NATIONAL URBAN POLICYS

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Making Cities Safer and More Resilient Against Epidemics

2021-03-22 | Human Settlements

Zhai Guofang (Urban Safety and Development Research Center of Nanjing University, and School of Architecture and Urban Planning of Nanjing University)

The COVID-19 epidemic is the second public health emergency of national concern following the SARS outbreak in 2003, leading to the lockdown of the megacity Wuhan, the first of its kind since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, causing tremendous economic and social impact, and at the same time exposing the gaps in China’s systems and mechanisms for preventing and controlling major epidemics and its public health emergency management system. This paper deals with possible solutions as to how to improve the response of the country to urban public security emergencies (including epidemic outbreaks) in terms of homeland space and urban safety systems.

Act according to circumstances, timing, and severity and take a coordinated approach to controlling urban risks

Urban safety is related to urban risks. By and large, urban risks refer to the possibility of occurrence of the incidents that urban residents wouldn’t like to see occurring and the consequences incurred by their occurrence. And risks can escalate into public emergencies under certain circumstances. Hence, urban risks are the sources of public emergencies, and urban risks and public emergencies are presentations of unwelcome incidents in different stages of development.

Urban risks can be diverse, such as conventional risks that include natural disasters, infectious diseases, and fire, and new risks brought by new technologies that include nuclear plant leakage and cyber attack, as well as the grey rhino incident of the US subprime crisis in 2008 and the black swan incident of 911 in 2001. Emergencies can have an impact on villages, counties/cities,provinces, countries, and even the world, and their impact can be direct or indirect. They can affect people and the economy as well as the environment, politics, and society.

The concept of risks indicates that they are a matter of probability, which can be quantified. For example, a rainfall is said to be the greatest one in 5 or 100 years, which is essentially a probability. According to principles of probability, a probability can be infinitely small but can never reach zero, which means zero risk, or the absolute 100% safety, doesn’t exist in theory.

So what levels of risks are tolerable or acceptable to us? This question touches upon the concept of risk acceptance. Risk acceptance can be simply classified into individual and social acceptance to risks. The former indicates everyone’s acceptance to a certain risk, whereas the latter explains the acceptance of the society as a whole to risks. Both individual and social risk acceptances can be affected by such factors as economic and social development, history, culture, risk levels (high, medium, or low) and attributes (natural or anthropogenic, known or unknown, etc.), and education. And unbearable risks would normally require control.

But reducing risks comes with cost, and with lower risk levels, the cost of reducing risks would normally go up, so would marginal cost. For example, according to the urban drainage system standard, the cost of changing from reducing the risk of a once-in-five-year rainfall to that of a once-in-six-year rainfall, is certainly greater than the cost of changing from reducing the risk of a once-a-year rainfall to that of a biennial rainfall. However, both individuals and the society have only limited resources (be it manpower, property, or materials), and it’s impossible to use all resources to reduce risks. As Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests, people have to meet the basic physical need for food, sleep, warmth and travel before considering the second-level need which is safety. Hence, we have to act according to circumstances, timing, and severity and take a coordinated approach to controlling urban risks.

cates everyone’s acceptance to a certain risk, whereas the latter explains the acceptance of the society as a whole to risks. Both individual and social risk acceptances can be affected by such factors as economic and social development, history, culture, risk levels (high, medium, or low) and attributes (natural or anthropogenic, known or unknown, etc.), and education. And unbearable risks would normally require control.

But reducing risks comes with cost, and with lower risk levels, the cost of reducing risks would normally go up, so would marginal cost. For example, according to the urban drainage system standard, the cost of changing from reducing the risk of a once-in-five-year rainfall to that of a once-in-six-year rainfall, is certainly greater than the cost of changing from reducing the risk of a once-a-year rainfall to that of a biennial rainfall. However, both individuals and the society have only limited resources (be it manpower, property, or materials), and it’s impossible to use all resources to reduce risks. As Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests, people have to meet the basic physical need for food, sleep,warmth and travel before considering the second-level

need which is safety. Hence, we have to act according to circumstances, timing, and severity and take a coordinated approach to controlling urban risks.

Building a five-dimensional system for urban safety where the whole society can contribute to

The urban safety system is comprised of governance hierarchy, governance elements, risk types, governance process, and the governing body that are interconnected with one another. Governance hierarchy of the urban safety system is the same with China’s administrative hierarchy, that is, the national, provincial, prefectural, county, town (neighborhood), and village (community) levels. If a safety incident has an impact beyond national borders, international organizations such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations would intervene. But the specific role of each level in mitigating specific risks shall be specified in laws and regulations.

