Book review: Cities and Communities Beyond COVID-19: How Local Leadership Can Change Our Future for the Better

reviewed by Robert K Whelan

21 Sep 2021, 11:25 a.m.
Robert K Whelan

Cities and Communities Beyond COVID-19 book cover

Book review: Cities and Communities Beyond COVID-19: How Local Leadership Can Change Our Future for the Better

By Robin Hambleton and reviewed by Robert K Whelan

Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2020; 171 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-52921-585-4, £9.99 (pbk)


COVID-19 has been a global disaster of the greatest possible magnitude. Research papers, articles and books are examining the implications of COVID-19 in most fields of inquiry. Journalism is said to be the first cut of history. In the United States, such leading non-fiction writers as Lewis (2021) and Wright (2021) have already published analyses of what went wrong in the US response to the pandemic.


Our colleagues in the field of urban studies have responded, too. As early as July–August 2020, the Public Administration Review published a symposium of more than a hundred pages on COVID-19 problems. Kettl’s (2020) paper on the implications for American federalism was probably the most important for the local government research community. The State and Local Government Review, a publication of the intergovernmental management section of the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA), featured a mini symposium on COVID-19 issues in autumn 2020. Kincaid and Leckrone (2020) followed that with a research paper on partisan fractures and US policy responses in the next issue.


Also published in autumn 2020, Robin Hambleton’s book is the first to discuss the implications of COVID-19 for local governance. Hambleton, Emeritus professor at the University of the West of England, is extremely well-qualified to undertake this challenging effort. He is the author of many books, including Leading the Inclusive City (Hambleton, 2015). Hambleton has extensive practical experience with urban planning and leadership in the US, the UK and Europe.


Chapter 1, ‘No Going Back’, introduces the considerable challenges facing future local government officials. The key problems will be local, and governance must improve. Local democracy and citizen participation will vie with the needs and wishes of the central state. Hambleton argues that place matters: to our identity, for governmental effectiveness and for democracy’s exercise (pp. 12–13). Leadership style matters, also. Should it be top-down or facilitative and adaptive? A brief section discusses learning from prior disasters.


Chapter 2 places us into the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The overview serves as an excellent review, and professors can provide updates. Two sections discuss the planning and response efforts of the UK central government. Again, it will be easy for professors to add local context. The most valuable section of Chapter 2 is the presentation of five major policy issues: lives versus livelihoods, community versus individualism, environmentalism versus economic growth, civil liberties versus state control and tackling inequality versus forgetting about it (pp. 42–48).


Chapter 3 addresses the central challenge of improving governance. Most readers will be familiar with the shift from government to governance in recent decades. In brief, this change suggests that positive changes are most likely when urban governmental actors work in conjunction with the business community and civil society. Hambleton argues that the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up a new window of political possibilities. Brief sections discuss the failures of international and national governance during the crisis. In contrast, Hambleton concludes that ‘citizens and local governments have responded well to the COVID-19 pandemic’ (p. 72). In the chapter’s conclusion, Hambleton contends that COVID-19 gives us the opportunity for transformative changes in public health and climate change, for increased governmental efforts in this area and for better governmental quality.


Chapter 4, ‘The New Civic Leadership’, forms the core of the book along with Chapter 3. The chapter explores the idea of civic purpose at the community level (p. 80). Public reform efforts in recent decades are discussed. Hambleton suggests a number of ideas adding to citizen empowerment and voice. He provides examples from working with families in the UK, participatory budgeting and citizens’ assemblies. A brief section discusses ‘New Public Management’ (no longer new, 40 years on). Three themes are identified for possible local strategies post COVID-19. The first is the acceptance and implementation of progressive values. This will be difficult. For example, Brooks’ (2021) excellent recent book on policing in Washington, DC demonstrates the difficulty in dealing with inequality, and in changing bureaucratic structures at the street level. The second theme is public innovation, while the third is the need for collaboration and partnership.


The fifth chapter is a case study, ‘The Bristol One City Approach’. It gives us an example of how the ‘New Civic Leadership’ plays out in a specific place. Bristol is a large city (population 463,000) with much diversity. It attracted much attention during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, when demonstrators took down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston and dumped it into the harbour. Before that, mayoral governance – an unusual form for a British city – was introduced in 2012. Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol since 2016, is of mixed-race origin and has reformist inclinations. The Bristol One City Approach includes innovative collaborative projects to deal with such problems as homelessness, food insecurity and women’s health and hygiene. These collaborations provided the basis for the local government’s response to COVID-19. Despite mandated cutbacks from the central government, the Bristol experiment suggests local possibilities.


