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OPINION: We must invest in cities for a stronger global economy

Tuesday, 16 June 2020 15:32 GMT

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The coronavirus has laid bare the weaknesses in our economic and social systems, particularly in the world's cities

Ani Dasgupta is the Global Director of the World Resources Institute Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Mark Watts is the Executive Director of C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. Together they are the Global Co-directors of the Coalition for Urban Transitions

The spread of COVID-19 has laid bare many of the weaknesses in our current economic and social systems. Inequality, climate breakdown and under-prepared health systems have all contributed to the scale of the crisis we are now seeing around the world. This is a wake-up call.

The impact of COVID-19 is being felt particularly fiercely in the world’s cities. That is why cities must be central to the discussion on the post-pandemic recovery.

Ensuring we “build back better” means transforming the infrastructure, buildings and transport systems in cities so that people can thrive, while pollution is eradicated, and communities have greater resiliency to both health and climate threats in order to create the thriving and resilient communities that city residents expect.

Urban areas house more than half the world’s population, produce 80% of gross domestic product and three-quarters of carbon emissions from final energy use. It is vital that cities are at the heart of the long-term economic response to ensure better re-building of economies.

Fortunately, we already have the data and analysis to guide an urban-focused green economic recovery, including evidence on where investment will have the greatest impact. It is time for national and local governments to come together to drive the investments needed to shape a new global economy and build the future we want.

Governments all around the world are preparing long term economic stimulus packages to revive economies after the COVID-19 crisis, with fundamental structural adjustments for health care and supply chains.

At the Coalition for Urban Transitions, we urge national governments to use these fiscal stimulus packages to nurture the dynamic and entrepreneurial power of our urban centres, by investing in cities.

Our work shows that these investments represent an economic opportunity worth at least $4.2 trillion in today's terms – and potentially much higher depending on energy prices – capable of supporting over 80 million desperately needed jobs by the end of the decade.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already caused huge loss of life and suffering which a prolonged health crisis in some regions – coupled with a global economic recession – will worsen.

Moreover, there could be damaging knock-on consequences, for example higher emissions and increased congestion if hard-won mass transit systems contract due to loss of revenue and difficulty of providing a virus-safe service.

It does not, however, need to be that way. Indeed, a well-designed COVID-19 recovery strategy could instead both overcome the immediate coronavirus crisis and accelerate progress in tackling other major societal threats, particularly climate breakdown and air pollution.

The multiple benefits of ‘building back better’ would be considerable, and result in stronger, more equitable economies, than if we attempt to get ‘back-to-normal’ – meaning high levels of pollution and inequality, and low levels of resilience.

Cities like Milan, with its plan to pedestrianise miles of downtown streets, London creating car-free zones, Bogota expanding cycling infrastructure, and Amsterdam with its bold vision to keep urban growth in balance with the planet, are already showing that this moment of extreme disruption offers a chance to fundamentally re-examine the way our economies function in order to secure long term resilience, inclusion and prosperity.

Mayors and city governments have a critical role to play in envisioning this new economy.

Our recovery must be built on investments that are quick to implement; create large numbers of jobs (that can be filled by people made unemployed through the COVID-19 crisis) have significant economic multipliers, and all of which also reduce carbon emissions.

But we need to go even further than this. Our response to the COVID-19 crisis will also demand a fundamental re-visioning of where people live, how they earn a living, how they move, connect with one another, and how services are delivered.

Cities are complex systems in which all these issues come together, and they can act as ‘test beds’ for orchestrating a powerful and effective nationwide response to the crisis. 

Our work has shown that national government investment in cities, directed towards clean, connected, and resilient development, underpinned by liveable density, offers a triple dividend for climate, public health, and the economy.

It enables more efficient health and transport networks, plenty of green spaces accessible to all and a reduction in air pollution – which studies have linked to higher fatality rates for COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases.

The Coalition for Urban Transition, a partnership of more than 35 major institutions and initiatives working on cities, will play our part. We call on national governments to:

  • Use this moment to support the long-term economic, social and physical resilience of cities to tackle the health and climate crises together;
  • Invest in cities under long-term fiscal stimulus to rebuild from the severe economic downturn;
  • Place cities at the heart of their national development and climate strategies, with a view to building a national system of cities in which people can thrive; and
  • Use cities as ‘test beds’ to fundamentally re-examine the way their economies function.

As we look to the future, beyond the pandemic, governments must harness the potential of cities, and the social and economic opportunities they present. Now is the moment to address the health and climate crises together in order to secure long-term resilience, prosperity and equality for all.




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