What COVID-19 teaches us about climate-sustainable urban planning

2020-12-21 Päivi Tikkakoski and Auni Haapala

The global COVID-19 pandemic has had a quick and radical impact on our ways of living and moving in cities. “Shutting down” cities and society as a whole quickly reduced air pollution and slightly decreased global carbon dioxide emissions as well, but only for a moment. The pandemic has inspired researchers both in Finland and abroad to study the effects of COVID-19 on how we move and spend our time, money and other resources. Could the crisis also generate new, sustainable and low-emissions practices?

The crisis has also made the significance of resilience or the ability to tolerate change more tangible. In fact, several cities have started to thoroughly assess their existing methods of planning and building as well as their functionality now and in the future.

Importance of living close to nature and diverse urban spaces emphasised

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the value of recreational opportunities offered by shared urban space, green areas and local nature. People have also started using these spaces more frequently and diversely. At the moment, Finnish cities are relatively small and, mostly, sparsely built, but even Finns cannot escape the general development towards denser urban structure. A densely built city may be more efficient and affordable in terms of energy use and traffic, but it may also add a new type of vulnerability as climate conditions change. As heatwaves and downpours become more common, green areas may help reduce the risk of floods, offer cool shade and maintain natural diversity.

The COVID-19 crisis has shown that living close to nature plays a huge role in people’s health and well-being. Cities have already awakened to the increasing value of green areas: in the City of Helsinki, the effects of the pandemic were already evident in decisions concerning the development and conservation of green areas as early as in the summer.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the opening hours of many public cultural and recreational facilities have been limited or the facilities have been closed altogether. As a result, urban residents have turned to other solutions to find some space and peace of mind; the market for summerhouses, for example, has been particularly busy this year.From the perspective of sustainable development and equality between regions, the current crisis makes us wonder whether cities should have more public spaces and areas suited for diverse use; meeting people, engaging in hobbies, activities and games, and simply spending time and relaxing.

What will happen to the breakthrough of sustainable mobility?

The COVID-19 pandemic has decreased the use of public transport in cities and made people favour private car use. On the other hand, cycling and walking have become more popular modes of transport as COVID-safe options. Remote work has reduced the overall need for mobility. Therefore, we should consider the impact of the potentially increasing remote work and ways to improve the prerequisites for sustainable mobility in cities.

Short-distance travel is particularly significant in terms of reducing traffic emissions. This can be influenced through urban structure design and by improving the service level of public transport. For example, Turku, a member of the Hinku network, has invested in walking and cycling in recent years by developing bicycle and pedestrian routes and signature, bicycle parking services and city bike services, among other things. According to research, these factors increase the users’ experiences of effortlessness, efficiency (for example, travel time, switching modes of transport) and safety in walking and cycling, considerably influencing people’s commitment to different modes of transport alongside costs.

Sustainable mobility can be supported by bringing the basic services close to neighbourhoods or residential areas, for example. This also increases equality between different areas and enlivens the city.

Promoting pedestrian and bicycle traffic also promotes cities’ ability to adapt to the various side effects of climate change, such as energy shocks and extreme weather. Furthermore, pedestrian and bicycle traffic reduces air pollution, noise pollution and traffic jams and increases daily exercise which has a positive impact on health and well-being. Promoting pedestrian and bicycle traffic (and public transport) may reduce the need for parking space, making more urban space available for recreational facilities and green areas.

COVID-19 pandemic creates a foundation for new operating methods

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has also been evident in our daily work with the Canemure project as meetings and workshops are now fully digital. At the same time, the pandemic has given us the opportunity to examine the needs and changes created by such crises in terms of housing, mobility and the use of green areas, recreational spaces and services. The lessons of the crisis can be applied to the development of our cities, taking into account climate change and adapting to changes.


Päivi Tikkakoski, Researcher, Finnish Environment Institute
Auni Haapala, Researcher, Finnish Meteorological Institute

The Finnish Environment Institute and the Finnish Meteorological Institute are developing a manual for climate-sustainable regional and urban planning as part of the Towards Carbon Neutral Municipalities and Regions (Canemure) project.


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