The new territory imposed by COVID-19
From a territorial perspective, we are striving every day to imagine which future is most credible without any deliberate intervention. Secondly, we are looking for the actions that need to be implemented in the short term to ensure this future is a better one.
An unpredictable scenario
Without saying anything about the lives lost and the isolation conditions in which this is happening, an unpredictable future has suddenly been imposed on us with COVID-19. In this new present, only those sectors linked to the survival of citizens are permitted to operate normally. The personal space between human beings has been increased by royal decree from about 50 cm to a physical distance of 150 cm. Working from home has become the rule for everyone whose added value does not involve them being physically present in a place that is not their home. No social venues are left open. Care homes are suffering the full brunt of the epidemic. Shortages are reappearing in a society used to abundance.
These chosen or imposed responses come under resilience, rather than anticipation. However, lined up, they are creating a situation that calls into question certain realities of our way of life. At this stage, anything and everything can be interpreted from the lockdown. But it would be a pity not to highlight the questions it raises.
When everything stops, what carries on?
COVID-19 is requiring us to drastically reduce human interactions. This is one of the forms a disaster can take. It is also an opportunity to consider what is key, what isn’t and the part that each territory plays in this distribution.
The following are considered key sectors:
- The entire healthcare chain (hospital, prevention service, production of medical equipment, research centre, etc.);
- The entire food chain: production, processing, distribution and related sectors;
- The entire security chain (justice, prevention, control centre, etc.);
- All death management (funeral, etc.);
- Management of extreme deprivation (placement service, social security benefits payment organisation, etc.);
- The financial and insurance sector;
- All production and distribution of energy (including radioactive isotopes) and water;
- The logistics chain and transport.
Each municipality or region benefits from re-evaluating itself in terms of its contribution to the things that matter. Today, it seems that the food chain has fewer shortcomings than the health chain. Things could be different tomorrow. And on what scale should this health chain be reorganised?
Towards a zero-km industry
The COVID-19 crisis is giving unparalleled exposure to the challenge of reindustrialising the North. We feel fragile when we have to rely on China for precious FFP2 masks, for example. In fact, public procurement is experiencing a number of difficulties in providing these products in a health crisis context.
We have to be capable of reconfiguring mass production chains for producing masks, vaccines, reagents, etc.
This reasoning seems consistent but raises a large number of questions. What territory might build this sort of “industrial security”? Where would these new infrastructures end up?
The first dimension of this question is clearly geopolitical. In which territory might we surmise that unity and trust will be sufficiently high for a crisis to lead to coordinated solidarity rather than selfish retreat? But behind this mute geopolitical question there is also a spatial question. In the same way as was integrated for the energy mix, we need to devise a sort of productive mix in which key sectors, including food production, have prime position. The economic compensation linked to the additional costs of this relocation must be considered as much as the compensation for the negative externalities that it might generate for the territories.
Public spaces and the landscape as health infrastructure
For many years, health has no longer been considered as strictly medical crisis treatment. I’m ill, therefore I come into contact with the healthcare infrastructure, which treats my illness and returns me to my environment. This linear view of health has given way to a multidimensional view of prevention in the field of health. Among these dimensions, physical exercise in daily life and as part of travel are important factors. The COVID-19 crisis has turned a harsh spotlight on the available public space and what you can do there: move around it without stopping, using it exclusively for its “sport” function. In the urban space, the quality of the public space has become the only sure option when it comes to sporting activity. The quality of the landscape fulfils this role for the countryside, although the public space is often the prerequisite which connects each home to this vast landscape.
Moreover, this public space is now largely free of the flow of those cars making journeys that were not necessary. This decluttering has partly made up for the lack of green spaces in a whole host of neighbourhoods.
A thought process on the qualitative offer of pedestrian and cycle paths, incorporating both the space that can be taken back from traffic and the space that needs to be created to enable comfortable outdoor life in the urban environment, deserves to be revived in respect of the public space under COVID-19.
The new relationship between work and territory
In the situation highlighted by COVID-19, all non-key workers able to work from home have been forced to work from home. It is estimated that 44% of people working today are working from home, whereas it was previously estimated that 42% of people had a job that enabled this. As a result, 16.5% of the kilometres travelled at rush hour has vanished. According to telecommunications operators, traffic between municipalities has fallen by 70%. The National Railway Company of Belgium is even realising that a significant proportion of its activity can be carried out by allowing people to work from home. Working from home has now proved its worth as a mass solution to mass transport, for all activities in the knowledge-based economy.
However, conversely, widespread video conferencing is also revealing its limitations. Everyone is in agreement that everything is paradoxically slower. Non-verbal communication resolved a huge amount of issues by increasing the efficiency of exchanges. It should be remembered that 44% extra burnout has previously been observed in cases of working from home.
While it is premature to draw conclusions from this kind of mass experiment, we cannot yet draw conclusions but two observations must be made. Yes, there is huge scope for facilitating the use of working from home. No, it does not currently allow for such smooth working as at least partial co-presence does.
The new space for key workers
The only people left on the roads and in the factories are those workers in the key sectors mentioned above and those who enable others to stay at home. The constraint of congestion has been resolved. Deliveries are smooth (however, the stocks to be delivered are at their lowest levels).
Yet it is often those whose living space is the most constrained who find themselves occupying the space of flows. Either they live a long way away from the urban centres where they work and are therefore penalised by the reduced frequency of transport. Or they are close, but probably in cramped spaces, since their income does not enable them to afford large numbers of urban square metres.
The new light that the crisis is shedding on the social division of labour and its transformation, on those who play a key role and the others, on the tasks that were outsourced and those that fall to us, all these shifts in outlook should influence the distribution of the losses and gains of tomorrow.
10 tips for municipalities by way of a provisional conclusion
- Ensure smooth communication between the hospital authorities and the municipality’s decision-making bodies.
- Ensure the supply of essential foodstuffs in supermarkets and organise the chain of governance.
- Assess the territory’s contribution to key services and facilitate their performance.
- Accurately identify the proportion of staff whose jobs can be performed at home and propose differing arrangements according to family situations.
- Conserve fertile land to promote relative food autonomy for the territories.
- Treat public spaces and the landscape as if they were our only gym.
- Value key workers.
- Provide shelter for the extremely vulnerable (homeless, etc.).
- Use the post-lockdown period to understand your territory.
- Stay at home as much as possible and take care of your citizens and your staff.
- Flemish government
- Walloon government
- Brussels government
- Federal government
- European Commission
- Cities and provinces
- International institutions