Preface to All Four Volumes of Global Reflections on COVID-19 and Urban Inequalities

You are currently reading one of the four volumes of Global Reflections on COVID-19 and Urban Inequalities, which jointly explore schisms the pandemic has both revealed and widened, and measures taken to mitigate or eradicate these societal gaps. The aim of this series of edited volumes is to bring together a collection of critical urban voices across various disciplines, geographies, and perspectives in order to examine the urban challenges of COVID-19 and its impact on new and existing inequities in cities around the world.

There are two sides to the pandemic. As a highly contagious disease, given enough time and a lack of effective mitigation to restrain its spread, COVID-19 will eventually infect a large majority of the population, regardless of income or geography. This is why many public health measures are directed at entire national (or indeed global) populations. But we have also quickly learned that COVID-19 is selective in its effects – for instance, based on age and comorbidity – and that the pandemic and responses to it exacerbate fault lines traversing cities, societies, and, indeed, the world order.

There is a clear urban dimension to these inequities. Some parts of the city and some populations who reside in cities are more likely to contract and spread the virus. COVID-19 is thus an amplifier of pre-existing social divisions. Access to medical treatment and possibilities to physically isolate from potential infection are unevenly distributed. So too are the consequences of policy responses, such as lockdowns, the economic impacts of the pandemic, and the individual and political reactions it prompts. The pandemic has therefore increased divisions such as between young and old, rich and poor, left and right, and countless other societal dichotomies. As a result, experiences of urban life during the pandemic vary greatly. Where these impacts of the pandemic intersect with pre-existing racism, ageism, sexism, ableism, and spatial divisions within the city, the consequences have been particularly severe. As we write this preface, vaccines are starting to be produced, distributed, and administered. This poses new questions: will we emerge from the pandemic thanks to these vaccines? How equitable will the distribution of vaccines be within countries and at the global scale?

This context suggests myriad potential urban futures. The planning, policy, and political choices made in the short term will impact the medium- and long-term trajectories of cities and the lives of their residents. Moving forward, the challenge is how to ensure that planning and policy responses to the pandemic do not further exacerbate pre-existing inequalities and injustices that were amplified because of COVID-19. Therefore, there is a need for engaged, critical urban scholarship in order to ensure that issues of social justice and equity are front and center, not only in academic debates, but in rapidly evolving planning, policy, and public discussions that will shape these urban futures. Our four volumes suggest pathways that can help make this possible.

Rather than speculate, however, this book, and its three companions in our series, unites well-informed, reflective, and empirically grounded research from around the world to contextualize the new and amplified inequities brought about by COVID-19. The divisions that are apparent during the pandemic are not treated in isolation; they are firmly situated as part of long-term trends and broader narratives about cities, places, communities, and spaces.

Critical urban research during the pandemic

The first accounts of the novel coronavirus that would become known as COVID-19 emerged late in 2019 in Wuhan, China. Over the first months of 2020, the virus spread around the world. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. Schools and businesses closed, office workers were told to work from home, and public spaces were shut. International travel came to a virtual standstill. Varying degrees of lockdown restricted the movements of people outside of their homes. In public, keeping distance from others and wearing facemasks became the norm. While the exact timing of these measures varied by country, by the summer of 2020, the majority of the world’s population had experienced most of them. While the lockdowns did ‘flatten the contagion curve’, as restrictions of movement and activities were lifted, after a period of relative stability, infection rates took off again in the fall of 2020 and into 2021, reaching levels much higher than those experienced during the first wave.

As academics, we transitioned our own work during this time by setting up home offices, switching our teaching to online platforms, and adapting our research methodologies. The specifics of our own research shifted as it became impossible to study contemporary cities without assessing the impact of COVID-19. The more we examined our own research, however, it became apparent that the key questions and approaches driving our work remained central to interpreting this new reality. The inequities we were already examining in housing, transportation, public space, metropolitan regions, and planning systems took on new dimensions because of the pandemic. But most of the inequalities that are so central and visible during the pandemic were themselves not new; they were building, in different ways, on the pre-existing inequalities of cities before COVID-19. It soon became clear that COVID-19 was exacerbating and amplifying existing socio-economic and spatial inequities, even more than it was creating entirely new ones.

The pace of change during the pandemic poses a particular dilemma for researchers, who usually benefit from sufficient time to reflect and analyze. On the one hand, jumping too quickly to conclusions leads one to speculate rather than reflect, ‘opinionate’ rather than research. Academics are not journalists and it is not our task to provide real-time accounts and assessment of change.

