Planning for Justice

Planning for Justice

Resources for built environment practitioners fostering more equal, healthy and sustainable places.

Picture taken during a BLM protest in London, source: Planning for Justice

This year, the Black Lives Matter movement enabled our society to rethink and focus on the politics of public space, still dominated by symbols of our colonial past. The history of urban planning has not always reflected equity for less powerful groups. Rather it has often reinforced the status quo, injustice, and spatial segregation. As Neely and Samura claimed, “a spatial perspective can provide particularly useful lens and language for locating and understanding persistent racial processes” (2011: 1934)[1]. Indeed, “echoes from London and Berlin to Tokyo and Seoul continue to spotlight the workings of institutional racism in different national contexts. All of this has unfolded against the backdrop of a coronavirus pandemic that is disproportionately devastating the world’s most vulnerable” (2020)[2].

As the global reckoning with systemic racism was generated by the historic wave of protests in response to the disproportionate[3], increasingly televised and often unjustified shootings of Black Americans by police[4], Planning for Justice emerged in the summer of 2020 as a coalition of graduate students, alumni and faculty in Regional and Urban Planning Studies at the London School of Economics. The coalition was built on the recognition of an immediate need to acknowledge our past and establish long term strategies involving an equal representation of communities in the co-creation of places. The effort resulted in collaborative and multidisciplinary digital library of both accessible articles and academic material, to offer planners, community groups and the general public information and inspiration on how to design more just cities.

The group, led by Associate Professor Nancy Holman (London School of Economics), explained how “structural racism is ingrained into urban policy throughout the globe—and likewise within the academic and professional institutions that dominate our field. As benefactors, we can educate ourselves and use positions of power to champion redistributive justice”.

Katie Mulkowsky, graduate in Regional and Urban Planning Studies at the London School of Economics who first envisioned the idea of crafting a digital library collecting literature on the interplay between race and space to rethink the role of urban planning, reported that:

 “Planning for Justice began as a collaborative, open-source document that gathered accessible articles, academic work and action items relevant to the events of the summer. As new incidents of police brutality in America sparked reckonings with institutional racism throughout my country and the wider world, I began reflecting on the role that urban planning has historically played in producing systemic inequalities everywhere. From post-apartheid South Africa to the boroughs of East London, the disciplining of space has long been wielded as an explicit device of power that narrates access to basic resources and economic opportunities. After building a team at the London School of Economics, we therefore worked throughout the summer and fall of 2020 to digitise a resource library and launch a blog that fosters reflection on the questions of socio-spatial exclusion which are relevant to the contexts that our students come from. These issues do not map onto every city in the same way, but we hope that dialogue across places can reveal common problems and foster creative solutions”.

Hence, the built environment has often embodied a spatial representation of structural inequalities that clearly manifested in housing[5] and transport policies[6], as well as the politics of public space[7]. Those inequalities have never been racially neutral. Therefore, the urban planning profession, which often induced community’ segregation, promoting redlining and divided cities grounded on social and racial injustice, has now to openly commit to fostering more equal, healthy and sustainable places.

Therefore, Planning for Justice has the main goal of expanding its digital library as a democratic tool for learning and advocacy. Additionally, Planning for Justice is building a team of collaborators from urban institutions and civic organisations in cities around the world. The scope is elevating the voices of community groups and social justice advocates who have long been encouraging more inclusive public commons. Planning for Justice is explicitly committed to anti-racist planning efforts and aim to disrupt legacies of uneven development through scholarship, dialogue and the promotion of progressive projects, welcoming multimedia and creative work.

Planning for justice has also started its public blog to make space for new reflections that you can access here:

Use this submission link if you want to help Planning for Justice expanding its digital library and follow the project on Twitter and Instagram at @planningjustice for more.

