One lesson cities can learn from the COVID-19 crisis
The COVID-19 pandemic will, inevitably, change many aspects of our lives, including the way we travel, do business and interact. And while not all of these changes will be for the better, there is one thing this crisis has highlighted which, if given the consideration it deserves, could have a profound impact on cities – and humanity along with them.
In the weeks since COVID-19 first came to the world’s attention, several studies have confirmed a link between high levels of air pollution and COVID-19-related deaths, with a Harvard University study of over 3000 U.S. counties finding “that higher levels of the tiny, dangerous particles in air known as PM 2.5 were associated with higher death rates from the disease.” (The New York Times) The same study also found that “if Manhattan had lowered its average particulate matter level by just a single unit, or one microgram per cubic meter, over the past 20 years, the borough would most likely have seen 248 fewer Covid-19 deaths by this point in the outbreak.” (The New York Times)
This is not the first time research has found a link between exposure to air pollution and an increase in virus-related deaths. According to BBC.com, “A 2003 study found that patients with Sars, a respiratory virus closely related to Covid-19, were 84% more likely to die if they lived in areas with high levels of pollution.”
The message then is clear: If cities wish to protect their citizens and give them the best chance of survival against future pandemics, they must make every effort to keep air pollution levels under control. Or, as Maria Neira, Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health at the World Health Organization, put it, “We cannot get out of this crisis with the same levels of pollution. It has to be a green recovery.” (BBC.com)
One city already looking at how it can keep its air pollution levels down is Milan. And it plans to do so by limiting the number of cars in the city as mayor Giuseppe Sala explains: “It is key that [lifting the lockdown] does not result in an excessive use of private cars, with a consequent increase in air pollution.” (BBC.com)
To this end, the city has recently announced its Milano Strade Aperte (Milan Open Streets) project, an initiative that will see the introduction of temporary cycle lanes, wider pavements and lower speed limits on 35 km of the city’s streets in an effort to encourage walking and cycling over driving.
And Milan isn’t the only city already taking action. According to Europe’s leading clean transport campaign group Transport & Environment, “the French environment minister has commissioned a strategy for urban rearrangement of Paris to help both during the coronavirus lockdown and in the post-lockdown relaxation.”
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