Spurring cities into action in a global crisis

Mayors in action. Milan's mayor Giuseppe Sala climbs stairs on the occasion of a meeting between German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, Italy, todaydow}, Sept. 17, 2020. (Keystone/AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

“The history of cities is a history of crises – cities have always benefited from them,” Norman Foster, award-winning British architect, told local chiefs in Geneva on Tuesday.

At the United Nation’s first-ever Forum of Mayors, organised by the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), city leaders pledged to step up to the challenge of “building back better”, even while facing a global crisis.

Mayors from cities across Europe, North America, and Central Asia met both virtually and in-person at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. The goal? To address the most pressing issues the world is facing from a more local perspective.

Even though this wasn’t the kind of gathering they imagined a year ago, UNECE executive secretary Olga Algayerova said the forum came at a time when urban realities need to be reimagined. And cities play a huge role in this. Geneva mayor Sami Kanaan, who moderated the forum’s morning session, added:

“The voice of cities needs to be heard when dealing with the Covid-19 response and tackling climate change, the defining issues of our time.”

Why this is important. Cities are increasingly placed at the frontlines of the fight against global issues. This was magnified during the pandemic with as many as 90 per cent of reported cases coming from urban centres. The same can be said for wildfires, with cities bearing the brunt of a burning global climate.

And yet the trend continues towards greater urbanisation. As of 2018, over 55 per cent of people (4.2 billion) in the world lived in urban areas, according to UN estimates. By 2050, this number is expected to grow to 7 billion people (68 per cent) living in urbanised areas.

Cities, therefore, are at the centre of change – as it always has been. The crisis only amplified the increasing need for interdependence and multilateralism not only among states but among local actors, professionals, and citizens alike, said Tatiana Valovaya, director-general at UN Geneva. Giuseppe Sala, the mayor of Milan, one of the most affected cities by the pandemic, sums this sentiment up succinctly:

“Covid-19 has disproportionately affected cities. Mayors do not want to take a step back in terms of sustainability and equity. Our vision points to a green and just recovery.”

Reimagining the city. With cities at the fore, Foster reminded us of the power cities have to bring people together, “bringing in wealth, opportunities, choice, liberation, and innovation.”

With years of experience under his belt, from the Reichstag in Berlin to the Millennium Bridge in London, the self-described urbanist said that the pandemic is an opportunity for cities to change radically. London’s cholera epidemic transformed the city’s modern sewage and sanitation and the Spanish flu created new public spaces such as cinemas, malls, and stadiums. In a similar manner, new trends have been highlighted by Covid-19. Even more so in terms of the mobility of people, goods and information: from ride-sharing to electric vehicles, and from work-from-home arrangements to 15-minute neighbourhoods.

“If we put all these various trends together, what is new is the receptive attitude towards change,” he said. “All that space can be reimagined: from parking spaces to urban farms.”

And Foster seemed to be optimistic about the upcoming evolution of the city. “This is a time of extraordinary opportunity... In that sense, the future is truly brighter.”