[1] Neely, B. and Michelle S. (2011), Social Geographies of Race: Connecting race and space, Ethnic and Racial Studies 34(11), pp.1933–1952

[2] Planning for Justice blog, accessible at 

[3] Peeples, L. (2020). “What the data say about police brutality and racial bias — and which reforms might work” Nature, London, 19 June. Available at:

[4] DeGue, Fowler and Calkins reported how blacks were significantly more likely to be unarmed and pose no threat in contrast to whites. More at: DeGue, S., Fowler, K.A. and Cynthia Calkins (2016) “Deaths due to use of lethal force by law enforcement: Findings from the National Violent Death Reporting System, 17 U.S. States, 2009-2012”. American Journal of Preventative Medicine. 51(5 Suppl 3):S173-S187, doi:10.1016/j-amepre.2016.08.027. Available at:

[5] Rothstein, R. (2020), The Neighborhoods We Will Not Share, The New York Times, Available at:

[6] Grisby, D. (2020), To Fight Racism,Transit Has a Key Role, CityLab, Available at:

[7] Crawford, A., Ritchie, G. and V. Vaghela (2020), The City of London Has a Slavery Problem, CityLab, Available at:

Emerging urban food governance: the case of London

Emerging urban food governance: the case of London

Food policy has not usually represented a mainstream domain for urban planning. However, as Professor Kevin Morgan argued now ten years ago, this “puzzling omission” is not justifiable anymore given the multifunctional character of the food system with his effects on different policy sectors and the now recognized belief that it cannot be automatically relegated to the rural policy domain (2010: 341). Accordingly, Thomas Forster et Al. collected best practices from cities around the world to demonstrate the breadth of food policy and programmatic work that is occurring in urban areas, proposing a wide range of solutions for Mayors (2015). Their collection of policy solutions showed how “cities are moving towards an integrated approach to food systems and there are wide interest and experimentation in inter-departmental institutional mechanisms” (Forster et Al. 2015:17)

London Mayor Sadiq Khan buying food in a London Market (source Sustain)

In this context, the city of London shows a complex governance system (Travers 2002: 787) which at a first sight does not seem to leave much space to food policy. Thus, London has a two-tier structure with 32 boroughs plus the City of London representing local interests and the Greater London Authority (GLA), consisting of the Mayor and the Assembly, in charge of the London region (Travers 2018: 340). The London boroughs are responsible for local services delivery. In terms of policy competences, they run social care, environmental policies, road management, public health, social housing, waste management and they can supervise local schools (Travers 2018: 348). Whilst the Mayor establishes the strategic framework for the boroughs and the London plan, he also holds executive powers over transport – chairing the executive board of Transport for London – policing, fire, emergency services, London’s growth and economy. He even has a shared competence in housing and regeneration policy (Burdett and Rode 2015). By contrast, food policy in the UK appears fragmented amongst different policy sectors and layers. In particular, the multilevel nature of the food sector led food to be considered a “wicked issue” for policymaking and apparently unable to fit the policy system (Parsons, Barling and Lang 2018: 212). Consequently, an evident policy opportunity emerged for urban food policy, with the city of London experimenting new policy structures and promoting policy change.  

In the last years, the city of London has strengthened its commitment to food policy. The increased powers of the Mayor and the GLA enabled them to find new policy opportunities and address relevant issues for the capital, even in absence of strategic responsibilities. And food is one of these cases. Indeed, the Mayor and the GLA “consult widely and work closely with London organizations – boroughs, the private sector and voluntary bodies, in a new inclusive style of politics” (Pilgrim 2006: 226). Moreover, the Mayor has to enhance residents’ health and wellbeing, by also promoting social and economic development (Halliday and Barling 2018: 186). Hence, food policymaking can be enlisted within this duty. However, the creativity of Mayors in using their powers (Blick and Dunleavy 2017: 4) explicitly manifested concerning food. In fact, the current Mayor Sadiq Khan promoted a very interventionist policy campaign banning junk food advertisements from Transport for London, relying on its strategic direction over transport policy (Hawkes and Parsons 2019: 5). This policy action was firstly developed on-the-ground knowledge released by London boroughs (Hawkes and Parsons 2019: 5) and it showed how the complexity of London governance provides several policy opportunities encouraging the emergence of a complex urban food governance system. Additionally, the current London Plan provides support for food growing, local food production, encourages food waste management, aims to improve Londoners’ access to quality and healthy food (GLA 2016). Moreover, the plan intends to tackle food poverty by increasing the provision of land for food growing in London (GLA 2016: 323). Finally, it calls for the implementation of a new London Food Strategy (GLA 2016: 323). This strategy exemplifies the pan London commitment to food policymaking. The most recent – promoted by Mayor Sadiq Khan – was finally approved in 2018 (Hawkes and Parsons 2019: 4). It openly aims to guarantee that “all Londoners have access to healthy and sustainable food” (GLA 2018: 9) and “highlights how food is connected to everything we do as a society: it affects the environment, it drives our economy, affects our health and it is a central part of our cultural life” (GLA 2018: 7). Among its policy objectives, it differs from past food strategies in its promises to “tackle food poverty, child obesity and unhealthy food environments” (Hawkes and Parsons 2019: 4).

