How COVID-19 can steer city leadership on sustainability

Posted on: May 14, 2020

Senior Climate Change Specialist


Dense cityscape of Hong Kong highrise buildings
Photo: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

Cities are at the heart of the pandemic impact and response, and city leaders managing through the COVID-19 crisis have demonstrated commitment to integration, innovation, and partnership. GEF Cities Lead Aloke Barnwal makes the case that this approach will be critical to the future sustainability of cities, and argues for city-level recovery strategies that address the root causes of environmental degradation.

The world is facing a nearly unprecedented pandemic situation: the COVID-19 crisis has gripped almost every country, with cities at the epicenter. The response of cities to date have unearthed their potential for collective action and leadership like never before. It has led cities across geographies and borders to share their experience and work together towards comprehensive planning and effective delivery to come out of this emergency situation.

There are important lessons here for the future of cities, and the role of mayors, particularly around the environment and sustainability leadership. The successes of cities working to tackle the COVID-19 crisis could very well accelerate the global momentum toward urban sustainability and resilience. Specifically, there are three key abilities city leaders have displayed during this pandemic that are critical for urban sustainability: 

  1. Adoption of integrated approaches for crisis response
  2. Innovative use of data
  3. Emphasis on partnerships for cross-learning

Integrated approaches for crisis response

The impact of COVID-19 is not just on health but also on economies and societies – this is extremely apparent in cities, and has informed the way mayors and their teams have been responding.  New York City is expected to lose nearly half a million jobs from January to September this year. Ninety percent of the world’s students are confined in their homes with more than 50 percent in cities. These and other social and economic dimensions beyond health and disease control have caused cities to respond to the pandemic in an integrated manner. They are coordinating among health services, utilities, education, transport systems, and enforcement departments to ensure the functioning of essential services and to facilitate recovery.

COVID-19 is also showcasing the importance of coordination between national, state, and city governments in planning and mobilizing resources related to the crisis. Countries and cities which are coordinating well are showing promising trends of containing the spread and restarting their economies.

While it is too early to say if any city or country has fully tackled the COVID-19 pandemic, integration is indeed the foundation of their response and successes achieved to date. Once this crisis is behind us, replication of this integrated approach will be key to tackling systemic urban challenges and drivers of environmental degradation such as urban sprawl, congestion, and inequality. Through an integrated urban planning and coordinated governance approach, cities will have the potential to not only avoid trade-offs between sectors but also generate multiple social, economic, and environmental benefits and prepare themselves to better tackle future emergencies affecting their people and economies.

Innovative use of data

COVID-19 has put considerable pressure on already stretched health systems and other urban services around the world. Responding to this situation has required cities to opt for innovative solutions and measures to respond quickly and at scale. In this context, a critical weapon to fight the pandemic for countries and cities has been the accessibility and innovative application of data.

Cities are upgrading and innovating their data infrastructure to collect, analyze, and disseminate relevant information to test, trace, and support citizens. The Seoul metropolitan government used its Smart City Data Hub to rapidly trace infection by collecting and disseminating information to citizens transparently. Similarly, 45 cities in India have transformed their data-driven integrated command and control centers as nerve centers to monitor quarantine facilities, monitor traffic, and share vital messages. Various cities have set up data dashboards for decision-making and building trust with people.

Greater use of geospatial data can help cities to check urban sprawl, conserve green spaces, and enhance the climate resilience of vulnerable citizens. Many cities are embracing this. Cities such as Dakar, Bhopal, and Lima are integrating satellite data in their sustainability planning with support from the European Space Agency and the Global Platform on Sustainable Cities. Chinese cities such as Ningbo and Shenzhen have partnered with MoBike - a bike sharing company - to use their data for evidence-based urban planning and to fill in public transit gaps. Brazil is developing an innovation observatory for sustainable cities to inform data-driven urban development in line with SDGs. The rapid digitization to tackle COVID-19 presents a great opportunity for cities to continue to accelerate actions like these and embrace data as a key enabler to understand and address complex sustainability challenges.

Emphasis on partnerships

It has become quickly apparent in this pandemic that COVID-19 is affecting cities in similar ways, albeit with different levels of intensity and in staggered waves. This commonality has brought cities together in new partnerships that hold promise for the future as well. One notable example is Cities for Global Health, a platform co-led by the World Association of the Major Metropolises and the Euro-Latin-American Alliance of Cooperation among Cities, and supported by the United Cities and Local Governments and UN Habitat. The platform helps city leaders share their experiences with different challenges related to COVID-19 and connects urban areas across the globe in a very helpful way.

There are already a number of global city-level partnerships, networks, and platforms focused on supporting low-carbon and climate-resilient growth. The pandemic experience has made it clear that these partnerships are extremely valuable and can be replicated to urban sustainability challenges, such as sprawl, congestion, pollution, and biodiversity loss. It is heartening to see work already underway in this regard, including efforts led by C40 Cities which created a Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force bringing together 11 globally important cities to drive forward an economic recovery that improves public health, reduces inequality, and addresses the climate crisis. Similarly, the GEF-funded Global Platform for Sustainable Cities, which facilitates city-city learning and exchange of experience on sustainability approaches, is actively sharing COVID-19 related resources to support sustainable, low carbon, and resilient recovery and growth in cities.

Cities that are working in integrated and innovative ways, in partnership with others, to tackle the pandemic are blazing a trail for a new model of leadership for sustainable urban development. This leadership ought to continue well beyond the COVID-19 crisis to help ensure that economic recovery addresses the root causes of environmental degradation and makes our economies and societies more resilient in the process.

The GEF’s Sustainable Cities Impact Program is helping 24 cities in nine countries to advance integrated urban planning for sustainability, in close partnership with global city networks, financial institutions, the private sector, and civil society organizations. This builds on work started in 2017 by the GEF Sustainable Cities Integrated Approach Pilot, which created the Global Platform on Sustainable Cities and is helping 28 cities in 11 countries implement integrated solutions for urban mobility, clean energy, climate adaptation, and solid waste management.

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