Cities around the world are emerging from pandemic shutdowns and gradually allowing activities to resume. National leaders are keen to promote economic recovery, with appropriate public health precautions.
Recently, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced economic growth plans that included creating 9 million new jobs and reducing urban unemployment to less than 5.5 per cent.
One surprise was his emphasis on street vending. After decades of trying to clear city streets of vendors, the Chinese state is now embracing them as a new source of employment and economic growth.
More than 2 billion people worldwide – over half the planet’s employed population – work in the informal economy, mainly in developing countries. Encouraging street vending as part of Covid-19 recovery makes sense for many reasons.
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Many development programmes in low-income countries from the 1950s through the early 2000s sought to eradicate street vending. Local governments often took aggressive actions to remove street vendors from public spaces.
Recently, however, many nations have embraced street commerce as a way to reduce poverty and boost marginal groups, especially poor women, from ethnic and racial minorities.
As one example, since 2003 it has been illegal to remove street vendors from public spaces in Colombia without offering them compensation or guaranteed income-support programmes.
Street vending offers many pluses for cities restarting after Covid-19 shutdowns. First, it can blunt some of the economic pains of the pandemic. Second, it can be configured to encourage social distancing more easily than the internal spaces of crowded shopping malls.
Third, many cities are already being reconfigured and reimagined through steps such as widening sidewalks and creating traffic-free streets. These actions create more opportunities for street commerce.
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Covid-19 has forced us to rethink city living. We should take the opportunity to reimagine a livelier and more equitable post-pandemic city.