The implementation of the London Food Strategy has been supported by the London Food Programme, which is part of the GLA Regeneration and Economic Development Policy Unit. The Food Programme team also cooperates with food partners in the private, public and third sectors to deliver and monitor a wide range of projects which may concern public health, social welfare and environmental policy issues. It also works closely with the London Food Board. The board counsels the Mayor on food priorities for London and it is composed of experts from academia, the third and the private sector. Finally, London boroughs’ voice is heard through the Borough Food Sub-Group of the London Food Board (BFSG), which is primarily composed of officials from London boroughs’ public health teams (Hawkes and Parsons 2019: 5). It aims to strengthen the relationship between the GLA and London boroughs as regards food policymaking and reduce policy fragmentation. Since the Mayor has limited powers on food-related issues and boroughs have no obligation to follow his recommendations, the subgroup offers a more democratic arena for discussion (Halliday and Barling 2018). Moreover, the London Food Programme works in partnership with Sustain, an alliance of food and farming organizations, which supports London boroughs developing Food Poverty Action Plans (GLA n.d.). Sustain also releases every year the report “Beyond the Food Bank” to assess boroughs’ signs of progress in meeting food objectives over the year. The report shares every year what each London borough is doing on food to generate positive competition among each other. 

In this context, London Boroughs – like other local authorities in the UK – have a wide range of policy levers to produce long-term food policy change, and address social, economic and environmental issues as well (Marceau 2018: 3). Food Poverty Action Plans represent one of these levers through which local authorities can work with local partners to tackle food poverty at the local level (Marceau 2018: 3). Here, the limited Mayoral powers and resources as regards food policymaking explain how several food policy networks and partnerships emerged, especially in London, to fill the gaps that neither city nor local politics managed to compensate. Thus, a food partnership represents a consortium of organizations, ideally from the public, voluntary, faith and community sectors, who locally commit to working together and tackling food poverty (Sustain 2020). In 2017 around 50 cross-sector food partnerships have been set up in the UK as part of the Sustainable Food Cities movement (Davies 2017: 3). Once established, they are generally constituted by cross-sector bodies. Davies reports that food partnerships may take different shapes, relying on a more formalized or more informal structure. Some are directly housed by public sector organizations and are generally staffed by government’s employees. Others may be staffed and funded by third sector organizations or even fully independent, with minimal available resources and mostly composed by volunteers (Davies 2017: 3).  

Ultimately, the complexity of London’s urban governance represented a fertile environment for food policymaking, especially considering the policy vacuum left by the UK central Government as regards food. Thus, food policies have been recently added to London’s local and city-region agendas. Firstly, the Mayor made food a relevant component of its London Plan and launched the third London Food Strategy. Then, London boroughs started implementing local food policies as food poverty action plans and cooperating with local food partnerships. Evidently, if urban planning neglected food policy for a long time, the case of London shows how an increasing number of local actors from the public, private and third sector have finally recognized the strategic significance of the food system for urban areas and, more in general, of food for communities’ health and wellbeing


Blick, A. and Dunleavy, P. (2017), Audit 2017: How democratic is the devolved government of London? London: Democratic Audit UK.

Burdett, R. and Rode, P. (2015), Who runs our cities? How governance structures around the world compare, The Guardian, Available at:

Davies, S. (2017), Food Partnership Structures: Stories from Sustainable Food Cities, Sustainable Food Cities, available at:

Forster, T. et Al. (2015), Milan Urban Food Policy Pact: Selected Good Practices from Cities, Utopie/29 Globalizzazione, Milan: Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Foundation.

GLA (2016), The London Plan: the spatial development strategy for London consolidated with alterations since 2011, available at:

GLA (2018), The London Food Strategy, London: Greater London Authority, available at:

GLA (n.d.), Food Poverty Action Plans , The Greater London Authority, available at:

Halliday, J. and Barling D. (2018), The Role and Engagement of Mayors in Local Food Policy, In Rethinking Food Policy: A Fresh Approach to Policy and Practice. London: Centre for Food Policy.

