• With less commuting and clearer skies, the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to rethink our cities.
  • National governments need to work together with city administrations and people to form good policies.

Cities are engines of growth: they create jobs, alleviate poverty, and are key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. This is particularly important for developing countries, which are urbanizing at a much faster pace compared to developed countries.

History shows us that cities have also dealt well with past pandemics and epidemics, from the Great Plague, to cholera, Ebola, and SARS, when they are managed and governed well.

The impact of the present global crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic is still evolving and is multi-dimensional, combining health, economic and social crisis. The urban poor have been hit the hardest. The fault lines of inequity and poverty have been vividly exposed and have deepened with the economic impact of the pandemic.

The World Bank estimates that some 100 million people have been pushed back into poverty, wiping out much of the gains of the last few years. Cities in developing countries, with some 1 billion people living in dense and overcrowded informal settlements, with poor access to basic services, have been hit the hardest.

Before the current pandemic, some 25-30 people migrated to Indian cities every minute. The pandemic has triggered a reverse migration back to rural areas with economic shutdowns, job losses and lack of livelihoods for migrants. Knowledge workers are also migrating away from cities, looking for open spaces. The future of cities has become uncertain and constrained by diminishing revenues due to the economic downturn and already limited infrastructure services.

However, time and again cities have proved to be resilient and have emerged stronger, showing they can build back better and improve the lives of city dwellers. Seoul, South Korea, controlled the spread of Covid-19 through rigorous contact tracing, widespread testing and mandatory isolation. This was possible due to the existing foundations of transparency, accountability and solidarity which allowed the city to use mobile phone data, CCTV coverage and credit card data to track infected persons. The city demonstrated accountability and transparency by sharing information and appropriate solutions.

City-wide stakeholder consultations with the community, run by the national government and city institutions, created a relationship of trust and solidarity. Stakeholder participation is crucial for sustainable and inclusive growth, increasing accountability. Community participation is at the heart of good policy-making and the provision of inclusive public services. There are many other examples from developing and emerging economies that have used good governance and social commitment to slow down the pace of spread of the pandemic.

Strengthening governance to address the infrastructure gap in developing and emerging countries
Image: Draft White Paper, 2019, The World Bank

City leadership, smart citizens, feedback loops, strategic planning, transparency, strong institutions, and a culture of integrity are the key pillars of good governance. Robust city planning and management depend on these. Vertical and horizontal co-ordination across all levels of government are critical. They enable city governments to tailor an efficient response, develop a relationship of trust with communities and consult multiple stakeholders as they device their policies and plan for action.

Cities which have emerged stronger after a crisis are those that have demonstrated good governance, were ready to embrace change and were agile, innovative and creative in their response: provided social safety nets, boosted service delivery, created community trust and encouraged community involvement. Good governance has emerged as one of the key drivers of successful responses from cities. Those cites which have invested in building strong institutions and training people have been able to respond better.

The biggest opportunity for cities from this pandemic is to build back better with the planned fiscal stimulus: more climate resilient infrastructure, green initiatives such as increasing public spaces, creating vehicle free streets, making bike lanes, refurbishing buildings to multiple uses and thereby doing more with less. This cannot be done by the public sector alone. Cities will need to attract private sector and social partners to close the financing gap. Good governance is an imperative to attract private financing and to work with the private sector.

Good governance goes hand in hand with digitization. Cities which have embraced digitalization and e-governance are able to respond better to the crisis. They are using digital services and big data to help track community spread, closely involving stake holders such as civil society, citizens and the private sector. Cities across Latin America and Africa are using digital platforms to deliver cash transfers to the poor to keep vulnerable populations afloat. Big data is also being used in a number of developing country cities, such as Cairo and Kinshasa, to map and assess COVID hot spots among the population so that early response efforts can be targeted.

Healthier cities are within reach, as is evident from the impact of COVID-19 on the decline in commuting, with alternative transport like walking or cycling gaining in popularity. Cities are already experiencing better air quality and clearer skies due to less traffic and are incentivized to take actions to keep their emissions down.

For example, plans are underway to expand the Greater Cairo subway to accommodate 6 million passengers by 2025. Big data is helping Bogota and many other cities assess the increased demand for bike lanes to accommodate the number of cyclists in the city taking shorter journeys due to the pandemic.

The COVID-19 crisis presents cities with the opportunity for a 'Great Reset' towards greener, resilient, healthier, inclusive and sustainable cities. We cannot afford to squander away this opportunity. City leadership, robust governance and civil trust are the biggest drivers of city resilience and revival. Cities cannot respond to a crisis of this magnitude and convert it into an opportunity without these key drivers.

The gap in public services in cities is a governance gap. The success of cities as resilient places that serve their citizens in an inclusive and sustainable manner is anchored in the principles of good governance. It is not too late for cities to work towards this goal.