Cities, Battered by COVID-19, Remain Key to Recovery. How Can Investments Be Well Spent?

Top-down infrastructure projects may be tempting for COVID-19 recovery, but without community engagement many such efforts have failed in the past. Photo by Meena Kadri/Flickr

As the world reels from the COVID-19 pandemic, investment packages are taking shape to provide relief and recovery. Cities from New York to Nairobi are not only on the frontlines of the health and economic impacts, but they provide immense opportunities for smart reinvestments that can kick-start economies and help shape societies to be more resilient and equitable.

The United States alone has allocated more than $2 trillion in coronavirus-related relief, the largest stimulus package in U.S. history, including $25 billion in urgent relief for public transit agencies. The World Bank Group has created a $160-billion pipeline that will be available over the next 15 months to help developing countries respond to immediate challenges and recover economically.

As part of WRI’s Build Back Better series, leaders from UN-Habitat, the World Bank, Slum/Shack Dwellers International, WRI Ross Center and the Dutch government had a robust discussion outlining what needs to happen to spend these resources properly – to ensure spending reaches those who need it most, but also that it leverages this window to shape cities for the better.

Fragility and Vulnerability

COVID-19 is leading to unprecedented disruption, creating new problems and amplifying existing problems in the modern city. Experts have warned about the vulnerability of the urban poor, but the “ferocity of failures” in health, social and economic systems has been remarkable.

“Any crisis…will impact the poor disproportionately at a vast, vast scale,” said Ani Dasgupta, global director of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, who noted urban inequality is a major ongoing challenge.

“Cities are not resilient enough to cope with the current crisis as it is,” said Rogier van den Berg, director of urban development at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, who moderated the panel.

More than 1 billion people live in informal settlements globally and more than 2.4 billion lack access to safe water and sanitation, said Maimunah Mohd Sharif, executive director of UN-Habitat.

On top of these challenges, the pandemic could create “upwards of 100 million ‘new poor,’” predominantly in urban areas, said Sameh Wahba, global director of the World Bank’s Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience and Land Global Practice.

In many informal settlements, basic services like water, sanitation and electricity simply do not exist or can only be accessed intermittently, at great expense or through shared access points. Sanitation systems that need to be emptied manually are not being done so because of shutdowns – fecal matter is literally overflowing, said Sheela Patel, chair of the NGO Slum/Shack Dwellers International and founder and director for the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers.

In India, which instituted a nationwide lockdown, millions of migrant workers can’t get home. “Whether you’re a slum dweller, or a pavement dweller, or a squatter or a homeless person, and if you’re a migrant, you are presently completely excluded from any form of entitlement in the city,” said Patel.

In one Bangalore slum, WRI research found only 60% of residents could afford piped water, and even then, it was available only for two hours, two to three days a week. These neighborhoods are not mapped, and residents are not on any government registry. Hand-washing and social distancing are nearly impossible.

Ensuring More Impactful Recovery

Relief and recovery investments, then, need to address not only the specific impacts of the disease but longstanding challenges too.

Wahba noted that cities will need help maintaining essential services, particularly as tax revenues drop alongside the economic slowdown. In a municipal finance assessment conducted by the World Bank for several Romanian cities, Wahba said they found revenues were expected to drop 15-25%. Meanwhile, municipal funds may also be tasked with contributing to stimulus measures, and, for cities in the global south, funds via official development assistance may decline as the budgets of contributing countries are slashed.

The need for impactful investments is therefore greater than ever.

Wahba said the World Bank is mobilizing $160 billion to support emergency responses, economic recovery and increasing liquidity in developing countries. But it is not yet clear how these funds will funnel through national governments to reach cities and what projects will be prioritized.

Patel, whose organization, Slum/Shack Dwellers International, is a federation of groups representing the urban poor in 33 countries, said they are rarely consulted about what is needed in their communities. “We have not seen a seriously scalable strategy that is available and demonstrated and visible to these constituencies. We don’t know where that money goes … We are not asked what we would like to do with that money.”

