Regions and cities responding to the crisis

The very strong differentiation of trajectories that emerged with the COVID-19 crisis can be explained by the systemic dimension of territories. The aim of geographical analysis is to be able to associate and combine, in the analysis of the pandemic, the spatial, social, cultural, political and economic dimensions making and producing the territory (ies) at all scales. From this point of view, the analysis of responses in terms of public policies is very enlightening.

"The coronavirus pandemic has led to the great return of the state, public power and regalian functions as during the financial crisis of 2008-2010, but in different ways.

 The coronavirus pandemic has led to the great return of the state, public power and regalian functions (armies, police, borders, diplomacy, currency, health, etc.), as during the financial crisis of 2008-2010, but in different ways. The management of the health crisis between March and May 2020 was based on the principle of lockdown and uniformity throughout each country (with the exception of Sweden, which did not opt for confinement). However, the public policy logics that aimed to accompany the socioeconomic effects of lockdown were very different depending on the territory.

 The originality of the ESPON study "Geography of COVID-19 outbreak and first policy answers in European regions and cities" lies in the analysis of the responses of the territories at an infra-regional level. The aim was to understand and analyse what measures had been implemented by local authorities in terms of health and safety, daily life, assistance to vulnerable people and support for economic actors and their recovery. From an analysis based on almost 40 case studies, we can draw several conclusions. These conclusions have been shared with Eurocities and the Council of European Municipalities and Regions to enable best practices to be collected from across Europe.

 Our analysis shows that strategic responses marked by innovation are marginalised and under-mobilised. However, they are the only types of responses that are likely to result in a 'top-down exit' from the current health crisis. They are also a way of avoiding the risk of thinking of a crisis as an isolated event and not as a salient moment in processes that have long histories and that will continue into the future. It is also possible to summarise these results by pointing out that a defensive approach dominates at the expense of an offensive approach. 

Our analysis shows a dominance of emergency measures, designed for the short term and relating to the first identified effects of the pandemic. This particularly applies to measures to support local businesses, from which immediate effects are expected. Some measures are part of the medium-term solution (i.e. they anticipate or take into account the fact that the COVID-19 crisis will last for a certain amount of time) but risk not being sustainable. We identified only a few long-term measures with a post-pandemic temporal horizon, in which the actors take into account the fact that they will be able to continue to benefit from the measures after the crisis.

 We also highlight the fact that urban/ metropolitan local authorities tended to implement the largest number of measures. This can be explained not only by their greater financial capacity, but also probably by the fact that these places have been the most affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Other factors worth exploring include the degree of decentralisation of a country and the level of competences attributed to the local level, the size of the population and the financial capacities of local authorities.

 This, therefore, also underlines the importance of governance issues. Owing to the fact that local public authorities were faced with the difficulty of thinking strategically, undoubtedly a few ambiguities remain with regard to the effective prerogatives at the different levels of public decision-making. In states with a centralist tradition - in addition to the need for strategic and decision-making coordination between the different political-administrative levels - there is a need to change traditionally vertical relationships.

 Finally, a major oversight in the management of this crisis concerns territorial cooperation. Although several bodies and associations of local authorities have attempted to identify the initiatives that have been implemented, in the end there has been little cooperation, particularly between cross-border territories. Once again, the weight and role of the states and vertical decision-making show their limits. A more horizontal and decentralised approach would make it possible to improve responses to deal with this crisis, which not only is health related but also has social and economic impacts.

Examples of local initiatives

Fast -track funding for arts projects reaching citizens digitally;

Changing temporarily the rules for municipal grants to encourage (cultural) projects to incorporate digital and other new forms of expression;

Transforming neighbourhoods into cultural venues that host small theatre performances, mobile storytellers, monologues, etc.

Transforming various city streets into pedestrianised streets at weekends to facilitate social distancing and limiting the maximum speed below 30 km/hour;

Launching an online feature that shows in real time how many free seats there are on buses and trains;

Using the Living Lab concept to co-create solutions for the gastronomy sector (different cities);

Giving financial support to companies for the purchase of external consultancy services so that they can reinvent their products / ensure long-term survival / find new markets;

Organising virtual B2B or B2C events for local businesses.

This article appears in the A regional geography of COVID-19 Issue of TerritoriALL

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This article appears in the A regional geography of COVID-19 Issue of TerritoriALL