interventions to protect citizens from excessive temperatures. Jane Gilbert, who became Miami’s heat officer and the first person in the world to take on that role, has been working with the city’s emergency management to better reach vulnerable and elderly populations and developing initiatives to increase tree canopy, as well as making plans to rethink building and streetscape design for a hotter world. The city will share best practices with a global heat resilience alliance that includes Athens, Greece, and Freetown, Sierra Leone . Phoenix has also recently created a heat office, which intends to cool the city through data-driven strategies.
Equality: Social services around the block
In a new initiative, Bogota is putting caregivers at the center of its city blocks, making sure the social services they need are within walking distance. Roughly a third of the Colombian capital’s women provide unpaid care full-time, including domestic work and care for dependents. That limits their ability to join the workforce, participate in politics and achieve financial independence. As part of a four-year program, introduced in late 2020, the city is creating “care blocks” to relieve women (and some men) of some of that burden. These centers bring together services — like flexible education, health care for women and caregiving classes for men — so they are easily accessible within a neighborhood block. The first care block, created last year, encompasses 800 square meters (more than 6,800 square feet) around a massive community center, offering over 30 programs that officials say will benefit 50,000 residents. For those outside the neighborhood, the city offers Care Buses that bring services to their doors.
Transportation: Cities pilot universal basic mobility
A handful of cities in the U.S. are piloting universal basic mobility through initiatives that subsidize bus rides, e-bikes, scooters and other forms of public and shared transportation. Those cities include Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Bakersfield, California, with programs are geared at low-income riders. While bus and train ridership fell in cities across the globe over the last two years, the pandemic highlighted the need to remove barriers — including unreliable service and lack of affordability — for riders who rely on transit for daily activities like work and school. Research has also shown the link between steady transportation and economic success in the U.S. In Bakersfield, participants will get passes for free rides on the bus and on shared e-bikes and scooters, as researchers study which modes people choose for different destinations and how the programs affect their economic security and quality of life and health. Results could determine whether such initiatives will become permanent.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.