The key to post COVID-19 recovery: community leadership

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By Robin Hambleton….

As well as causing appalling suffering and misery, the COVID-19 pandemic is opening up new possibilities for the future.  An uplifting feature of the way that communities have responded to the COVID-19 calamity has been the spectacular expansion of self-organising community groups working at neighbourhood, or village, level to help the vulnerable and the needy.

While researching my new book, Cities and communities beyond COVID-19. How local leadership can change our future for the better, I encountered many heart-warming stories of how local communities have responded with great imagination to the disruption of local food supply chains, taken steps to protect the most vulnerable in society, and engaged in all manner of creative, problem-solving activities at the local or hyper-local level.

My research suggests that cities and localities across the world now face four major challenges at once: 1) The COVID-19 health emergency, 2) A sharp, pandemic-induced economic downturn, 3) The climate change emergency, and 4) The disastrous growth of social, economic and racial inequality in many countries.

The good news is that many cities and localities are already developing and delivering progressive strategies that address these four challenges at one-and-the-same time.

An example of good civic leadership – Freiburg, Germany

The photographs in this piece are from one of the cities now leading the way in responding to current societal challenges.  Freiburg is, of course, very well known for pioneering high quality city planning and urban design. 

For example, the Academy of Urbanism joined with the City of Freiburg in publishing The Freiburg Charter for Sustainable Urbanism in 2011.The Academy wanted not just to recognise the achievements of civic leaders and city planners in Freiburg, but also to spread the word about their approach to an international audience.

What is not so well known is that Martin Horn, the young and energetic politician, who was elected as Mayor of Freiburg in 2018, is stepping up the progressive ambition of Freiburg’s policy making.  For example, he is insisting that, as well as meeting very high environmental standards, over 50% of new housing in the city must be affordable. Yes, that’s 50%. 

Detailed plans for Dietenbach, a new eco-friendly neighbourhood for 15,000 people, deliver on this objective.  Submitted to Freiburg City Council last month, these plans also provide open space, schools, sports facilities, day-care centres and local shopping opportunities.  

Meanwhile, the imaginative Freiburg holds together (Freiburg halt zusammen) digital network bundles together numerous citizen-oriented information services and activities for residents struggling with COVID-19 pressures.

Freiburg is just one of the progressive cities featured in my book.  Other cities discussed include Bristol, Copenhagen, Dunedin, Mexico City and Portland.

Children enjoying outdoor space in Vauban, Freiburg, Germany. (Source: the author).

Lessons for UK policy, practice and research

Three lessons for UK policy, practice and research emerge. 

First, the government’s 2020 White Paper, Planning for the Future, needs to be discarded as quickly as possible.  It contains proposals that will not just destroy effective approaches to local planning but also weaken councillor and citizen involvement in local decision-making.[i]   

The evidence from Freiburg, and other enlightened cities, demonstrates that high quality urban development designed to address the climate emergency, provide housing opportunities for the less well off in society, and build liveable communities requires more planning, not less.[ii]

Second, councillors in Freiburg, like all those in Germany, have the constitutional protection to do what they think is right for the people living in their locality.  German local authorities have, then, the freedom to do things differently.  This is not the case in the UK and it is essential to rebalance power within our country via a constitutional convention.  Comparative research can help to make the case for giving local power a major boost.

Third, researchers studying how to create sustainable cities and localities need to give much more attention to power relations.  Advancing our understanding of what needs to be done to co-create liveable cities and towns is vital.  However, just as important, research needs to explore how to bring about progressive change in society. 

What is the power system that is leading to unsustainable urban development?  How can this power system be changed?  What lessons can we learn from cities that are already delivering sustainable development?  These are the kinds of questions that deserve more active consideration by researchers studying modern urban, rural and regional development.

Robin Hambleton is Emeritus Professor of City Leadership at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

Film of book launch

Robin Hambleton’s new book, Cities and communities beyond COVID-19, was published in October 2020.  The book launch, organised by the Bristol Festival of Ideas, includes contributions from Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, who has written a Foreword to the book, and Professor Sheila Foster, University of Georgetown, Washington DC.  This discussion, which was chaired by Andrew Kelly, Director of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, is available here: https://www.ideasfestival.co.uk/events/cities-and-communities-beyond-covid-19/


References

[i] Hambleton R. (2020) ‘Strong place-based leadership is instrumental in the battle against COVID-19’ The Planner, 19 October.

[ii] The key suggestion here is that public policy needs to advance caring in modern society – meaning caring for others and caring for the natural environment on which we all depend.  See Hambleton R. (2020) ‘COVID-19 opens a new political window’, Town and Country Planning, November/December, 89, 11/12, 366-370.