All over the world, cities are grappling with the pandemic’s social and economic impacts. Carmen Vogt, Philip Koch, and Lukas Prinz present some inspiring examples from Latin America that showcase how cities can build back better.
With COVID-19 spanning the world, cities are on the frontline. The pandemic’s impacts are particularly visible on the ground in urban areas as centres of social and economic life. Economy and labour markets are in shock, public transport is perceived as a point of contagion, and poorer parts of society are disproportionately affected. In a policy brief, the UN Secretary General reaffirms that, due to their densely populated nature and national and global connectedness, cities have become the epicentre of the pandemic. The reality in many countries underscores that cities can and must be part of the efforts for a green and resilient recovery with the goal of building back better.
Mexico City: Resilient Recovery
One example for the necessity of both an instant pandemic response and longer-term green and resilient recovery measures is Mexico City. Like many cities worldwide, the sprawling capital of Mexico has been deeply affected by the pandemic. Country-wide, more than 800,000 infections have been registered by mid-October and data shows that death rates in Mexico City are significantly higher than expected.
The Mexican national statistics agency INEGI estimates that 12.5 million jobs, mostly in the informal sector, have been lost in April alone. The long-term economic and labour market implications will be immense and cannot yet be adequately assessed. The pandemic exacerbates existing problems such as the large informal sector and stark economic and social inequalities. In a situation where national governments are not universally taking bold steps, cities must be enabled to fight the negative effects of the crisis.
GIZ is working with cities worldwide and all levels of government to respond – with immediate actions that build the ground for long-term sustainability. Again, one case is Mexico where the “Ciclovías” project set up so-called pop-up cycle paths. These are short-term and temporary cycle paths which quickly provide more space and safety for cyclists during dangerous situations.
The project demonstrates that national ministries can act as facilitators for cities to implement green recovery measures and that measures supporting the national level can be an important building block in strengthening city actions. They prepare the ground for a green recovery and sustainable transport infrastructure across Latin America, as interest in the topic by 96 cities from 24 countries shows.
Becoming More Inclusive
Next to instant measures, Mexico City is taking bold steps towards a resilient recovery, announcing to implement a USD 1 billion economic recovery plan in order to combat the fallout of the pandemic. The plan aims to create around 1 million jobs in the construction sector. It focusses on the redevelopment of 13 existing urban corridors through housing improvement measures and new social housing in areas with good public transport connections. In addition, creating income for those hit hard by COVID-19 can help to stabilise the local economy, as earnings are spent at least partially on consumption.
Besides strengthening local economic recovery, the investment plan addresses the idea of creating more inclusive cities by investing in redevelopment and social housing projects. Although the projects will be carried out in large part by private companies, Claudia Sheinbaum, Mayor of Mexico City, stressed that consultations with the residents and the public at large have been carried out. These measures amplify the voices of those affected and allow for a more integrated and large-scale urban planning, compared to what would be possible with unguided private activities. Championing social cohesion as an important pillar of the recovery strategy will help Mexico City to follow a new path, and to emerge from the crisis in a stronger position.
Chile and Peru: Investing into Green Projects
Apart from this inclusive recovery objective, high environmental co-benefits can be realised with well-designed recovery strategies. Considering that the building sector with one of the highest urban carbon mitigation potentials, using sustainable construction materials, increasing energy efficiency or installing photovoltaics panels could make the economic and inclusive recovery in cities a green one. Calculations by the World Bank show that investments into projects that increase sustainability or climate resilience have high multiplier effects into other sectors of the economy and generate positive net present values. Various national governments such as those of Chile and Peru commit to channel COVID-19-related investments at least partially into sustainable and green projects, while cities will be responsible for implementing and adapting the measures to local circumstances. To enable such sustainable urban development, cities must be supported in integrated urban planning and by increasing local government capacity to create enabling conditions for inclusive and environmentally friendly investments.
Build Back Better
Last but not least, cities need money to address existing urban challenges and to build back better from the crisis. Next to severe public health effects, the pandemic has led to a strong contraction of cities’ tax base due to restricted economic activity during month-long lockdowns and limitations to public life. Some cities reacted by establishing funds in order to instantly support local businesses and urban inhabitants.
At the same time, it was urban areas that had to spend large sums for an immediate response to COVID-19, for example to continue public transport operation and to set up testing centres with very little preparation time. It is therefore crucial to enhance local governments’ budgetary capacity. This can be achieved immediately by transfers from national governments and more long-term by opening up new revenue sources to cities and local governments.
Initiatives such as the Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance (CCFLA) show that international cooperation and knowledge sharing can lead to strengthening cities’ role in building back better and demonstrates the necessity of access to finance for subnational actors. National stimulus packages must of course not only address city administrations, but also support urban inhabitants – ideally, both goals can be achieved when using available funds intelligently. Access to finance is crucial to recover sustainably and achieve climate-neutral cities.
As the experience from urban areas around the world shows, existing challenges such as inequality, public health issues, and lacking urban development exacerbate the effects of the COVID-pandemic. At the same time, cities can intelligently design recovery measures to unlock various environmental and social co-benefits by focussing on actions that support a shift towards the necessary sustainability transition.
International cooperation can help to extend cities’ capacity to act by helping to share good practices between urban actors worldwide. To alleviate the impact on heavily affected communities and economies, intelligent recovery programmes have been and will be implemented, supporting cities to recover from the crisis. This is also demonstrated by the city-led initiative “Daring Cities”, which engages urban leaders to address the climate emergency despite COVID-19. After all, while the effects of the pandemic are devastating, cities are in the driver’s seat to support and shape actions that help to emerge from crisis in a stronger, future proof way.