Navigating the New Normal: City Leadership in the Aftermath of COVID-19

November 16, 2020


The challenges that lie ahead in the near future for South African cities and towns are complex, and navigating an economic recovery amid the continuing uncertainty of Covid-19 is no easy task. Despite this, a multitude of opportunities are available for leaders of cities and towns, big and small, to implement strategic and tactical urban interventions to continue to build more inclusive, innovative and resilient urban areas and societies. This discussion paper aims to provide inspiration for the path ahead; it distils the complexities of steering cities through this period into five key recommendations for city leaders.

Five Key Recommendations

Here are five ways that city leaders can plan ahead:

  1. Boost investment into the public realm and spaces
  2. Accelerate the delivery of quality affordable housing
  3. Support small businesses in the economic recovery
  4. Invest in ‘soft infrastructure’ to strengthen community networks
  5. Empower local authorities to deliver a localised response

1. Boost Investment into the Public Realm and Spaces

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of public space in our cities, and its potential to enhance day-to-day quality of life, especially under different levels of lockdown. A report by the Design Council demonstrates the many benefits of public space; increased economic value, positive impacts on mental and physical health, benefits for children and young people, crime reduction and improved safety and security, and other transport and social functions. Public space has positive implications for the overall wellbeing of both the city and its residents.

During the pandemic, a quality public realm allows for physical distancing while still fostering socialisation, pedestrian mobility and the provision of essential services. A report by UN Habitat notes that this crisis has highlighted key gaps in public space provision; these include accessibility, flexibility, design, management, maintenance, connectivity and equitable distribution.

After the pandemic has passed, public space will continue to play a key part in recovery.


In many cities such as London, San Francisco and Bern, streets have been closed to cars (fully or partially) and instead opened to ‘streateries’ – with cafe and restaurant seating spilling onto the road. In Wandsworth, London, businesses with access to these streateries reported a 30% increase in turnover compared to the same period in 2019, pre-pandemic. This demonstrates the much-needed benefit to businesses when they are permitted to access streets and public space in which cars are usually prioritised.

South African city leaders have generally failed to test or pilot any such initiatives and  must embrace tactical approaches to better utilise public space, to create safer walkable streets and to support businesses in the process.

Parks and Open Space

Open public spaces such as parks have economic, social and environmental value (see Figure 1) making them more than a ‘nice-to-have’, rather a basic necessity, with the ability to improve both mental and physical health for their users.

Economic ValueSocial ValueEnvironmental ValueIncreased economic vitalityImproved quality of lifeReduced pollution (air, noise, water)Reduced public expenditure on healthcare, urban managementIncreased both real and perceived security and safetyIncreased ecological diversityHigher property pricesPromoted social equality and stabilityReduced energy consumptionAttracted human capitalIncreased cultural vitalityIncreased business confidenceSocial integration and civic pride

Figure 1: Economic, social and environmental value of public space. Source: World Bank

However, access is uneven and many local neighbourhoods do not have sufficient public space available. In many cities public spaces have either been poorly planned, the first victims of urban sprawl, or simply not considered. South African city leaders must call for policies that prioritise greater availability of public space, across all scales. The accessibility and versatility of public spaces will contribute to healthier and more resilient cities for all residents.

2. Accelerate the Delivery of Quality Affordable Housing

Housing is an essential need and a basic human right. In addition to short-term measures, such as the provision of temporary shelter for the homeless and others in vulnerable positions (see Durban’s approach), longer-term government response is required to address the inadequate housing conditions prevalent across many South African cities and towns. Covid-19 has both highlighted and exacerbated the housing inequalities in our society, as many lower-income communities have suffered from higher rates of infection.

Despite the government’s call for the de-densification of informal settlements into temporary relocation areas (TRAs), as in the case of Du Noon and Kosovo in the Western Cape, this is neither a sustainable nor a viable solution. Parkington Informal Settlement can serve as precedent for an alternative and innovative approach that City leaders can take. Vertical expansion using a multi-story housing design has the potential to effectively double the floor area for housing and free up much-needed open space. The Empower Shack project serves as another example of a comprehensive and sustainable informal settlement upgrading strategy that city leaders can look to. The project established an interface between residents, professionals and the government, which provided a durable foundation for future informal settlement upgrading.

Large scale housing delivered by Private-Public-Partnerships (PPPs) is an important tool to revive the economy and provide much-needed affordable housing. In Rwanda’s Rugarama Park Estate, the construction of a 3000-unit affordable, sustainable housing development is currently underway. Additionally, in Mexico City, leaders plan to invest $1 billion and create 1 million new jobs in the construction sector by redeveloping 13 urban corridors that already have well-established transport connections to include new social housing. These large scale projects provide both economic and social benefits. It is essential that city leaders find ways to incentivise construction work to continue.