Chapter 6 adds to the Bristol case study by presenting five international examples of local-level cooperation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These ‘innovation cameos’ are: community organisations supporting increased bicycling in Copenhagen, Denmark; the initiatives of a Green Party mayor in Dunedin, New Zealand; sustainable development initiatives in Freiburg, Germany; a group of young people running errands for others in Mexico City during the crisis; and the pandemic response of the Portland, Oregon city council. Hambleton adds to these intriguing examples by suggesting possible roles for urban universities and scholars.


The final chapter draws lessons for the future and leaves the reader with much for reflection. Hambleton reminds us that ‘the key challenge facing our post-COVID-19 world is to move this window towards a more caring perspective’ (p. 156). He suggests a number of ways that we might challenge place-less power. Hambleton believes that a rebalancing of power between local authorities and the national government in the UK would be helpful. Ultimately, he sees potential for ‘New Civic Leadership’ and for the creation of a caring community.


This is a difficult book for me to critique, as I am in basic agreement with Professor Hambleton on most of these matters. In dealing with these questions in the US, we have the complication of the additional level of government. In the US, cities are legally subordinate to state governments. During the COVID-19 crisis, autocratic state governments have sometimes inhibited local actions, regardless of the state’s political inclination.


Overall, this book should be read by both scholars and practitioners. In the classroom, it can provide a challenging introduction for any course in urban governance and/or intergovernmental relations. It would be useful in more specific courses in public health or emergency management. Best of all, it will make students, professors and practitioners think about the COVID-19 pandemic, and what it means for local governance.



Brooks R (2021) Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City. New York: Penguin Books.

Hambleton R (2015) Leading the Inclusive City: Place-Based Innovation for a Bounded Planet. Bristol: Policy Press.

Kettl D (2020) States divided: The implications of American federalism for COVID-19. Public Administration Review 80(4): 595–602.

Kincaid J, Leckrone JW (2020) Partisan fractures in U.S. federalism’s policy responses. State and Local Government Review 52(4): 298–308.

Lewis M (2021) The Premonition: A Pandemic Story. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Wright L (2021) The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.


Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Cities in a post-COVID world by Richard Florida, Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, Michael Storper

This paper examines the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and its related economic, fiscal, social and political fallout on cities and metropolitan regions.

Repopulating density: COVID-19 and the politics of urban value by Colin McFarlane

Special Issue article from McFarlane identifies implications of research on density in urban studies.


Towards a post-COVID geography of economic activity: Using probability spaces to decipher Montreal’s changing workscapes by Richard Shearmur, Priscilla Ananian, Ugo Lachapelle, Manuela Parra-Lokhorst, Florence Paulhiac, Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay, Alastair Wycliffe-Jones

Drawing upon interviews with people working from home, Shearmur et al's article examines and interprets the shifting location of economic activity due to COVID-19.

Urban rhythms in a small home: COVID-19 as a mechanism of exception by Jenny Preece, Kim McKee, David Robinson, John Flint

Data from Preece et al’s special issue article shows that the COVID-19 lockdown has intensified existing pressures of living in a smaller home, whilst constraining coping strategies.


Transbordering assemblages: Power, agency and autonomy (re)producing health infrastructures in the South East of England by Carlos Moreno-Leguizamon, Marcela Tovar-Restrepo

Special issue paper from Moreno-Leguizamon and Tovar-Restrepo explores how Butler’s notion of vulnerability and Castoriadis’ notion of autonomous agency help to expand our understanding of the interplay between stigma and health infrastructures.

Extended urbanisation and the spatialities of infectious disease: Demographic change, infrastructure and governance by Creighton Connolly, Roger Keil, S. Harris Ali

Contemporary processes of extended urbanisation may result in increased vulnerability to infectious disease spread, argue Connolly, Keil and Harris Ali in their debates paper.


Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.




You need to be logged in to make a comment. Please Login or Register

There are no comments on this resource.

Return to Category