Covid-19 has raised many fundamental issues for urban studies. Collectively we are asking important questions about how historical and contemporary understanding of public health, pandemics and expertise in health and epidemiology might intersect with our existing research agendas and societal consequences. There has been an unprecedented response in the academic community including – reinserting research expertise into Government, producing rapid expert reviews, speeding up the review process, stimulating open access, new fast track research calls and calls for journal special issues, but also equally important calls to pause academic activities and editorial responsibilities.
But the responses have inevitably been fragmented and improvised with limited collective reflection on the appropriate reaction and longer-term research implications. How do we intervene in a rapidly changing context where there are severe constraints on our ability to undertake fieldwork? What can we say that is meaningful when we are still trying to make sense of the world around us? In the Urban Institute, we have had several discussions around these issues and, in the spirit of contributing to wider debate, we outline our three main responses below.
First, we outline our nascent ‘International Urban Convocation’ process designed to stimulate dialogue with colleagues and friends in over 20 urban labs around the world. Our networks span across the globe, providing a unique opportunity for the Urban Institute to curate collaborative reflections, generate new lines of critical inquiries, share practical actions and support a collective effort to build solidarity across the global research community.
Second, we share how we are creating a context for collective discussion with Urban Insitute colleagues, associates from across The University of Sheffield and our international fellows and visitors. Through a process of reflection, we are asking whether and how the crisis leads to a rethinking, reprioritisation and re-intensification of our work, and how we can mobilise existing opportunities to respond creatively.
Finally, we provide links to contributions written by Urban Institute colleagues about the links between Covid-19 and their existing research programmes in editorials, blogs, journals and think pieces.
1. An International Urban Convocation on Cities and Covid-19
The Urban Convocation is a collective process of dialogue among 30 researchers located in 20 urban labs active in multiple and markedly different contexts. Each lab focuses on the emerging implications of current conditions for research design, understanding their local contexts, and assessing the potential changes in priorities.
Our motivation as a collective is to work through how Covid-19 might interweave, disrupt and reshape existing research methods and priorities through a modest and exploratory process of reflection and comparison of diverse experimental responses spanning different contexts.
Collectively the Convocation identified three themes of immediate significance:
- The need to improvise and experiment with revised and modified approaches to researching our respective urban contexts.
- To develop a sensitivity to understanding the specific socio-material context as structured by the roll-out of the pandemic.
- To provide essential life support particularly where existing informal structures have broken down.
Subsequent convocations will explore responses to these themes, and the implications for urban research priorities and challenges. We will post regular updates on the website throughout this process.
2) Covid-19 and the Urban Institute
The Urban Institute was set up with the aim of thinking creatively about the nature of urban life and the need to think differently about urban futures in response to climate change, intensified urban inequalities and the benefits and threats of new urban technologies in automation and social control. Our seven research themes have provided a mechanism for bringing together interdisciplinary teams within and outside the Urban Institute through processes of building research agendas, undertaking projects, writing and engagement.
We currently have 20 staff across a range of disciplines, with 10 Urban Institute Associates affiliated from across Faculty departments (including Urban Studies and Planning, Politics, Geography, Architecture and Landscape) and 10 international fellows and visitors from India, South Africa, China, Malaysia, Argentina, Australia, Spain and the US.
Our research and engagement around the world can bring a distinctive perspective on urban futures under Covid-19. However, the scale and severity of Covid-19 means that we need to look again at our assumptions and adjust to a new urban context.
How is action on climate change in cities impacted by the current crisis? What are the impacts of emergency crisis responses by national governments on the prospects for devolution, citizen participation and participatory urban governance? What inequalities are made visible and/or invisible and with what consequences for life on the margins? How will the intensification of digital technologies and automation impact on urban systems, infrastructures and ways of living?
We have designed a reflective process that provides the context for systematic grappling with the changing landscape of research and the urgent urban questions that matter. Our ‘Friday collectives’ enable staff, associates and visitors from across the world to discuss international experiences, local responses, the intersections between the current societal condition and our thematic priorities, and what this means for changing conditions for knowledge production.
A key aspect of our response is to support each other emotionally through a crisis like this, reflecting both on how to nurture intellectual development but also, how to balance the demands of our work with the need to provide domestic responses to the crisis. This crisis is affecting specially those who bear the brunt of care responsibilities, reflected, for example, in the declining numbers of journal submissions from women. Within academia, this crisis also affects particularly those who perform invisible care work, from supporting other colleagues and students, to delivering strategic and administrative activities that enable our collective work. A culture of care must, first of all, recognise and value those activities.
We are providing specific support to our Urban Studies Early Career researchers across the Faculty of Social Science, with on-line meetings where peer-to-peer support can be enacted and sustained – with one collective meeting per week since early March.
At the Urban Institute, we are also actively redesigning our projects and mobilising our positions to respond to the current context. Different spaces for engagement and research are both opening and closing, for instance, in terms of our projects to undertake applied work in cities in Africa or our work with housing activists around the world. We will be sharing the outcomes of our reflective discussions and actions in different formats over the coming months.
3) Urban Institute Researchers on Covid-19
Urban Institute researchers have also been publishing think-pieces and editorials which connect their work to the current crisis. This page will be updated regularly to provide links to published work.