Marceau, A. (2018), Good Policy for Good Food: A toolbox of Local Authority food policy levers, Sustainable Food Cities, available at:

Morgan, K. (2010), Feeding the City: The Challenges of Urban Food Planning, International Planning Studies, 14: 4, pp. 341-348.

Parsons, K. and Hawkes, C. (2019), Brief 4: Embedding Food in All Policies, In Rethinking Food Policy: A Fresh Approach to Policy and Practice, London: Centre for Food Policy, pp: 1-8.

Parsons, K., Barling, D. and Lang, T. (2018), UK Policymaking Institutions and their implications for integrated Food Policy (Chapter 7), Advances in Food Security and Sustainability, Volume 3, pp. 211-251.

Pilgrim, M. (2006), London Regional Governance and the London Boroughs, Local Government Studies, 32:3, pp.223-238.

Sustain (2020), Help tackle the root causes of food poverty with Food Power, Available at:

Travers, T. (2002), Decentralization London-style: The GLA and London Governance, Regional Studies, 36:7, pp. 779-788.

Travers, T. (2018), London: government and politics in the boroughs, in Dunleavy, P et al (Eds.), The UK’s Changing Democracy: The 2018 Democratic Audit. London: LSE Press.

Growing food in cities during Covid-19

Growing food in cities during Covid-19

FAO reports that about 80% of food produced globally is destined to feed urban areas (FAO 2020). During the last century, the bond between food production and urban planning was devalued by the very idea of urban life as antithetic to rural life. The food system seemed condemned to industrial and mass production. More recently, agriculture has slowly started to make its way back to the city.

Urban agriculture or urban farming is the practice of cultivating and distributing food in or around urban area. If urban agriculture, stricto sensu, refers to small areas inside the city such as small farms or community gardens for growing crops or raising small livestock for own consumption or sale in neighborhood markets. Peri-urban agriculture refers to intensive or semi-intensive agriculture undertaken on the fringes of urban areas (FAO 2015). Indeed, urban agriculture has been spreading in cities across the world in the last years, with the aim to boost more sustainable food systems and the hope to offer a better relationship between natural systems and human communities (McDonough 2014). In New York City, for example, growing food in the city has been booming in the last years and agriculture networks strengthened (McDonough 2014). In London, the enterprise GrowUp Urban Farms, which produces fish, salads and herbs in unused city spaces now sells wholesale (Lovett 2016).

The Covid-19 pandemic is not only changing our daily lives but especially the way we live in cities. It also affected the globalized and industrialized food system producing a variety of responses, both in the short and in the long-term. FAO and RUAF provided a framework to understand the vulnerabilities of urban food systems, to improve communication and cooperation and provide new strategies to safeguard food security and nutrition during this trying time (Blay-Palmer et Al. 2020). In particular, they recognized how some cities are particularly exposed to food supply problems, given their lack of diversification of food value and supply chains, their dependency on imports and other economic and natural vulnerabilities (Blay-Palmer et Al. 2020). The less cities rely on their rural hinterlands, the more they result unprotected to unpredictable shocks of their food supply chain, as the pandemic showed.

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Indeed Covid-19 health crisis has quickly aggravated food security for most vulnerable urban populations. According to FAO, “the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting urban food systems worldwide, posing a number of challenges for cities and local governments that are obliged to deal with rapid changes in food availability, accessibility and affordability” (FAO 2020: 1). In London, for example, foodbanks are struggling to provide food to city dwellers during the lockdown, and this is affecting mostly low incomes, older people, those with disabilities, rough sleepers and asylum seekers, given the fall of donations, the insufficient supplies from supermarkets and lack of volunteers (London City Hall 2020).  RUAF also reported that in Quito, Ecuador, public places being locked down meant that local markets, could not remain open and provide food to low-income residents (RUAF 2020). Maximo Torero, Food and Agriculture Organization chief economist, explained that the challenges that the pandemic is posing to the food system do not affect the supply of food in itself but the logistics of food distribution, given the high dependency on food imports (Harvey 2020). Moreover, The Economist reported how current food system bottlenecks have severe impacts on consumers, who are facing reduced or lost incomes since the lockdown measures were implemented globally (The Economist 2020). In fact, vulnerable urban residents can only afford to buy food in small quantities and depend mostly on small shops and open-air markets rather than supermarkets and other food delivery options. Therefore, some national governments are trying to maintain outdoor food markets open to support vulnerable groups’ access to food. For example, in France food markets partially reopened at the end of March (The Connexion 2020) and UK is prepared to reopen all outdoor markets from the 1st June (Sustain 2020).

