Libraries in the Post-Pandemic Future of Cities

Cities and Pandemics: towards a more just, green and healthy future - front cover of reportUN HABITAT, the United Nations Programme for Human Settlements, recently released Cities and Pandemics: Towards a More Just, Green and Healthy Future.

Drawing both on the organisations’ long experience of supporting sustainable urban development – most notably through delivering on the New Urban Agenda – and lessons learned during the COVID-19 Pandemic so far, the report aims to  provide recommendations for the future of cities.

This blog highlights some of the key points made by the report, and their relevance for libraries.

 

A critical issue

From the start, and the foreword provided by UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres, the report is clear that the way that humans live has had a major impact on the spread of COVID.

From broader questions about the impacts of putting pressure on natural ecosystems (leading to risks of animal diseases getting into humans), to the more rapid spread of the virus among people living in cramped conditions, the need to reflect on how we organise our cities, towns and villages is clear.

Yet the report is also hopeful – cities can play a key role in the recovery from COVID, drawing on the knowledge and policy tools at their disposal. Indeed, in the past, it has been cities that have led the way in key public health advances, for example around sanitation or the promotion of open spaces.

In short, the Pandemic provides a basis both for reflection, but also optimism.

 

Key themes for a recovery

In setting an agenda for the future, the report sets out four key priorities:

  • Rethinking the form and function of the city, including reform to planning in order to support inclusion and productivity
  • Addressing systemic poverty and inequality, including both targeted support now, and work on longer-term solutions
  • Rebuilding a new normal, including efforts to promote wider changes seen as desirable (innovation, climate action, delivery of other public goods)
  • Clarifying urban legislation and governance, including greater freedoms for cities to respond to crises.

Across this, the report calls for a new social contract, addressing discrimination, ensuring participation, expanding capabilities, promoting redistribution, and adopting a rights-based approach in line with the UN 2030 Agenda.

This builds on the ability, already highlighted, of city governments to get closer to citizens than national authorities can, by developing place-based policies.

This opens up new possibilities to provide more targeted interventions which reflect local circumstances, cultures and needs, as well as to encourage behavioural changes. Clearly, as at any level of decision-making, this potential is only realised through effective and responsible governance.

Library and information workers reading this will already see a huge potential for libraries to engage in this work, both through their work to give individuals the information and skills they need to thrive, and as social and democratic spaces.

Libraries are, arguably, a microcosm of the wider work of local government, looking to find the most effective way of improving the lives of the communities they serve. They are well placed to support behavioural change in particular, through the provision of information, something that will be essential for climate action and improved health and wellbeing.

Beyond these broad points, there are two particular elements of the report which are valuable for our institutions, both in our own reflection, and in our advocacy.

 

Rediscovering the local

The report underlines the degree to which the Pandemic has obliged people to become more familiar with their local areas.

Both through restrictions on movement beyond a certain distance, and with many more people working from home, city centres have become emptier, while the suburbs, and suburban centres, have become livelier.

Beyond this, the report suggests that we may even see a resurgence in smaller cities, with people just as able to work from there as from anywhere else.

In practical terms, the lesson has been that more needs to be done to ensure that people can access key services and meet their daily needs locally, for example within a 15 minute walk.

For libraries, this can be a case for denser networks and/or (as the report also suggests) a greater emphasis on working outside of the walls, while also working to build comfort in a post-COVID world.

Of course, this is not a new issue. Many libraries already had active programmes of outreach to those unable to come to them, due to distance or personal circumstances. Many more have developed such services as a result of the pandemic.

However, as we move beyond the pandemic, the value of ensuring balanced and well-distributed urban services is a useful argument for our institutions, with an emphasis on flexible design that allows both for adaptation to future events, and the provision of a wider variety of services.

 

Digital inclusion as a priority

Another major area of focus in the report is digital inclusion, given how starkly the pandemic has underlined the costs of not being connected.

UN HABITAT strongly underlines the value of public WiFi provision, noting its installation in transport locations in India as a means of allowing more people to get online. It also calls for wider efforts to promote broadband connectivity, especially in marginalised areas such as informal settlements.

Significantly, the report does not stop at pure connectivity, but highlights that this should be accompanied by efforts to build skills and offer wider support. It calls for accessible digital inclusion and training programmes, with an emphasis on disproportionately excluded groups (women, persons with disabilities, the elderly and others), in order to help them use new applications and tools.

These are, of course, also areas of obvious library strength. Even in the best connected countries, public internet access in libraries plays an essential role in allowing people to get online, either as the only option, or as a complement to other means (such as a shared home connection, or a mobile device).

During the pandemic, there have been many positive stories of libraries turning their WiFi towards the outside, allowing people to access the internet from car parks, while others have lent WiFi hotspots.

Just as important, however, is the work in many libraries to build digital skills, from basic know-how (turning a device on, using e-mail etc) to media and information literacy. This can come through anything from informal support to formal classes, and of course be targeted, for example towards building health literacy.

Even when other options exist, libraries have unique characteristics – their reputation, their space, their staff (if trained themselves), their focus on providing a universal service. Crucially, they also allow people to get online together, promoting a more social experience of the internet.

 

As highlighted earlier in this piece, there is a lot in UN HABITAT’s work that will resonate strongly with libraries – a strong shared focus on inclusion, excellent service provision, and on finding solutions at the local level.

The emphasis on providing services close to people, and on the urgency of digital inclusion (both in terms of connectivity and skills) provide a useful support for efforts to promote strong library networks, with well-supported staff and effective outreach to communities.

As city governments look to take on board the recommendations made by UN HABITAT, they can gain a lot by including libraries in their reflection. In doing so, they will be better able to harness a powerful resource in achieving the goal of a more just, green and healthier future.

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