By Agustí Fernández de Losada, director of the CIDOB Barcelona Centre for International Affairs Global Cities Programme, and EUROsociAL+ expert
The data leave no room for doubt. Covid-19 has been and continues to be a markedly urban pandemic. Population density and connectivity make cities, especially large metropolitan agglomerations, unique scenarios for the transmission and spread of the virus. But they have also played a leading role in managing the crisis, mitigating its impact, especially in the most vulnerable sectors of society. The solutions and innovations promoted from within cities by local government and the various actors that make up their socio-economic fabric have led to extremely valuable lessons that can be used to design scenarios for a future that is uncertain and full of challenges.
The first points to the need to reinforce cooperation between the different spheres of government that operate in cities based on shared power schemes. Coordination between the national government and sub-national governments, whether state, regional, metropolitan or local, is needed today in order to design efficient solutions to highly complex problems, such as Covid-19. An approach based on cooperation, which by definition cannot be hierarchical, requires political will, as well as a strong sense of institutional loyalty. It also requires efficient governance mechanisms that facilitate such cooperation.
However, such a cooperation-based approach transcends domestic spaces. During the pandemic, cities have shown great international dynamism and have strengthened their ties and partnerships. In recent months, contacts between cities around the world have been frequent, with a focus on sharing knowledge and solutions to the multiple challenges posed by Covid-19. This approach has seen international networks of local governments promoting platforms to facilitate the exchange of experiences and the transfer of knowledge. Decentralised cooperation has proven to be a fundamental tool to strengthen the ability of cities to face the crisis.
Similarly, beyond the cooperation between spheres of government and between cities in the international arena, the pandemic has emphasised the need for further collaboration with the actors that operate in large metropolitan environments and make advances in terms of co-responsibility schemes. Many of the most innovative solutions that have emerged from cities have been piloted by public organisations, the private sector and from universities and research centres. They have brought commitment, innovation, adaptability and resources to the table, going where governments are unable to go. Perfecting the mechanisms that allow these actors to be linked to public policies promoted by cities and channelling their contributions and ability to innovate is key and should concentrate efforts and intentions.
The crisis caused by Covid-19 in cities has had a multidimensional expression. They have had to manage an extremely serious public health crisis by strengthening health systems, adapting public spaces and mobility and ensuring the provision of certain essential services. In parallel, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and highlighted a social emergency that will be aggravated by the crisis caused by the economic slowdown. The Covid-19 crisis is being strongly conditioned by technological disruption and the opportunity to address the digital transition and the requirement to maintain a firm commitment to move towards a zero emissions scenario – an objective that may be affected by the temptation to promote certain economic stimulus measures.
For city governments to be able to address the multidimensionality of the challenges they face through comprehensive approaches thereto, the designing of adequate responses to the extremely complex scenario that the pandemic will leave in large metropolitan areas will be key. A scenario that, as has been seen in past months, will also be strongly marked by uncertainty and that will require significant doses of adaptability and resilience.
However, as well as these challenges, the pandemic presents important opportunities that cities and societies in general should be in a position to address. There will be opportunities to rethink the city, mobility, public spaces and critical issues such as housing, employment, commerce and tourism; to review the socio-economic and cultural dynamics that occur therein, halting the processes of fragmentation, expulsion and financialisation and promoting new centralities, ensuring social cohesion throughout the entire urban fabric as well as in more outlying areas. These review processes should also take into account the possibilities that technology opens up, and the transition towards a green and sustainable economy; provide a response to the digital divide, working from home and the arrival of 5G, artificial intelligence and the internet of things; and move towards new models of circular economy and emissions neutrality.
Taking advantage of the opportunities posed by the pandemic and tackling all the challenges it poses requires on the one hand strong leadership and, on the other, skills, powers and resources that are not always available to city governments. Its lessons set out a compulsory roadmap for cities to promote public policies that are more efficient and tailored to the needs of their inhabitants. It is more necessary than ever to activate all mechanisms, national and international, to progress on this roadmap through a scenario of unprecedented uncertainty and complexity.