Hence, it could be interesting to investigate if among other long-term actions that cities and local governments can implement to strengthen urban food systems’ resilience, growing food in cities may be a viable option. FAO stated that promoting short supply chains may adequately support the resilience of urban food systems in the long-term. In particular, “the crisis provides an opportunity to underline the multiple benefits of local food systems, enabling local actors to better coordinate during the crisis to avoid main gaps distribution, and making cities more food resilient” (FAO 2020: 6).

Therefore, cases of urban and peri-urban agriculture and/or urban residents directly growing their food from home are spreading. In particular, Kotchakorn Voraakhom, the designer of the largest urban rooftop farm in Bangkok stated that “more people are thinking about where their food comes from, how easily it can be disrupted, and how to reduce disruptions” (Chandran 2020). She also reported how urban planners and local governments tend now to be more concerned with land-use in cities (Chandran 2020).

For instance, Singapore relies on other nations for almost everything its residents eat. More recently, it has been working on addressing land constraints to diversify food sources and increase local production. According to William Chen Professor of Food Science and Technology ant Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (Kwiatkowski and Stringer 2020), Singapore is not only developing expertise in technologies such as vertical farming, but it has also been working constantly to increase free additional urban spaces for urban farming, such as rooftops on multi-storeys car parks (Kwiatkowski and Stringer 2020). An example is a structure atop a car park in the Ang Mo Kio district where “Citiponics Pte Ltd. grows about 4 tons of Georgina lettuces and other leafy greens a month, while part of a former downtown high school site has also recently been re-purposed for urban agriculture” (Kwiatkowski and Stringer 2020).

In the meanwhile in UK, the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food is working on the launch of the Resilience Food Project which will see the creation of “financially self-supporting aquaponic micro-farms in unused or under-used urban spaces of Sheffield that offer a localized high tech intensive food production method” (Nickles 2020). The project aims to assess the financial viability and resource efficiency of urban agriculture, gather evidence to stimulate investor confidence and explore ways to involve local communities in the co-production of farms and food, particularly in more vulnerable urban areas (Nickles 2020).

Also, in Bolivia, lockdown measures highly affected the urban food system. However, families working in urban and peri-urban agriculture resulted fundamental to guarantee the supply of food into Bolivia’s cities. With local governments and FAO’s support to urban and peri-urban food sector, farmers managed to shorten food value chains and guarantee food access in Bolivian cities during quarantine (FAO 2020).

These examples showed how the increased attention towards urban and peri-urban agriculture in the attempt to shorten food supply chains has become even more urgent, since lockdown measures have been implemented in cities all around the world. Even if urban farms can only partially address food needs in cities, they seem able to promote more sustainable communities and generative capacity of buildings and urban infrastructure (Yang 2020). Additionally, Covid-19 is showing how urban and especially peri-urban agriculture will certainly play a more relevant role in reducing food insecurity and food supply chains vulnerabilities, if unpredictable shocks happen to compromise the food system. Therefore, more attention from local authorities is needed to ensure the safety of local food production by supporting policies aimed at shortening food supply chains. As Jane Jacobs noted, perseverance of peri-urban agriculture embodies the symbiotic relationship that occurs between cities and their hinterlands (Jacobs 1984) which can definitely be a shock absorber during disruptions such as a global pandemic. Therefore, in a world after coronavirus, as the European Agriculture Commissioner, Janusz Wojciechowski, advocated “we need to have our own food, produced on our fields, by our own farmers, and we have to take better care of local markets, shorten those supply chains” (POLITICO 2020).


