Our cities are constantly changing and transforming. However, sometimes, urban areas fall short of expectations. A key question therefore is how to unleash the potential of cities, to become more sustainable and inclusive in the future. UNU-EHS expert Simone Sandholz has published in El País (in Spanish) answering this and other questions.
Read the full Spanish op-ed here, with English translation below.
Cities have always been places of hope and desire, places that enable innovation. But it was not only the pandemic that ruthlessly exposed urban shortcomings. In many cities population groups live side by side instead of with each other, with very limited interaction or mutual support, and by far not all can participate in urban decision-making. Resources are used unequally and often in unsustainable manners. As a result, urban areas fall short of expectations. A key question therefore is how to unleash the potential cities clearly have to trigger lasting change.
COVID-19 has shown the disadvantages of densely inhabited areas which have facilitated the spread of the virus and pushed urban inhabitants to their limits. Particularly those living in small flats with little or no outside areas like parks or gardens to turn to have faced hard times. Urban green areas are usually most scarce in low-income communities, complicating social distancing and forcing families into staying inside with very little options for nearby outdoor recreation. Hence urban living conditions that were already disadvantaged were additionally impacted.
On the other hand, the pandemic has also revealed factors that really matter to live healthy and livable urban lives. Equitable access to local green areas is critical for physical and mental health. Now, this is not only true for a pandemic but it also teaches us lessons for urban development in general, to prepare our cities for the future. In line with the “Build back Better” paradigm of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 we urgently need to think about urban sustainability transformation and its components. This obviously includes the implementation of key learnings around urban patterns and layouts that for example include community green spaces.
At the same time we also need to think in a much more integrated way than planners and decision-makers currently do. During the pandemic almost all countries and cities faced supply shortages at some point, showing the fragility of global delivery chains and the comparable benefits of local supply and urban agriculture. Now, this is not only an advantage during a pandemic, but it also reduces ecological footprints of cities and thereby helps to protect our climate. In addition urban agriculture and other open spaces are proven to help reduce impacts from torrential rain and flooding. Such co-benefits need to be considered much more, but to realize them we need to start thinking bigger.
What has become clear, among other things, is the importance of social contacts and social networks. Community-based approaches have supported families during the pandemic, for example by supporting elderly and other vulnerable groups with shopping, or by supporting overwhelmed health services during the peak phase of the pandemic. While this might sound most relevant in informal urban contexts of emerging and developing economies, the importance of vivid urban neighborhoods and neighborhood assistance has been shown in high-income countries as well. This is an important lesson that can and should apply to other urban challenges like reducing the impacts from climate change and disasters.
This by no means implies that such solutions should replace the genuine tasks of urban administrations, but they can complement their work. What is important is that we do not arrive at a situation where the state takes care of some (richer) groups and everyone else has to rely on informal networks. Therefore, what is needed is an urban development approach that is socially just as well as resource-efficient, environment- and climate-friendly. Reaching only one of these goals is not enough. Instead, there is a need to develop and implement strategies that aim at achieving multiple goals at once. Forming innovative urban coalitions among actors which have not necessarily worked together in the past can help. This could for example include listening to epidemiologists and biologists to pay more attention to nature-based approaches and the protection of biodiversity in cities to avoid the spread of future pandemics. It could be a strategic alliance with artists or filmmakers to better inform about the urgency to act and to reach out to different groups of society. And definitely it should be about forming alliances between different urban groups which might have diverging interests at first sight, but which could well be aligned under the umbrella of forming more sustainable, better cities in the future. Fortunately, there are already promising approaches. There are global alliances of cities and mayors who take their responsibility very seriously. There are participatory approaches in urban planning and budgeting, including from emerging and developing countries. And there are youth-led initiatives forcing all of us into accelerating action.
Cities are not unchangeable. We have the power to unleash their potential and fortunately we don’t need to start from the scratch.