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Pandemics Are Also an Urban Planning Problem

Will COVID-19 change how cities are designed? Michele Acuto of the Connected Cities Lab talks about density, urbanization and pandemic preparation.  
South Korean soldiers attempt to disinfect the sidewalks of Seoul's Gagnam district in response to the spread of COVID-19.
South Korean soldiers attempt to disinfect the sidewalks of Seoul's Gagnam district in response to the spread of COVID-19.SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

Disease shapes cities. Some of the most iconic developments in urban planning and management, such as London’s Metropolitan Board of Works and mid-19th century sanitation systems, developed in response to public health crises such as cholera outbreaks. Now COVID-19 is joining a long list of infectious diseases, like the Spanish flu of 1918 in New York and Mexico City or the Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa in 2014, likely to leave enduring marks on urban spaces.

For Michele Acuto, professor of global urban politics in the School of Design at the University of Melbourne, the intersection of urban design and public health is an increasingly critical territory. He’s the director of the Connected Cities Lab, a leading center for advancing urban policy development; he’s worked on urban health in a number of capacities, including with the European Commission and the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific Regional Office. While the University of Melbourne scrambles to accelerate a COVID-19 vaccine, the Lab is working to understand the urban planning dimensions of pandemic preparedness.