UN-Habitat UNI discuss the prospects of urban research and education in the wake of COVID-19

UN-Habitat UNI discuss the prospects of urban research and education in the wake of COVID-19

Nairobi, 24 June 2020  - A webinar held on the topic of urban research and education gathered over 70 participants in a lively debate with urban researchers and educators as part of the COVID-19 Urban Thinkers Campus Series session organised by the World Urban Campaign and the Habitat Partner University Initiative(Habitat UNI) a network between UN-Habitat and institutions of higher education and research globally.

Filiep Decorte, Head of the Programme Development Branch at UN-Habitat set the tone of the session by asking researchers and educators to reflect on the structural capacity gaps that have been revealed by the COVID-19 crisis. Cities are at the heart of the COVID-19 impacts  and solutions and there is a need to accelerate education and training of future professionals in order to address the build environment. A new push is required to revisit research and educational needs to better plan, design, build and manage cities.  

Professor Sahar Attia, Chair of the Habitat UNI Steering Committee welcomed participants and highlighted the importance of education and research in the post-COVID-19 future in order to prepare the new generation to an increasingly complex world. Habitat UNI should help shape the future of research and education in order to better address urban issues and build resilient cities. 

Astrid Haas, Policy Director at the International Growth Centre in Kampala, Uganda, moderated the discussion with the panelists, and started with a focus on the current challenges that universities are facing with the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Panelists concurred to the fact that while they had to migrate from face to face interactions with students to on-line learning, universities had to adapt and innovate in their teaching methods to continue engaging students in a meaningful manner. Carlos Gilberto Carlotti, Provost for Graduate Studies at the University of São Paulo, explained the difficulties faced by his institution in the worst hit city by the pandemic. While 90 percent of classes have been maintained, only essential research could continue given the risks of transmission. 

Subrata Chattopadhyay, Professor and Dean at the Indian Institute of Technology of Kharagpur, stressed the need to reflect on future curricula in order to incorporate new dimensions linked to the impacts of the pandemic and strengthen particular areas of learning. Those should be aligned to the SDGs meant to guide actions in the next ten years. Research should help revisiting housing and urban planning standards, livelihood planning, community interaction and social space. It is also essential to intensify research on labour migrations and its impacts on industries and cities. University labs should further make use of real time simulations for urban planning and the application of immersive technologies in architecture and design, he said. 

Dawn Jourdan, Professor and Executive Associate Dean at the College of Architecture of the Texas A&M University, highlighted the increasing complexity emerging in cities, not only as the results of the health impacts of the pandemic but also the crisis of inequalities, illustrated by the recent protests. This new complexity has to be reflected in curricula and in the way we teach. This crisis is a real opportunity to revisit programmes and the pedagogy itself she said. 

Camilla Perrone, Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning University of Florence, stressed the need to rethink environments, places and methods of interaction and research within universities. We should use this momentum to more vigorously address the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda she said. However, the challenge is to reorganise[BM(1]  these pathways in the post-COVID phase in order to produce and transfer usable knowledge for the policy makers. In order to do so, we need to increase our digital competence and infrastructures to promote online sharing, promote open data and science and multiply sharing platforms to boost capacity. This will require huge investments in research. In terms of the new areas of research, we need to adopt a more territorial and ecological perspective that promotes health and the metabolic balance of the territories, social and economic inequalities, as well as a new environmental and territorial justice. She also would stress the need to encourage university’s relationships with social entrepreneurship both by sharing knowledge with this field and importing new research topics from the world of practices this field come about. 

Nabeel El Hady, Professor of Architecture and Urban Development, Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University, reaffirmed the need to refocus curricula on essential issues that have emerged during the COVID-19 crisis around air quality, water systems and the value of nature to cities. These issues need to be at the heart of research that should lead to direct operational advice to Governments. Climate change and the collapse of biodiversity are the central issues to be addressed in priority. 

More Urban Thinkers Campuses on COVID-19 will be held online in June-July to discuss current actions on the ground in different contexts, analyze good practices and solutions, extract lessons from the crisis and make recommendations for building resilience. For more information and to register go to https://www.worldurbancampaign.org/urban-thinkers-campus