The crisis generated by the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, in the immediate future represents a social and economic disaster of global reach. Combining it with the precarious circumstances which affect Italy makes it extremely difficult but truly significant to consider this drama an enormous opportunity for rethinking the cities and the entire urban-territorial system of the country.
The most recent European policies promoted by the current Commission, and the opportunities arising from the availability of the Next Generation EU recovery instrument of €750 billion, have put the topic of urban renewal back in the spotlight of continental and national debates. This isn’t surprising at this point in time because since the end of the XIX century urban renewal practices have been master tools on which to boost the economic performance and social sustainability of a community by enhancing the urban fabric and buildings
Covid-19 has certainly had a harsh impact in many fields, such as public health, employment, housing or inequalities, to name only a few. But it has also brought about some positive changes that cannot be ignored. A shift in urban policy-making seems to be taking place in several regions of the world, where we find some city governments advocating for ideas that were unimaginable before.
One of the dimensions of rising inequality in developed countries is the growing divide between urban cores and peripheries, with the result that urban regeneration is back in fashion. In France, however, it never really went out of fashion. Starting with the first wave of riots in the banlieues in 1981, a little more than a decade after the death of the famous French-Swiss architect and urban planner Le Corbusier, the politique de la ville (French for urban policy) has been part of the social protection system policy toolkit.
When, in the late 1970s, urban science began addressing the physical decay of urban and peri-urban areas and underused infrastructures, the United Kingdom led by Margaret Thatcher (prime minister from 1979 to 1990) put in place a program of urban regeneration that reflected a general political agenda of liberalization and privatization. In the British urban policies of the 1980s, focused on land-use efficiency and housing market renewal in urban slums, economic interest prevailed over social concerns.
Over the last decades, the growth of urban centres has led a new phase in world development that focuses on the enlargement of densely populated areas known as megalopolises. It has generated a debate on the renewal of built heritage, especially in Europe. The rebirth of cities, which until yesterday was an exceptional phenomenon thought to be uncontrollable, has now been reconsidered due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It brings with it an even more significant theme, i.e. sustainability in its broadest meaning and the quality of life and resilience of the places we inhabit.
One of the starkest signs of the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the now familiar – but still eerie – sight of empty cities. In the early days of Covid-19’s spread across Europe, observers could almost find solace in the immediate effects of the containment policies on the urban environment, with foxes, boars and porcupines commonly spotted even in daytime. That phase is long gone. Now, one of the questions that lingers concerns what the future of our cities will be.
Twenty years ago, the United Nations (UN) approved the so-called “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs) initiative, which set eight ambitious targets to improve the world and make it healthier, and more ecological and equal. Surprisingly, the word “city” was not included in the Agenda. Urban systems were neither considered as important actors within that global challenge, nor as crucial elements for the success of the plan.
Europe has a long-standing tradition of urbanization and urban regeneration. Interventions in this domain range from social inclusion to the recovery of historical neighborhoods, from migrants’ integration to green energy and efficiency, from smart mobility to public-private partnerships and investments. The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing cities worldwide to re-shape their model and re-think their priorities if they want to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” as spelled by the SDG no. 11.
After 6-years of rapid development, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has entered a new era in terms of quality development. In this grand picture, cities acting as sub-state actors along the BRI, have gained new momentum for displaying geographic significance and economic attractiveness. This paper intends to define cities’ role in the joint promotion of BRI, exemplify how cities will prosper in the process and explore new opportunities of investment after the COVID-19 pandemic.