On the other hand, as critical urban scholars, we must contribute to the discussions about the myriad ways COVID-19 is reshaping urban spaces and the lives of their inhabitants. Critical voices are more important now than ever, especially since cities face such uncertain futures and the responses to the pandemic will shape cities and urban life for years to come. COVID-19 has created urban challenges unprecedented in our lifetime. The pandemic has torn back the curtain on uneven social, spatial, and racial processes of urbanization that were previously downplayed in mainstream planning and policy debates. They have rendered visible some of what was previously invisible.

This context also gives rise to new possibilities and ideas that were once at the fringes of urban debates, such as closing streets to cars, which have been put into practice in cities around the world. But again, critical scholarship and research is necessary in order to study to what extent these planning and policy responses to the pandemic play a role in impacting (and potentially augmenting) the inequalities and injustices that are central to cities in the 21st century.

In short, it is simply not possible for urban researchers to ‘sit this one out’ while the dust settles. While academics may prefer to conduct research after the fact, this may be years into the future and after many important decisions have long been made. The challenge is therefore to strike a delicate balance between a slower, contemplative, and reflective approach to scholarship, while still striving to influence broader, rapidly evolving debates. We believe that our approach to this edited series strikes the right tone between these two important approaches.

The development of this edited series

Specifically, this four-part collection emerged from a meeting between our editorial team – Brian Doucet, Rianne van Melik, and Pierre Filion – and Bristol University Press in April 2020, wherein we were asked to assemble a rapid response book dealing with cities and the COVID-19 pandemic. As an editorial team, our approach has been to balance the need to make active contributions to rapidly shifting debates, while also reflecting on the impact the pandemic was having on urban inequities. We decided that short chapters, highly accessible to a diverse audience of scholars, students, professionals, planners, and an informed public, would be most suitable. The short nature of these chapters means that they fall somewhere between a typical media piece and a full-length peer-reviewed article.

A broad call for chapters was launched in mid-June 2020. Throughout various listservs and on social media, we invited researchers to reflect on how COVID-19 has impacted new and existing inequalities in cities throughout the world. We welcomed chapters that dealt with any urban topic and featured perspectives and voices not always central to mainstream scholarly, planning, or policy debates, including some co-written by non-academic authors.

The response to our invitation was overwhelming. We received many more abstracts than containable in a single volume. After a rigorous evaluation of the abstracts, we invited selected researchers to write full chapters. Keeping the best of these chapters, we found ourselves with a sufficient number of chapters for four volumes. The volumes were organized around the four main themes dominating the submitted chapters.

Given the edited nature of the book, the global scale of its chapters, and the wide scope of its object of study, there are inevitable gaps in the coverage of events relating to the pandemic, the reactions it has prompted, and the impact of all of this on different social groups. Also, it has proven impossible to provide cases from all parts of the world. All the same, the volumes do offer broad perspectives on different aspects of COVID-19 and their manifestation in different countries and continents. One of our goals was to include scholars from a variety of career phases, including early career researchers and graduate students, and to welcome chapters written in partnership with non-academic colleagues, many of whom offer insightful perspectives of lived experiences during the pandemic.

Each of the four volumes deals with a separate theme: Volume 1 is centered on Community and Society; Volume 2 deals with Housing and Home; Volume 3 examines Public Space and Mobility; and Volume 4 focuses on Policy and Planning. Each volume can be read as a stand-alone book, with a coherent theme, structure, introduction, and conclusion. But when read together, these four volumes synthesize research that reflects on the different ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping urban inequities. While we have divided the volumes thematically, it is becoming increasingly clear that issues of housing, land use, mobility, urban design, and economic development (issues long siloed in urban debates) all need to be part of the same conversation about contemporary and future urban challenges. This is particularly true if social justice, equity, and the right to the city are to be central to the conversation. Many chapters throughout the series therefore focus on how COVID-19 intersects with different forms of inequality and injustice.

The timing for this project is particularly important. We gave contributors the summer of 2020 to write their chapters. Chapters were put together, not in the heated uncertainty of those first few months, but rather during a period when initial reflection on the pandemic’s first wave became possible. While some chapters rely on media reports or carefully reflect on the early days of COVID-19, others draw on important and insightful fieldwork carried out during the spring and summer of 2020.

Much will have changed between when the volumes were written and when the series is available on physical and virtual bookshelves. This edited series is not a journalistic account of the pandemic. Instead, these volumes are a collective account of the first months of the pandemic, assembled with the idea that the knowledge, voices, and perspectives found within these volumes are necessary to shaping responses to the pandemic. The chapters presented in these four volumes serve as essential documentation and analysis of how the pandemic initially manifested itself within cities around the world, cities that were already becoming more economically, socially, racially, and spatially unequal. Understanding the early phases of this global pandemic is essential to dealing with its next waves and planning for the post-pandemic period. Likewise, understanding the consequences of how the pandemic intersects with urban inequalities is necessary in order to create more equitable and socially just cities.

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