Back at the beginning of 2020, worldwide public debate very much focused on the fight against climate change. Some countries as well as the European Union (through its so-called “Green Deal”), ranked the ecological transition as the first goal in their political agendas. On the contrary, there were also leaders who strongly opposed any green policy and denied the risks and threats caused by climate change, including the United States and Brazil. However, even in such contexts local communities often showed more awareness than their national governments, implementing actions and practices of mitigation and adaptation, and collaborating across borders with other cities in order to move forward in the spirit of the Paris Agreement.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, putting all of the other issues on a back burner. Though the Coronavirus is still as fatal today as it was at the beginning of the pandemic, we now feel more optimistic thanks to vaccination campaigns all over the world, so much so that we have begun to think about out post-pandemic lives. We know that the consequences of this disaster will be long lasting because of its social and economic impact, and we need to update many of our convictions if we want to shape a sustainable world that is better prepared at facing future pandemics. In this respect, two questions are crucial: 1) Will the fight against climate change be at the core of the global geo-political effort? 2) Will cities play a key role in this battle?
Climate change and pandemic
After the first lockdown, many observers argued that the social and economic crisis would push the environmental challenge at the bottom of global political priorities. Millions of people are losing their job, so why should they — and their representatives — be concerned fort the planet under these conditions? Luckily, this perception has changed rapidly in the past months as institutions worldwide have confirmed the environment to be the most urgent priority of our times. Joe Biden’s victory in November accelerated this feeling, with the United States re-joining the Paris coalition, and John Kerry assuming the leadership position of this multilateral effort.
In addition, many studies have showed the relationship between COVID-19 and pollution, demonstrating that bad air quality can spur the spread of the virus. As we know, cities and metropolitan systems are at the forefront of this battle: they are responsible for 60% of global emissions and 60% of energy consumption, while hosting the majority of humankind (around 55%), covering just 3% of the world’s surface. As Richard Florida states, “If our crisis is urban, so is its solution”. In order to save the planet we must make it environmentally sustainable, and to do so we must change the paradigm our cities operate with. With this publication, ISPI tries to take into account all of the features underlying this multidimensional challenge.
The Post-Covid City
The truth is that we do not know what urban systems will look like after COVID-19. We forecast that many of the changes we are witnessing today might be permanent, but we cannot be sure about whether or how this revolution will last. Urban flows of people have reduced consistently during the last few months, but nobody can say for certain whether everything will go back to normal once the emergency ends. We wonder if urbanites will demand larger homes and smaller offices because of work-from-home habits. We picture less traffic during rush hour and more bicycles on dedicated lanes, while everybody agrees that we need to improve the quality of public spaces to foster outdoor activities and keep communities inclusive and healthy. We hope that cities will be more equitable since segregated communities were impacted the most by the pandemic. Some Mayors are aiming to design new paradigms, such as the “15 minutes City” implemented across Paris and Milan: at its core, the initiative upholds the concept of “living, working, and playing” at a 15-minute walking or cycling distance
Above all, we are no longer sure about what we considered to be the most important feature of sustainable cities just one year ago: the issue of clustering. Should we build and renovate cities in order to make them denser than after World War II? Is that positive for the environment – having cheaper and less polluting services for more people – and for the economy – given the creative clash that spurs the knowledge economy and creativity? Or will we face instead a new birth of rural areas thanks to digital connectivity and work-from-home measures? Which is the best path to follow in the fight against climate change?
The responsibility of the Global North
The key finding of the Agenda on Sustainable Development is that every goal must be considered as universal: all societies need to improve. There is hope for good examples to appear from both the North and the South of the world.
Keeping worldwide urbanization in mind, nowadays that is highly concentrated across Africa and Asia, and we believe this dynamic will last and grow for decades to come. Because of this trend, the mega-cities of the Global South face quite different problems from those in more stable European and North American urban contexts. Compared to the growth cities experienced during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, huge slums and shantytowns in these sprawling metropolitan areas witness the consequences of urbanization without neither industrialization nor economic growth. It is unsurprising, then, that these settlements are considering other issues on top of the newer threat posed by COVID-19.
However, we need to shape new models and make use of what the pandemic taught us in order to design more ecological, inclusive, and prosperous cities. In this respect, local communities in more developed countries can play a key role and assume a large portion of the world’s responsibility by designing healthy and sustainable cities after Coronavirus, and learning from trials and errors, which can be utilized as a useful comparison tool in other geographical contexts.
Cities need to gain influence and power
We have pointed out the stark difference between the disproportionate responsibility local communities and mayors hold in many fields compared to the lack of power they have within governments and multilateral institutions. Without analyzing the root causes of this asymmetry, it is worth stressing that this situation is no longer reasonable after COVID-19. We know how important the City-to-City diplomacy was in the first few weeks of pandemic, with many mayors interacting with each other on a daily basis to discuss the tragic and concrete actions they had to take. Local communities managed a tiny amount of money compared to federal funds, despite them trying to sustain their healthcare system, companies, and citizens struggling against the virus and its consequences.
Global summits also failed to pay much attention to cities and mayors: they did not involve them in discussions and did not consider their opinion. In order to shape a sustainable world, we need to invest in new governance, as SDG number17 clearly states. Failing to place local communities at the core of this institutional architecture is worse than faulty: it would be foolish.