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OPINION: A resilient recovery – the road to better cities after COVID-19

by Lina Liakou and Piero Pelizzaro | @linaliakou | Resilient Cities Network
Thursday, 8 October 2020 17:48 GMT

People gather in the Navigli area, as Italy eases some of the lockdown measures put in place during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Milan, Italy May 18, 2020. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

From health to the environment, solutions must recognize how the systems that support urban life are inextricably linked

Lina Liakou is the director of engagement and knowledge and regional director for Europe and the Middle East at the Resilient Cities Network.

Piero Pelizzaro is the chief resilience officer for the city of Milan.

COVID-19 has challenged the very nature of 21st Century society. Cities have endured the worst of the pandemic and have an unprecedented opportunity as they lead the recovery process. The uniqueness of this global pandemic moment calls us not just to rebuild, but to write the story of a new future with our every decision, to shape a substantially different urban reality that is safer, more prosperous, and above all, more resilient, especially for the most vulnerable.

Cities must think differently to take advantage of this opportunity, and urban resilience is an essential element for this new way forward. The pandemic has exposed all the problems we were not paying enough attention to, demonstrating, often painfully just how deeply connected our urban challenges are.

“There’s no doubt that it [COVID] has had a major impact on our city-region, disrupting lives and exposing the stark inequalities that exist all across the country,” explained The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, during the release of the city’s Living with COVID Resilience Plan. “Our focus remains on addressing those issues and building back in a way that’s better and fairer than before.”

The call for continued resilient recovery is loud and clear.

To be effective, urban solutions must recognize how the systems that support urban life are inextricably linked. Our health and wellbeing, economy and society, infrastructure and environment, and leadership and governance—the four dimensions of urban resilience—cannot be improved in isolation. To “build back better” and come out of the pandemic more prepared for the next shock, Cities must pursue responses that integrate the four dimensions of resilience. They need to seek a deep understanding of the risks we face, of the structural weaknesses of our systems, and of their interdependencies, and must address inequity head-on.

Maximize health & social wellbeing of the most vulnerable  

In this transformational moment, cities must give vulnerable populations their due attention and support, and ensure all communities benefit from the recovery effort. Given the extent of unmet needs and the fragile economic situation in cities around the world, every recovery euro spent must deliver positive social returns, especially for those with the greatest need and who stand to gain the most from an equitable recovery. Cities on the leading edge of a resilient recovery have already begun to deploy solutions that close the social gap by centering equity in health and wellbeing.

London created a dedicated resilience fund to support innovation among small businesses and community groups, to ensure the come out of the current crisis better prepared for future emergencies through. The Tel Aviv Yafo municipality strengthen in July its support for woman organizations with a dedicated budget to fight gender inequality, despite extensive cuts in their city budget.

Lead with data-driven, transparent and inclusive decision making

Recovery is an opportunity to improve accountability and transparency in planning, implementing, and monitoring. Cities can leverage the resources they’ve dedicated to monitoring outbreaks in order to collect and update essential data set. By applying a resilience lens to their application of data, Cities can understand their vulnerable communities better, allocate resources more effectively, and learn to track and optimize performance based on this new metric.

The Municipality of Milan piloted the use of big data to conduct predictive analysis of citizens' movements. They brought together existing data sets to predict and prepare for the next stage of the crisis as workers return to work. While Barcelona is trying to boost its local economy by providing financial and technical assistance in the form of useful data, supporting urban innovation projects that reactivate the local commercial fabric.

Strengthen natural assets and critical infrastructure

As governments reassess priorities and consider stimulus packages, we must learn from previous economic stimulus packages and identify opportunities for “shovel-ready,” job-creating, high-efficiency, low-carbon infrastructure investments. These projects should protect inhabitants from major threats, including extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and increased water risk driven by climate change, ensuring people are an asset for recovery.

For example, Rotterdam is investing €233 million in infrastructure projects to counter the negative effects of COVID-19. The City prioritized continuing to improve its attractiveness by delivering housing for the homeless and creating more green spaces with new parks, playgrounds and sports facilities.

The COVID-19 crisis provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset. Cities can either choose to shape a substantially different urban reality by elevating a commitment to support the vulnerable, protect natural systems, build sustainable economy, and address coming threats together. And they must do so.

A resilient recovery is not about getting back on track. It’s about elevating our tracks to a new level and pointing them towards a better future for all.