Blay-Palmer, A., Santini, G., Halliday, J., Van Veenhuizen, R., and M. Taguchi (2020). City Region Food Systems to cope with COVID-19 and other pandemic emergencies. Food and Agriculture Organization. [online] Available at:

Chandran, R. (2020). Urban farming is flourishing during the coronavirus lockdowns. World Economic Forum [online] Available at:

Food and Agriculture Organization (2020). In times of COVID-19, Bolivian urban farmers rethink their ways of working. [online] Available at:

Food and Agriculture Organization (2015). Urban and Peri-Urban Agriculture. Food and Agriculture Organization (2020). Urban Food Agenda. Available at:

Food and Agriculture Organization (2020). Urban food systems and COVID-19: The role of cities and local governments in responding to the emergency. [online] Available at:

Harvey, F. (2020). Coronavirus measures could cause global food shortage, UN warns. The Guardian. [online]  Available at:

Jacobs J. (1984), Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life. New York: Random House.

Kwiatkowski, A., and D. Stringer (2020). How Singapore Plans to Survive World’s Impending Food Crisis. Bloomberg. [online] Available at:

London City Hall. (2020). Coronavirus (COVID-19): Supporting foodbanks. Available at:

Lovett, G. (2016). Is urban farming only for rich hipsters? The Guardian. [online] 15 Feb. Available at:

McDonough, W. (2014). Designing cities and factories with urban agriculture in mind. [online] the Guardian. Available at:

Nickels, J. (2020). The current situation: COVID-19, urban agriculture and the need to change the food system. N8 AgriFood. [online] Available at:

POLITICO (2020). The world after coronavirus. [online] POLITICO. Available at:

RUAF Urban Agriculture and Food Systems. (2020). City Region Food Systems to cope with COVID-19 and other pandemic emergencies. [online] Available at: .

Sustain (2020). All outdoor markets can fully re-open from 1st June. [online] Available at:

The Connexion (2020). Quarter of food markets can reopen in France. [online] Available at:

The Economist (2020). The world’s food system has so far weathered the challenge of covid-19. [online] Available at:

Yang, C. (2020). Rethinking Food Post-Covid with Urban Agriculture. STATION F.[online]. Available at:

The urban side of pandemics

The urban side of pandemics

Cities are known to be places of multimodal transport connectivity, social interaction and gathering, agglomeration economies and public life. In the last weeks, as cities all around the world turned into desert spaces due to quarantine measures, they have become the most evident and symbolic example of the health crisis that our world is facing. Now we can hardly recognize them.

Pandemics do shape cities, leaving a visible trace in the way they are planned. The Romans built numerous aqueducts to bring water from distant springs to their cities, supplying thermal baths, latrines, fountains and private homes. The wastewater was eliminated with complex sewage systems and discharged into nearby watercourses, keeping cities clean and free of effluents. They made cities healthier places for their residents and helped preventing collective diseases, bringing clean and drinkable water within their borders.

More recently, the London Metropolitan Board and the first urban sanitation systems developed during the 19th century in response to a cholera outbreak. These urban reactions to epidemics were the result of experimentation. Part of the history of urbanization is no more than a series of trials to face the spread of infectious diseases within cities.

A series of images from cities under quarantine (Source: The Guardian)

However, as Michele Acuto, professor of global urban politics at the University of Melbourne and director of Connected Cities Lab, explained during his recent interview for CityLab, Covid-19 is the result of “peri-urban and rural-to-urban” interactions (Klaus 2020). Globalization definitely plays a central role, but global cities do not represent the scenario where everything started (Klaus 2020). Most probably this is the story of a person who travelled from the peri-urban region of Wuhan to a rural-to-urban city in Bavaria (Klaus 2020).

If global supply chains might explain part of the story, global cities are those which experience the outbreak of the pandemic more seriously and violently. Public health is definitely an urban issue and now more than ever the overwhelming burden on hospitals is affecting cities more than smaller urban and rural areas. Thus, cities tend to represent a multiplier of opportunities and problems at the same time. Indeed, proximity as a result of built-environment densification in cities can be a problem when trying to contrast pandemics with a high rate of transmission such as Covid-19. One of the first lessons, suggests Prof. Acuto, may be rethinking density management to survive in a pandemic world, by decentralizing some essential services and imagining new forms of health care delivery such as door-to-door testing. In fact, compared to rural areas, urban centers provide stronger chains of viral transmission, with higher contact rates and more people prone to infection.