Governance elements of the urban safety system generally include laws and regulations, technical standards, organizations, governance mechanisms, and information pertinent to urban safety management. The homeland space security (including urban safety) plans as risk governance, the emergency plans as guidelines to emergency management, and the postdisaster restoration and reconstruction plans, if approved by legislators, would become legal documents. Risks to the safety of a city include four types of public emergencies defined by the State Council: natural disasters, accidents, public health incidents, and social security incidents. Public emergencies such as natural disasters,if not responded to in time, would often incur secondary disasters and lead to multiple ones with the chain effect. Also, the known and unknown attributes of risks would directly affect control of public opinion and emergencies. COVID-19 is an emergency derived from unknown risks as the intermediate host of SARS-CoV-2 and its mechanism are still yet to be found. The governance process of the urban safety system consists of the predisaster phase of risk governance, the indisaster phase of emergency rescue, and the postdisaster phase of restoration and reconstruction, involving scientific research in urban risks, risk evasion and mitigation, emergency control preparation, monitoring and early warning, emergency response, decision-making and command, and restoration and reconstruction. The three phases are interconnected, and it’s easy to have secondary disasters should one of the three go awry. Hence, the general principle of urban safety governance focuses on precaution and prevention. The governing body of the urban safety system includes governments at all levels, the society, and individuals. The society is the combination of interpersonal relations. And families, neighborhoods, schools, associations, businesses, and communities are the building blocks of the society, but they play different roles in urban safety governance. Scientific governance of urban safety shall also follow the principle of government arrangement, expert contribution, departmental cooperation, public participation, and scientific decision-making.

A five-dimensional system for urban safety where every member of the society participates Photo: Shi Yu

Enhancing epidemic prevention and control as soon as possible

In view of the issues and vulnerabilities exposed during the COVID-19 epidemic, the lessons learnt are as follows:

1.Educate the public about risks and increase public awareness. With continued economic and social development in the modernization drive, risk types and situations have been changing, and the conventional society has evolved into a risk society. If our society doesn’t have enough awareness of risks, especially the new risks such as SARS and COVID-19, there would be social panic and even turmoil once a disaster breaks out. Risk education can increase public awareness of risks and effectively reduce social panic in times of disasters which would make it easier to allocate more resources to respond.

2.Optimize governance system and increase administrative effectiveness. Communication and coordination did occur between provincial and prefectural authorities and the National Health Commission in the early stages of the epidemic, but the best window of opportunity for epidemic control was missed. As emergency management involves almost every department and requires collaboration, it’s advised to set up a national public security management commission chaired by a national leader, functionally similar to Japan’s Central Disaster Prevention Council, and to give more administrative power to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

3. Build more public health infrastructure and enhance emergency response to public health emergencies. Wuhan excels among Chinese cities in both the number of medical facilities and level, but it still lags behind cities in developed countries such as Singapore. While building more medical facilities, it’s important as well to provide equal, universal, and easy access to basic public health services and have sufficient stockpile of medical protective supplies for emergency response. In addition, it’s imperative to launch patriotic health and nationwide fitness campaigns as part of the efforts to build a healthy China.

4.Integrate multiple sources of information and resources and make more scientific decisions on emergency management. In an information-based society, countless information is produced every day. Information usually comes from multiple sources, including the government, the media, and the Internet. Information of different sources is of different quality, but all worth collecting and analyzing. The COVID-19 epidemic suggests that whether information is correct, disclosed, or disclosed in time can have a direct impact on the effectiveness of emergency management. Hence, it’s advised to collect, integrate, and find information and resources with information technologies such as big data to improve scientific decision-making for emergency management.

5.Legislate urban public security planning and incorporate it into the homeland space planning as mandatory content. One of the goals for homeland space planning is to build a safe and harmonious homeland space structure. Previous planning for city clusters, metropolitan areas, and urban and rural areas seldom touched upon public security other than natural disasters and civil defense. Hence, it looks particularly urgent and important to legislate urban public security planning before any homeland space that is safe, resilient, and efficient can be possible.

Conclusion

The history of mankind is about constant struggles against natural disasters and plagues. Every natural disaster or plague resulted in varied readjustment to the regional, economic, social, and geographic space structures in a way that transformed our relations with the planet. The COVID-19 epidemic in 2020, has not only inflicted catastrophes on Hubei Province and its capital Wuhan and dealt a huge blow to China and the rest of the world, but taught us numerous lessons. Hope this paper can offer some inspiration for modernizing China’s urban safety governance system and its capacity for governance.