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The impact on European cities and metropolitan areas - Brussels-Capital

Alfredo Corbalan

COVID-19, pandemics and urban areas

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out across the world, questions were quickly raised about the role of urban areas and density in the spread of the virus. Some argue that cities and metropolitan areas may have inadvertently contributed to the rapid spread of COVID-19 between well-connected places. However, others argue that it is precisely the strength of urban systems that enabled the spread of COVID-19 to be controlled.

Major epidemics in the past have contributed to the rethinking and reshaping of our urban fabrics. Many architects and urban planners, such as Le Corbusier, have been inspired by the need to fight against infectious diseases by to introduce innovations such as sewage systems, clean water supplies and better and healthier housing, enlarge streets and build garden cities.

The COVID-19 pandemic will also have long-lasting consequences for our cities, most probably in the areas of public and green spaces, mobility and public transport, and housing and office real estate.

Looking for territorial evidence

Europe's cities and metropolitan areas were definitely not prepared for this pandemic - neither were the European national governments. They had to act quickly to limit the spread of the virus and mitigate the economic, social and health impacts, without knowing exactly the facilitating or diminishing parameters for the territorial spread of the virus.

At the beginning of the first wave, several cities members of EUROCITIES Working Group on

Metropolitan Areas felt the urgent need to have a pan-European vision and carry out an analysis of the current crisis to understand better its territorial effects, the efficiency of the first local policy response and the possible mid-term and long-term consequences for urban systems.

The EUROCITIES Working Group on Metropolitan Areas has developed, in recent years, a good cooperation with the ESPON EGTC through its participation in several Targeted analyses and the organisation of common outreach events. It therefore naturally decided to cooperate with ESPON in carrying out European research into the geography of COVID-19 by mobilising its members to provide the researchers with information and case studies.

The pandemic will have long-lasting consequences for our cities, in the areas of public and green spaces, mobility and public transport, and housing

Now that Europe is facing a second wave, this ESPON research is even more important. It can provide all governments with territorial evidence related to the spread of COVID-19 and a comparative analysis of the efficiency of the first policy responses during the first wave. It is important for local authorities to build on lessons learned and for European and national authorities to involve cities and metropolitan areas in their recovery plans. It is only by working hand in hand with cities that Europe will achieve a territorially balanced recovery.

Focus: Brussels-Capital Region

Brussels, like many European metropolises, has been severely hit by the COVID-19 crisis.

With its 1.2 million inhabitants living in an area of 161 km², Brussels provides more than 700,000 jobs, half of which are occupied by persons living outside its administrative borders. Brussels also has an important international dimension, as it hosts major European and international institutions and their civil servants, such as the European Commission, the European Council and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Furthermore, Brussels is located at the heart of Belgium, one of the most urbanised countries in Europe with an important commuting culture, an open economy and significant flows of persons and goods between the interlinked urban areas of the megaregion of north-west Europe that are home to 40 million inhabitants.

The Brussels Institute for Statistics and Analysis has recently published an analysis of the impact of COVID-19 in terms of excess mortality and the reasons why it hit Brussels so hard. This publication analyses the excess mortality registered in Brussels and Belgium in spring 2020 compared with the same period in the past 5 years.

During this period, the excess mortality in Brussels was 82%, whereas it was 39% for Belgium, 25% for the city of Antwerp and 68% for the city of Liege. It appears that elderly persons, men and inhabitants of retirement homes have been the most affected. The authors identifies four possible reasons for the high excess mortality in Brussels: the degree of urbanisation and urban lifestyle; the high level of national and international connectivity; the high number of elderly persons living in retirement homes; and the significant number of inhabitants with a difficult socioeconomic situation (work, housing, health). 

Perspective.brusselsthe Brussels-Capital Region planning agency, coordinated a diagnosis of the main impacts of COVID-19 in Brussels in three areas: social and health outcomes; economy and employment; and the environment and spatial development.

Based on this diagnosis, the government adopted a recovery and redeployment plan for the short term and mid-term. In the short term, in addition to the EUR 500 million allocated for measures during the first wave, the government has taken additional urgent economic and social measures to support the Brussels economy, jobs and health.

elderly persons, men and inhabitants of retirement homes have been the most affected.

In the mid-term and long term, the government wants to reinforce urban resilience and anchor the recovery in the transition towards a decarbonised economy and a new more sustainable urban model.

For instance, the Scientific Committee on Housing has been set up to make recommendations on post-COVID housing (including the need for new types of spaces, possibly shared ones), and tactical urbanism actions have been implemented such as the temporary occupation of public space during the summer and 40 km of new bicycle lanes.

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