The increasing danger generally associated with living in cities during the age of pandemic disease seems to have induced some people to quarantine themselves in the suburbs, considered as safer places. A new line of business is growing in the US, where there are cases of people renting their rural houses and branding them as Covid-19 safe houses (Bliss and Capps 2020). These social reactions easily remind of The Decameron, a well-known story written by Giovanni Boccaccio about a group of young and rich Florentines who escaped the Black Death, which was slaughtering Florence in the 14th century, to find shelter in a cottage in the countryside.

However, there is no place which is inherently safe and, as aforementioned, Covid-19 initially spread in the urban periphery. Indeed, if rural populations have less means to contract Covid-19, they also have less means to treat it, as Kassens-Noor explained, professor of urban planning at Michigan State University specialized in the study of the relations between pandemics and urban densities (Bliss and Capps 2020). Thus, there are specific challenges that peri-urban and rural areas need to cope with. Firstly, there is the issue of access to health care facilities. Secondly, vaccination rates are usually higher in cities. Therefore, the so-called phenomenon of the heard immunity tends to occur more easily in large urban agglomerations (Bliss and Capps 2020).

Finally, a paper published in 2018 on Science explained how middle-size urban centers tend to experience “shorter and more intense outbreaks of influenza” when compared to big cities (Bliss and Capps 2020). This still depends on the heard immunity mechanism which reaches higher degrees in bigger cities.

Moreover, and especially in the global south, risks associated with pandemics in cities result to be higher for people living in slums and informal settings, where common hygiene standards and self-isolation are not really feasible. Therefore, as anthropologist and health systems researcher Annie Wilkinson pointed out, it is necessary to consider how to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on people living in densely populated and unsanitary environments (2020). She highlighted how the difficulty in the collection of data on slums represents an additional constraint when policies need to be implemented. In these areas, many diseases and health issues go unresolved and people live in chronic untreated conditions (Wilkinson 2020). Most vulnerable groups tend to be more exposed to any kind of epidemic disease and urban planning across the world cannot avoid considering this trend. Thus, specific policies must be implemented to guarantee an additional support especially in term of food and health care access for city dwellers who are socially and economically excluded but more exposed to urban risks.

Finally, there is a lesson that every city around the world must learn, which is that crises can be productive when established ways of thinking are jeopardized by non-predictable circumstances, such as global epidemics. The magnitude and direction of transformation depend on how cities can learn from each other, from their successes and mistakes in interpreting and handling epidemics. Again, as Prof. Acuto stressed, there is a terrific opportunity offered by digital transformation (Klaus 2020). In particular, digital infrastructure may determine one most revolutionary change in health care management and sanitation across the globe. Therefore, cities with their higher levels of connectivity can lead the way towards revolutionary changes. Hence, understanding the urban planning dimension of pandemics starts from improving data management, digital infrastructure and connectivity in cities. We have now the opportunity to rethink, especially in dense urban settings, the way to test and contain pandemics. Acuto reported how platforms such as Tencent and Alibaba can provide detailed information on how many people are sick in a given neighborhood, which may be a relevant tool for decision-making and urban planning during this trying time (2020). These experimentations, however, inevitably raise questions on privacy, state control and policing.

How can we use digital innovation tools for the improvement of our health care management and risk prevention strategies without transforming them into mass controlling instruments?


Bliss, L. and K. Capps (2020), Are Suburbs Safer From Coronavirus? Probably Not, available from

Klaus, I. (2020), Pandemics are also an Urban Planning Problem, available from

Wilkinson, A. (2020), What is the impact of Covid-19 in informal settlements?,

Smart Forest City: A New Frontier of Urban Sustainability

Smart Forest City: A New Frontier of Urban Sustainability

The Milanese architecture firm “Stefano Boeri Architetti”, who projected the Vertical Forest in Milan, designed the plan for the first Smart Forestry City that will be based in Cancun, Mexico. It is expected to host up to 130.000 inhabitants, by replacing the project of a shopping center. The city will be built on a 5.57 km2, currently employed as a “sand quarry for hotels” (Endel 2019)[1] and 4 km2 will be reserved for green spaces. There will be about 7.500.000 plants in the project and 260.000 will be trees. With a ratio of 2.3 trees per inhabitant, the Smart Forest City “will absorb 116.000 tons of carbon dioxide with 5.800 tons of CO2 stocked per year” (Endel 2019). Public parks, private gardens, green roofs, and green facades will help create a balance within the built environment.