Mohd Sharif said UN-Habitat has announced several more local-level initiatives. They have allocated $1.3 million in fast seed funding to scale up projects to help vulnerable communities combat the spread of the coronavirus in 13 countries. Longer term, they have launched a $72-million COVID-19 Response Plan for 64 countries, focused on three main areas: helping local governments with community-driven solutions in informal settlements; informing key decisions with better urban data and mapping; and mitigating economic impact while starting recovery.

Cities must have a seat at the table as funds are allocated, said Dasgupta, and find ways to involve community priorities and engagement in national and sometimes international processes. He urged an end to single-sector, top-down projects, saying they will not help cities build back better.

“We have to learn from this and not repeat what we’ve been doing,” he said. “We actually have to do things differently.”

Density or Crowding?

If investments have a chance to re-shape cities, how should they change? The panelists noted how the social distancing required to stop COVID-19 has raised fundamental questions about the shape of the modern city.

Mohd Sharif emphasized that what matters is whether density is well-integrated and well planned. Cities must ensure quality of life no matter how dense, and it is quality of life that helps delineate between density and crowding – 10 or 20 people living in one room, for example. Well-planned density should be part of any city’s sustainable development plan, she said.

“You can have places with more or less equal population densities, but then you compare the built environment and see very different potential for contagion during a pandemic,” said Wahba. Multi-story buildings with green spaces, pedestrian paths and other ways to safely and efficiently connect urban environments can have the same density as a neighborhood filled with single story, unplanned shacks and no urban service provision.

A recent World Bank study of 284 Chinese cities found no clear relationship between density and COVID-19 transmission risk, Wahba said. In fact, the cities with lower population densities had higher infection rates. Higher density often meant more efficient delivery of key services and made it easier for people to stay at home.

The World Bank recently published a methodology to identify hotspots where social distancing is impractical, communal services might increase risk of contagion, and targeted resources are needed most, said Wahba. The analysis harnesses data on population, building height and locations of key services. The Bank has employed this methodology in three cities and plans to expand to 50-100 cities in the “coming few weeks,” said Wahba.

To reduce the impacts of crowding and leverage the $24 trillion benefits of well-planned density, providing more affordable, reliable, equitable access to key services should be a key goal of new urban investments.

People, Not Projects

Like a magnifying glass, this moment of collective vulnerability has exposed the vulnerabilities and the interdependencies of cities, said Henk Ovink, special envoy for international water affairs for the Netherlands. Vulnerability is affected by access to services, by gender, income, informality, and climate change.

We need to “co-invest in an enabling environment” to build broader resilience that can help us prepare not only for the next pandemic but for other shocks and stressors too, said Ovink. The New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals call for changes across sectors and building up individual capacities. But for many people, “that future is not on their radar,” he said.

In reaching for answers, off-the-shelf solutions and top-down funding pipelines may be faster, but they may also perpetuate existing problems and vulnerabilities, Ovink said. Solutions are needed that address multiple SDGs and build human capacity; otherwise, large infrastructure projects that can actually make cities less livable will continue to be the norm, he said.

Patel agreed and reiterated that national-to-local, “shovel-ready” projects are less likely to be sustainable or successful because they are not built with community input or engagement.

As potentially historic levels of stimulus are being considered globally, Dasgupta called on the urban community to come together as a collective voice to lift up city priorities and make sure investments reach the communities that need it most. There is a critical need to invest in poorer communities and involve residents in decision-making, data collection and solutions.

“Wherever communities are organized, they have information about themselves, they know how to talk to their governments – things flow there,” said Patel. But these things “cannot be manufactured just at the time of emergency… Let COVID change that to the new normal.”

Listen to the webinar on Soundcloud and subscribe for podcasts of WRI events.

Schuyler Null is Communications Manager for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Talia Rubnitz is a Communications Specialist at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Hillary Smith is a Communications Assistant for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

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