Improving city liveability for the vulnerable, lessons from COVID-19

Connected society 14 April 2020

This is the second article in a series of reflections on experiences during the Coronavirus crisis and how these might impact our cities in the future. The impacts of COVID-19 have certainly brought the needs and challenges of the most vulnerable into sharper focus, providing an opportunity to re-think how we plan our cities to improve liveability and inclusivity for the vulnerable, leading to better cities for all.

8 min

Addressing the needs of the vulnerable to create better cities for all

Instructions to stay at home during the Coronavirus crisis has brought many challenges to most households, whether it is family households juggling work with care for dependents, sole-person households struggling with limited social contact, or perhaps shared households (such as university students) not used to being kept in close confines with one another for extended periods of time.

However difficult those circumstances, for the most vulnerable in our society, the impact of isolation has been even steeper! They are seeing access to essentials such as groceries and medication being problematic, are denied basic freedoms such as going out for a short walk and will have to cope with longer periods of isolation than the rest.

This crisis has certainly shone a light on the challenges for our vulnerable. To put this challenge into perspective, around approximately 1 billion people around the world today live with some sort of disability. By 2050, over 2 billion people globally will be over the age of 60, that is 22% of world’s population!

This article proposes 5 ways in which cities can turn the urban condition during COVID-19 into an opportunity to accelerate their response to the needs of the most vulnerable.

1. Carefully locating and designing a mix of housing types can increase independence, connectedness and care

Many vulnerable people, including those with a disability or the elderly, choose to stay at home, even when challenges of self-care, mobility and household management increase. This may ease the strain on healthcare systems but means many vulnerable people do not manage to live independently in their own home, leading to further deterioration in their health, and creating loneliness and social exclusion.

One of the key challenges in supporting the most vulnerable during this crisis has been the fact that many of them live in single-family homes which, in many cases, are not equipped to serve their basic needs as these are either unsafe and can cause tripping or falling or are too large which exacerbates the feeling of loneliness and also creates confusion, deterring some from preparing their own meals, . Many of those also live in areas which are disconnected from basic services such as amenity space, supermarkets nd public transport.

An aging population has reduced demand for living spaces in many cities, but at the same time, increased the need for senior care, greater accessibility in public places and new types of mobility.

There are instances in cities around the world where new projects are offering homes that allow older people to live independently while also having access to the care and support services that they may need over time. The much-needed flexibility in the built environment can be delivered through different types of inter-generational housing that, although complex to deliver, can cater for the needs of people from all age groups with different personal and household needs. This can also be coupled with a broader approach to focusing on where housing is located within the city so as to increase opportunities for access to culture and recreational spaces.

When considering complex housing needs more broadly, cities can provide better support to the most vulnerable and deliver better city making as a result.

2. Removing barriers and enriching neighbourhood green infrastructure can re-connect people with their environment

Barriers in the outdoor environment can negatively impact vulnerable person’s desire to undertake recreational or physical activity. For the most vulnerable, a barrier doesn’t always mean a fence or a wall. In many cases, basic actions as simple as crossing a road can be a struggle, roads are also a deterrent because of issues such as air quality and noise, and can all serve to deter them from engaging with their community and surroundings.

Vulnerable people may also struggle to stay at home or move around during prolonged heatwaves or in stormy conditions, and extreme weather events may become more commonplace in the future.

Designing cities to be barrier free, connected and with an abundance of safe outdoor environments will improve the livelihoods of the most vulnerable and connect them back to their surrounding environments. Cities can of course also contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation by building green infrastructure systems at the heart of neighbourhoods, providing shelter and respite, stimulating recreational and physical activity.

Imagine having long linear parks instead of local roads, and tree-lined avenues designed for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport only, instead of arterial roads.

There is no better time to put this to practice and radically improve neighbourhoods, bringing well designed green infrastructure to everyone’s doorstep. Before traffic slowly returns, cities can seize this opportunity and deliver key pilot projects (or in some cases even larger scale ones) that will ensure the health and wellbeing of neighbourhoods for generations to come.

3. Plan now for smart and green transport systems which will improve city mobility and accessibility for the vulnerable

Smart mobility systems will play a greater part in supporting the independence and mobility of the most vulnerable. On-demand transport and Autonomous Vehicles require less road coverage, could be safer and provide a green option which supports the environment.

In providing a door-to-door solution, those with limited mobility are encouraged to leave home and become more independent in serving their own basic needs, as well as getting engaged in social activity and making use of the cities’ cultural offering. On-demand transport will also provide easier access to public transport modes for those who live further away from stations.

Many of these smart mobility solutions have already been trialed and implemented in some cities but will still take some time until they are fully operational and accessible for all. However, now is the time to prepare our urban environments for this change and plan with future systems and technology in mind. We must fully consider the impact of these new systems on how we design our built environment, balancing operational efficiency with creating quality liveable places for all.

4. Technology will improve independence and connectedness for the vulnerable

Adapting homes to the changing needs of vulnerable people over time will ensure they can enjoy their living environments as they get older or as their physical independence deteriorates. This is not only to do with how homes are physically designed but increasingly more importantly, is about access to digital technology.

What we see is that many of the most vulnerable do not have access to adequate digital technology and consequently are deprived from having independent access to services that would help them to independently fulfil their basic needs. The dramatic increase in digital tools to socially connect means that those who do not have basic internet access, or are unsure how to use them, are deprived of social interaction with either close family or their to surrounding communities.

Digital platforms can also enable better health monitoring as well as dealing with aspects of home maintenance related to energy use and other utilities, which can help realise savings in household expenditure as well.

As we move towards cities where physical and digital aspects work closer together, this is the time to ensure all parts of society are technologically enabled and that digital infrastructure is accessible everywhere.

5. Creating vibrant urban environments that better utilise major venues and culture will stimulate social interaction for all

Major venues such as stadiums, arenas, theatres and convention centres are vital in creating vibrancy in cities whilst strongly contributing to the communities around them. However, despite very good connectivity, for the most vulnerable it can be challenging to access these venues independently as they sometimes require long commutes, can be crowded and sometimes difficult to navigate through. Tickets can be pricey, too.

During this crisis we have seen cities work closely with owners and operators to convert major venues to temporary hospitals. Capitalising on optimised logistics systems and large indoor space, these venues have proven highly flexible in accommodating the unique needs of COVID-19 patients and providing excellent medical care.

Many reports indicate that once the crisis is over and most venues re-open again, it is likely that some restrictions on crowding and social distancing measures will still apply. This is a great opportunity to open them up to local communities and adapt them to support a broader set of activities that help improve the livelihoods of the most vulnerable in our cities. It may also be an opportunity to re-imagine venues in our cities and promote inclusivity in the long term.


Addressing the needs of vulnerable groups requires an integrated approach, one that looks at a city from a strategic lens, from an institutional perspective and governance to how the city is planned, with practical and punctual interventions. It requires simultaneous consideration of multiple aspects such as medical and social care, policy and legislation, organisational change, technical aspects such as air quality, transport and logistics, as well as economics, to name a few.

Doing this requires a strategic urban viewpoint that can make a significant improvement to people’s everyday lives. As our bustling, hectic urban environments are on pause mode, there is a unique opportunity to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in our society. Most likely, this will improve the liveability of us all.


Find out how we can help clients and communities along the path to recovery. 

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