While working on this Dossier, the whole world has been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. I found myself doubtful: can we still discuss SDGs without sounding disrespectful? Will SDGs still be relevant in the upcoming post-COVID-19 world? In addition, will cities – now fighting day and night to open new emergency units in the hospitals and to heal as many patients as possible – be able to focus again on such an ambitious, comprehensive and difficult-to-achieve Agenda?
At this stage of the pandemic, and at the dawn of a huge economic crisis, a clear-cut answer is simply not available. However, one key point emerges from the commentaries of this dossier: there is no alternative to SDGs, if the world hopes to prosper after COVID-19. No one can deny that, if we ignore global issues related to social inclusion, inequalities, the environment, education etc., the spread of this virus will be even higher. The international community needs to work cohesively at all levels and cities can provide key answers to the pandemic. At the same time, it seems impossible to implement the Agenda without localizing it and involving communities and their leaders in the age of Covid-19.
To this aim, three fundamental questions need to be raised today: what is the expected impact of coronavirus on global urbanization trends? How will the virus affect polarized populations, with many rich and too many poor people? What is the role of technology when fighting the virus and for the future of cities?
Around 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and some estimates predict that in 2030 this percentage will increase to 70%. In recent years, between two and three hundred thousand people every day have been leaving rural areas to live in cities. Despite frequently extreme social conditions, living in a city allows many people to pursue an opportunity, thanks to a vast and dynamic economic system. Let us take, for example, international migrants: statistics show that they tend to move to big cities, where they can find jobs and ‘safety nets’ provided by ethnic clusters. Nevertheless, the same holds true when it comes to “creative classes” and top managers.
Will this phenomenon go on in the age of Covid-19? For the time being, nobody is really able to answer this question. We can just put forward a hypothesis: if the pandemic continues, many people might decide to exploit the potential of smart working and move to less densified and healthier suburbs, like in the Sixties and the Seventies. In this perspective, urbanization could slow down, as it is happening with migration flows from Africa to Europe. Moreover, we should expect different behaviors from elderlies and young people, with the former preferring healthier contexts and the latter “working, living and playing” among skyscrapers. In this scenario, the implementation of Agenda 2030 could even accelerate: in fact, huge urban concentrations (megacities) may be reduced, thus improving cities’ livability and making SDGs more approachable.
On the contrary, the economic effects of the Covid-19 crisis may threaten SDGs targets. Over the last years, dozens of cities around the world have been testing the so-called “Voluntary Local Review”, a document on local Sustainable Development similar to the one released by countries to report their progresses at the UN. Cities like Buenos Aires, Durban, Helsinki, Kitakyushu, Los Angeles, Medellin, New York City, Rio de Janeiro have been working on this very important experiment, in order to let the Agenda 2030 land on cities’ priorities and problems. This exercise turned out to be very promising not only in terms of implementation of down-to-earth policies, but also because it included a clear message of ‘citizen ownership’: each one of us is responsible for building a sustainable and just world. The sudden spread of the coronavirus may jeopardize these efforts as cities are much more focused on tackling the emergency.
Does it mean “Game over”?
It depends on the way the world will shape the recovery phase. If we look at the past, post-disaster plans turned out to be a failure quite often. After hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was given a huge amount of public money (see Anthony Pipa’s commentary in this Dossier) but today poor communities are even poorer than they used to be before the hurricane, and the same neighborhoods would probably be destroyed should another devastating hurricane hit the city.
However, viruses tend to be more “democratic” than hurricanes as nobody is completely safe: if cities do not take care of the homeless, of prisoners, of the elderly in retirement homes, of those living in super-densified areas with inadequate healthcare systems, even high-income citizens will be in danger. If we do not include these potential hotbeds in a sustainable development paradigm, the future will look threatening. This is a powerfully good reason not to forget the Agenda 2030 and, on the contrary, to implement it even faster.
Last but not least, the role of technology. In his article for the Financial Times, the Israeli historian Yuval Harari shows that two radical alternatives are available during an emergency: national isolationism vs. international cooperation and technological surveillance vs. citizens’ empowerment. Cities are at the core of both choices.
Looking back at the process that led to the Sustainable Development Agenda in 2015, cities proved to be able to face common challenges by working in network. Best-practices exchanges among cities were key to proceed with “Voluntary Local Reviews” and similar exercises aiming to comprehensive (and transformative) sustainable strategies. There is no alternative for mayors – as Benjamin Barber wrote some years ago in his famous book “If Mayors Ruled the World” – but to be cooperative, open and pragmatic (as they are doing today with hospitals, supply chains and health devices). This attitude can help the international community on the path towards sustainability.
Moreover, by looking at different models in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic, Harari claims that there is an underpinning question: should the state be entitled to surveille its citizens both externally (as happens with digital behaviors) and internally (body temperature, chemical reactions etc.)? On the other hand, what alternatives are there to defeat the virus?
We need to find a compromise within this dichotomy in order to shape healthy cities for the future. The answer cannot be a technological Leviathan that spies on everyone to heal people and orient their choices, behaviors and lifestyles. Instead, a flexible organism, able to shut and reopen pieces of urban texture following the virus’ movements, relying on people’s collaboration (the “test, trace and treat” mechanism) as well as on technology. A city that can prevent and fight COVID-19, while guaranteeing rights and privacy. A community that empowers “smart citizens”, aware of their own responsibility in fighting the virus, improving their community and shaping a sustainable future.