Photo by Kanyiso Mabija on Unsplash

3. Support Small Businesses in the Economic Recovery

Negative economic growth has been a difficult consequence of the pandemic (see Figure 2), with local economies suffering in spite of financial support from national governments. City administrators and local governments have a key role to play in ensuring that micro, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have the strongest platform possible to bounce back from the COVID-19 crisis. Some targeted measures that can be implemented include:

  • Providing tax breaks, especially for industries that have been severely affected by the pandemic.
  • Provision of various subsidies to leverage technology. This will improve competitiveness in the SME value chain with the long term effect of overcoming their scale disadvantage in relation to larger companies.
  • Prioritising SMEs in the greater economic framework. This entails actions such as providing support for back-office services within a given SME. An example in Malaysia is the platform called ‘PlaTCOM Ventures’ which helps entrepreneurs turn ideas into successful businesses.

Figure 2: Projected growth, and growth under Covid-19 in selected African primary cities.

4. Invest in ‘Soft Infrastructure’ to Strengthen Communities

‘Soft infrastructure and values play a huge part in healthy neighbourhoods and public spaces’

Rashiq Fataar, director of Our Future Cities

Timely and efficient responses to crises by governmental bodies is crucial. However the scale of the current pandemic and major shocks and stresses to an urban system cannot be tackled through government acting alone. Local community networks have long been underestimated and, in some cases, been ignored. These groups have a key role to play in their ability to offer quick and localised responses due to the data available to them, and close proximity to their respective communities.

City leaders should invest in soft infrastructure like community-led networks, which bring together residents from varied backgrounds and build community resilience. An example is the Cape Town Together Community Action Network, a network of 150 Community Action Networks with over 2000 volunteers that has demonstrated the impact of local initiatives. The network, which has been active since March 2020, has a database that helps organise non-medical responses within their respective communities. Community Action Network groups have also been initiated in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape.

City leaders can also partner with established organisations that have fostered local relationships. Organisations such as Boost Africa have worked with Cape Town’s most vulnerable communities and are best placed to provide information on households which are at particular risk and how to channel food and other essential items to them.

5. Empower Local Authorities to Deliver a Localised Response

Local governments have a critical role to play in addressing the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. They are the driving force to shape and deliver local response measures. According to one report by Cities for All, a fully participatory response must consider the formulation of inclusive urban policies, legislation, programs and strategies, capacity building and the collection of data and statistics for implementation. Initiatives such as participatory democracy, digitalisation of services and collaborative governance with both local and other national governments, are just a few of the initiatives that local governments can focus on in the post-pandemic era. Local governments should be supported to respond to the effects of the pandemic. This can substantially reduce the pressures on national resources.

GovChat is South Africa’s largest civic engagement platform, with 7 million active users. GovChat has allowed for millions of South Africans to apply for the South Africa Social Security Agency (SASSA) grant from their mobile phones. In Uganda, initiatives such as the upgrade of water and sanitation systems, retrofitting public infrastructure and public awareness have been entrusted to local governments as part of the Covid-19 response, with the support of grants and the Local Government Excellence Fund. Local governments should be supported to trial civic tech innovations such as mobile payments and digitalised traffic fines on a localised scale, working with the community to adopt innovative approaches to governance.

Photo by Ndumiso Silindza on Unsplash

The Way Forward

Now is the time for our leadership to act, seize the moment and create transformation in our cities and towns. We suggest that post-pandemic urban interventions be concentrated on strategic investment and support within public space, housing, economic recovery, community-building, and a greater emphasis on local knowledge systems and responses. While the pandemic has highlighted the exclusionary and unsustainable nature of our cities, it has also revealed a great potential for change in mindset, approaches and physical environments.

The approach of each city or town is of course dependent on the unique challenges faced by each and their relative level of maturity across a range of areas; established levels of human-centricity, safety and security, political stability, infrastructural development, citizen access and engagement, and technological penetration. These will be key in shaping the actions taken by planners, leaders, businesses, investors and residents toward a post-COVID future. At the heart of all interventions should be the understanding that South African cities and towns must work for the people who live in them, and be inclusive for every part of our society.

About the Authors

At Our Future Cities, we specialise in the transformation of cities, communities and spaces. Our network brings together specialists from various backgrounds – including planners, anthropologists, actuaries, designers and researchers – united by our passion for cities and willingness to engage with urban issues. Our Director, Rashiq Fataar, is a respected urbanist with a long history of work in the field.

This paper was led by Rashiq Fataar, with contributions from Bella Tidswell, Emmanuel Ayisi, Sophia Nthuku and Ruby Schalit.

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