The COVID-19 outbreak from an urban resilience perspective

Our cities need to adapt and recover from the COVID-19 outbreak, addressing their particular chronic stresses. Therefore, it is essential to understand the current crisis from an urban resilience perspective.

From its origin in a local market –a singular meeting place in any city– to its global spread, the COVID-19 outbreak is an urban issue. According to the United Nations, this crisis has demonstrated an urgent need for cities to prepare for pandemics as 95% of the confirmed cases have been reported in urban areas. Only in New York City, more than 215,000 cases, as well as more than 21,000 deaths, have been confirmed by June 15, 2020. If this city was a country, it would be the seventh country with more deaths worldwide, just between Spain (counting more than 27,000) and Mexico (over 16,000). In the last case, most of the infections are concentrated in the capital city.

It is worth analyzing the COVID-19 crisis from an urban perspective not only in terms of the distribution of cases but also because our cities are adapting to a new reality. We need to recover from the economic and social consequences of the outbreak as well as we have to cope with the virus out there until a vaccine is generated and distributed globally. Once our cities have adapted to this new situation and we have guaranteed immunity, a regular and relatively stable urban functioning can be expected. In other words, our cities need to be resilient to the epidemic outbreak.

Urban resilience refers to the capacity of cities to survive, adapt, and grow despite two kinds of phenomena: acute shocks and chronic stresses. The COVID-19 pandemic, like any other disease outbreak, has worked as an acute shock by disturbing the usual functioning of cities. During the last weeks the images of overcrowded hospitals and cemeteries, economic activities on pause, and bare public spaces have become common. Although some of the effects and containment measures might generate irreversible changes, most of them would gradually disappear as we adapt to this phenomenon that is likely to be temporary.

Every city has different resilience capacities to respond and move forward from the current situation. For example, cities with more hospital capacity and social protection coverage, as in Western Europe, have better chances to mitigate the increasing demand for health services. Likewise, cities with more proportion of their population in the informal economy, as in Latin America, are more prone to lose jobs as a result of the lockdown measures implemented by most national governments to prevent infections.

Frequently, the consequences of acute shocks are exacerbated by chronic stresses and in some cases, these same stresses turn out in shocks when the required factors for underlying problems to break out are articulated. By chronic stresses, we refer to the conditions that steadily undermine the structure and functioning of cities. This, in contrast to acute shocks that usually occur eventually and many times unexpectedly. Systemic problems such as social inequality, atmospheric pollution, or endemic violence are common chronic stresses. As an example, during the last days we have seen that the consequences of systemic violence and racial inequality persist in many cities of the United States (US) as the murder of George Floyd –an African American man– by Minneapolis police officers unleashed a series of protests and hostilities in many cities, mainly within the US but also in other countries.

In the case of the COVID-19 outbreak, it is highly likely that it will worsen chronic stresses and social inequality. It has been shown that its fatality can be higher in poorer and overcrowded areas of cities. In boroughs as Leganés (Madrid), the Bronx (New York), and Iztapalapa (Mexico City), a series of preexisting conditions, from high rates of informality and precarious job markets to inadequate infrastructure, contribute together to a greater exposition and vulnerability to the virus.

Dealing with the COVID-19 crisis from an urban resilience perspective not only permits its understanding from an integrated and contextualized perspective but also can be useful to leverage structural transformations beyond its specific emergency response. According to the Global Resilient Cities Network (GRCN) –in which approximately 100 cities from all over the world currently collaborate– an important number of local governments have decided to address social inequality as a priority in the pandemic-recovery efforts and also many others are planning such recovery as an integrated process.

We, RESILIENTE, believe that facing the current global pandemic from an urban resilience perspective implies contextualizing the effects of such phenomenon regarding the particular chronic stresses of each city. Many times these are well-known but poorly addressed problems. Working on mitigating and solving such stresses under a long-term vision might place our cities in a better condition before the next crisis, coming from a health hazard or not.

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About RESILIENTE: Urban Solutions Studio

We are a team of professionals specialized in urban planning and resilience. Our work aims to mitigate and solve cities challenges through the experience of their inhabitants. We collaborate with governments, businesses, and organizations designing plans and projects oriented to build resilience in communities, neighbourhoods, and cities.

Estudio de Soluciones Urbanas