The COVID-19 pandemic has already severely depleted our physical, mental and emotional reserves. Even if the most ambitious timescales for a vaccine are met, it’s clear that the fall-out will last for many years to come, not only from the disease itself but from the indirect impacts of lockdown, economic crisis, disrupted medical treatment and social isolation. It is also becoming clear that those who started with fewer resources and shallower reserves are suffering the most.

In this series about healthcare after COVID-19, we’ve considered how to improve resilience from many angles – at a regional, national or system-wide level, by making individual facilities more adaptable, and through the exponentially increasing quantities of data that healthcare environments produce. But the most important source of resilience lies within people themselves: as caregivers, as problem-solvers and, more fundamentally, in the capacity of individuals and communities to cope when crisis hits.

COVID-19 has strongly reinforced what researchers already knew: that healthcare itself plays a relatively small role in the overall health of populations. The conditions in which we are born, grow, live, work and age – known as the social determinants of health – are far more influential. By confining us to our immediate surroundings, the pandemic has made some of the root causes of ill health – as well as the inequities between communities – all the more apparent.

But it has also given us an insight into what healthier, happier places might look like, and the potential for a new kind of urban design, refocused around wellbeing. Applying these lessons to our cities would not only aid the long recovery from COVID, but shore up resilience against whatever the coming decades bring.