Geneva's strong message for more resilient cities

Forum of Mayors 2020. Sami Kanaan, mayor of Geneva, Switzerland, co-chair of the Forum of Mayor (Credit: UNECE /Pierre Albouy)

A first-of-its-kind United Nations’ forum held in Geneva brought together more than 40 mayors from around the world on 6 September to share their approaches “to build back better from Covid-19”. The Forum of Mayors culminated in the endorsement of the Geneva Declaration of Mayors calling for concrete action in all aspects of urban life.

Why is this Geneva Declaration important? It provides a blueprint for concrete steps local authorities will take in the coming months and years to realise their cities’ potential for greater sustainability. By endorsing it, the mayors of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) commit to work together to make cities more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive. Sami Kanaan, mayor of Geneva:

“It represents a concrete implementation tool to assert a strong political message and then structure the monitoring of operational results. It is a "soft law" tool that will progressively deploy its effects over the sessions.”

A blueprint for greener cities. The document sets out seven goals, from taking ambitious climate action and making cities greener to ensuring sustainable urban transport and affordable and adequate housing. The last paragraph provides for a periodic review established for the first time by the UN to track the progress. Cities will have to respond to a survey and present their results during next year’s Forum. Kanaan :

"This new tool will not only serve as a comparison but will also highlight the systematic action of cities in many areas of life. This periodic review of participating cities will show where Geneva is doing better than others and what needs to be improved.”

Cities, major new actors. In 2007, for the first time in human history, the world's urban population surpassed the world's rural population. The UN estimates that it will even reach 68 per cent of the world's population in 2050. Yet, the current pandemic exposed and amplified the vulnerabilities of current urban realities including overcrowded public transport, inadequate and unsanitary settlements, high levels of air pollution, and the lack of open green spaces to allow for social distancing. Cities became epicenters of the pandemic with an estimated 90 per cent of all reported cases. In dense urban areas, the crisis felt particularly strongly and hit the most vulnerable groups the hardest. Kanaan:

“In this urban world, states and international organizations are more and more aware that without local governments, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cannot be achieved (…) This inevitably means reinventing the urban way of life, providing responses to questions which the cities are facing today, and must find answers to.”

Geneva’s role and place. City and cantonal authorities made the move for Geneva to become a leading mediator for dialogues between cities across the world after forming the Geneva Cities Hub earlier this year, and now further boosted by the UN’s Forum of Mayors, being officially held in the region.

It hopes to help cities play a bigger role in international cooperation and reshape the contours of multilateralism in crisis. Under-secretary-general and UNECE executive secretary, Olga Algayerova:

“The current crisis teaches us once more that some of the most pressing challenges humanity faces, cannot be solved by national governments alone as our world is growing increasingly urban (…) There is no doubt that the multilateral system needs to adapt to these new realities. Cities are no longer simply places where we live and work but crucial actors in the international arena.”

The UNECE’s headquarters are based in Geneva. Its Committee on Urban Development, Housing and Land Management holds its annual meeting here. This year, the mayors’ participation was formalized within the framework of UNECE Sustainable Cities Week 2020 with the launch of the Forum of Mayors, a more visible arena. A Cities day, SDG11 Day, was also held on 5 October. In March, the city of Geneva also initiated the creation of the Geneva Cities Hub, headed by Kanaan, aiming to connect cities, city networks from all over the world and the institutions of International Geneva. Kanaan:

“I am convinced that Geneva is ideally placed to play a role in promoting this new inclusive multilateralism".

Now it remains to be seen what concrete measures Geneva will put in place locally to show the Forum of Mayors it can lead by example and turn its ideals into actions to become carbon neutral as early as possible.