OPINION: Using COVID-19 to make our cities fairer, greener and healthier

by Maimunah Mohd Sharif | UN-Habitat
Thursday, 27 May 2021 14:49 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A New York Police Department officer keeps an eye on people sitting in designated circles as they control social distance on a warm day during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Domino Park in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., May 16, 2020. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Image Caption and Rights Information

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

What can we learn from cities’ response to the pandemic?

By Maimunah Mohd Sharif, the executive director of UN-Habitat.

For more than a year, cities have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. As economic hubs, engines of growth and development and lively crossroads, urban centres are often the first places to be exposed to the virus. The way in which cities respond to, recover from and change after the pandemic will dramatically affect the future of our planet. And the way they work with other tiers of government for effective local responses will be important for the sustainability and resilience of the planet. We must support them to seize the opportunity for a sustainable recovery and long-term greener, healthier and inclusive development.

COVID-19 has starkly illustrated the inequalities in our cities. Marginalized communities have been more vulnerable to its devastating effects. Communities living in substandard housing, without access to water and sanitation, reliant on unprotected public transport and lacking healthcare have been the most affected and will likely be the last to recover as they often work in the informal sector. 

Cities have shown time and again an ability to innovate and marshal resources to overcome epidemics and disasters. Their densities, economies of scale and connectivity also serve as their strength. During the pandemic, protective equipment, medical resources and vaccines were brought in quickly and deployed effectively with communities coming together to set up quarantine spaces and take specific measures to support the most vulnerable.

One of the hallmark indicators of success in facing the pandemic has been the rapid and coordinated government response at all levels from the neighbourhood and the district to the city and region. Many city leaders, planners and managers took decisive action to prevent and respond to the pandemic, and will remain on the forefront of policies and incentives to recover. This rapid, government-coordinated response has clearly been a key indicator of success so far.

A new report by UN-Habitat, the UN agency focusing on sustainable urbanization, points the way for cities to seize the moment and take advantage of a series of opportunities in the recovery. The report, Cities and Pandemics: Towards a more just, green and healthy future provides guidance to local, regional and national governments and practitioners on designing coordinated policies from the local to national levels that are based on strong local data of more than 1,700 cities and well documented evidence.

The shift to remote working and schooling may or may not last, and it is unclear how long the recent temporary migration to smaller cities and rural areas may continue. Regardless, any long-term recovery will have to include solutions to structural issues of unsustainable urbanization: persistent problems of inadequate and overcrowded housing, poor health care, insecure work in risky jobs, and unsustainable land use patterns.

The report outlines how the post-COVID-19 era should bring a reprioritization of investment towards more sustainable activities and more inclusive social security systems. This will require a new ‘social contract’, that can be initiated in cities, founded on whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach with clear collaborative mechanisms and multisectoral resources. This social contract will explore the role of the state and cities in addressing poverty and inequality including ways to finance universal basic income, a universal health insurance and universal housing. 

In addition, to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and the urban roadmap known as the New Urban Agenda, cities should take advantage of dual opportunity to invest in the prevention of future pandemics and in climate change concurrently. The ‘15-minute city’ model or the sustainable neighbourhoods model proposed by UN-Habitat clusters home, work and services within compact, mixed and walkable neighbourhoods as well as health and education local responses.These in turn reduce energy use and emissions, promote good health and cut back on the destruction of natural animal habitats which minimizes the threat of animal to human disease transmission. The COVID-19 crisis has already pushed many cities to designate streets for walking and cycling which is a triple win for climate, biodiversity and public health.

National and local governments must take advantage of this moment of reckoning to expand investments and policies achieving equitable distribution of resources and climate action. With community engagement and a meaningful transition to a more sustainable approach, we should see better planned, better built and better managed cities emerging from the crucible of COVID-19. We all deserve cities which are healthier, greener and more inclusive than ever before. Now is the time to choose this sustainable future for the planet and people.