The UN Mobilises – For a Green and Inclusive Recovery in Cities

© GIZ / Anja Pappenfuss

Last week, cities and urban areas shifted into the centre of attention. UN Secretary-General António Guterres launched the policy brief: “COVID-19 in an Urban World” through a widely shared video message, underlining that:

“Now is the time to rethink and reshape the urban world. Now is the moment to adapt to this and future pandemics. And now is our chance to recover better, by building more resilient, inclusive and sustainable cities.”

The policy brief states that urban areas have been the epicentre of the pandemic, with an estimated 90% of all cases. It is not density per se that leads to higher transmission rates, but rather “economic geography”, as demonstrated elsewhere by the World Bank. Though cities are where 80% of global GDP is generated, many individuals and communities have been left behind, living in disadvantaged areas with poor public service delivery and a lack of access to education or formal employment. To respond to these challenges, the UN calls for action in three concrete areas:

  1. Tackling inequalities and development deficits, for example by making large public investments in affordable housing and infrastructure, preventing evictions and ensuring equitable access to health supplies,
  2. Strengthening capacities of local actors and governments, in particular by enhancing budgetary capacities and strengthening local revenue generation,
  3. Enabling a resilient, inclusive, gender-equal and green economic recovery, for example by supporting micro-small and medium enterprises (MSMEs).

The UN’s initiative makes clear: Development cooperation cannot be successful in its response to COVID19 if investments and policies concentrate in only a few geographic areas. In this context, various UN agencies have become engaged. 

For example, the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) offers innovative solutions to drive finance in more dynamic ways for excluded populations and boosts the capacity of local governments to deploy funding quickly. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has deepened its collaboration with the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) to tackle the complex root causes of development deficits and support cities to spur an inclusive recovery, as UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner in a recent video message underlined. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) City Region Food System (CFRS) approach helps to organise food systems in a more effective and sustainable manner across the rural-urban continuum and enables a multi-level response to the disruption of food systems caused by COVID19. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) is the implementing agency of the GEF-7 Sustainable Cities Impact Programme, the global platform of the Global Environment Facility’s (GEF) sustainable urban development facility.

The UN’s call tells us, once again: Business as usual will not lead us anywhere. The time is now for brave, creative and transformative approaches to change. A change that will reach the global level but must start locally – in cities.