The city has also been imagined to be completely food and energy self-sufficient. Indeed, it will be surrounded by solar panels and agricultural fields. Water will be gathered at the entrance of the city, next to the desalination tower and dispensed by a system of navigable channels in the whole settlement up to the agricultural fields that surround the urban area[2]. Within the city, people will circulate via internal electric and semi-automatic mobility, leaving their cars outside of the city.

The Smart Forest City will also hold “a center for advanced research that could host all worldwide university departments, international organizations, and companies that deal with very important sustainability issues and the future of the planet” (Endel 2019). 

The Smart Forest City definitely promotes the idea of sustainable city. In fact, the project seems to create a perfect habitat where human beings can live in total harmony with nature within the urban space. Apparently, this sounds like a perfect solution in a scenario where urbanization is expected to rise in the next years and climate change needs to be handled with innovative solutions. Indeed, this project not only seems to support the idea of reducing urban sprawl by creating dense and compact settlements, but it also seems to avoid one of the main challenges that urban density can bring, which is the lack of green space on urban footprints. Thus, one of the main critiques to the urban density discourse has been the idea that if land is consumed for increasing urban development, areas devoted to green will be necessarily reduced. However, the Smart forest city represents an anti-sprawl and densification project able to reduce urban expansion while increasing the quantity of green within the built city. “A model that connects to the policies for reforestation and naturalization of the edges of large urban and metropolitan areas” (Kucherova and Narvaez 2018: 5)[3]. In fact, as the Stefano Boeri Architetti firm’s manifesto states[4], the reforestation of the urban environment can be an extraordinary help to improve the quality of health and life in a city. Indeed, forests and trees absorb nearly 40% of fossil fuel emissions largely produced by cities every year.

However, there are some challenges which are not self-evident when looking at these projects. First, instead of building sustainable cities or eco-cities out of nowhere, believing that higher densities are necessarily good, planners may better consider that urban design is not enough to make cities more sustainable. As Laurence Crot highlighted, Masdar City (a planned city project initiated in 2006 in the United Arab Emirates) portrayed as the world first sustainable city and the example of Abu Dhabi’s new urban vision, has soon renounced to some of its most ambitious sustainability goals (2012: 2809)[1] such as its car-free mission. Masdar City has been recently rebranded as a carbon neutral project and its previous zero-carbon commitment soon disappeared from the policy agenda. Indeed, eco-cities projects instead of representing the panacea for main environmental and urban challenges seem just able to bring a new label to neoliberal urban development plans, since they rarely innovate and seldom keep their promises of sustainability (Cugurullo 2018: 74)[2]. Another weakness associated with these brand-new urban solutions relates the issue of who could really afford to live in eco-cities or smart forestry city. In fact, density increases the price of land and in turn increases the price of housing. Moreover, reforestation means bringing new amenities in the built environment which represents a new source of housing unaffordability.

Though a project as the Smart Forest City represents a perfect solution to reduce urban sprawl and pollution by increasing green space in cities at the same time; cities are more than their urban form. So, bringing urban design solutions to make cities more sustainable will not work alone, it can only be part of the answer. In fact, as Neuman pointed out, instead of asking ourselves if urban form can produce sustainability, we should question whether the processes of building cities, living, consuming and producing in cities are actually sustainable[7].


[1]Edel, D. (2019), Smart Forest City Cancun Design Is First 100% Renewable Circular Economy City, Available from:

[2] Stefano Boeri Architetti (2019), Smart Forest City Cancun, Press release available from:

[3]Kucherova, A. and Narvaez, H. (2018), Urban Forest Revolution, E3S Web of Conferences 33, 01013, pp. 1-11. 

[4]Stefano Boeri Architetti (2019), Smart Forest City Cancun, Press release available from:

[5]Crot, L. (2012), Planning for Sustainability in Non-democratic Polities: The Case of Masdar City, Urban Studies 50(13), pp. 2809–2825. 

[6]Cugurullo, F. (2018), Exposing smart cities and eco-cities: Frankenstein urbanism and the sustainability challenges of the experimental city, Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 2018, Vol. 50(1), pp. 73–92.

[7]Neuman, M. (2005), The Compact City Fallacy, Journal of Planning Education and Research 25, pp. 11-26