Mayors and cities blaze the trail for a sustainable Covid-19 recovery
In the first major global meeting of local official since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, mayors gathered both physically and virtually at the UN in Geneva today to discuss current challenges, lessons learned and best practices.
The “Forum of Mayors”, as the event is called, was the first-ever such event convened by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and its Committee on Urban Development, Housing and Land Management
“We, the local elected officials, are on the front line, the representatives of the institutional structure which is closest to the population”, said Sami Kanaan, the mayor of Geneva.
“We are the most suited to understand the needs, aspirations and concerns of the population,” Mr. Kanaan said. “We are confronted on a daily basis with the very concrete problems of local communities, in particular on climate change and resilience in the face of crises, the key topics of today”.
Renowned British architect Lord Foster noted in his special address to the mayors that ”the pandemic has accelerated magnified trends which already existed before the pandemic”.
“The history of cities is the history of crisis, is the history of change, and historically cities have in the long term benefited from crisis. They have ended up as better cities,” Lord Foster said.
With 75 per cent of today’s population living in cities, the current health crisis made the need for more robust cities more evident than ever before. The pandemic has amplified and exposed 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.
According to UNECE, urban policymaking around the world remains decentralized. Insufficient exchange between the national and local governments makes it even more difficult for mayors and urban authorities to address such cross-cutting challenges.
Speakers from 32 cities as diverse as Glasgow, Milan, Kazan, Reykjavík, and Belgrade, sent a clear message that healthy populations require investments in making cities more resilient and sustainable. Some examples of their initiatives included: introducing temporary public spaces where people can walk or cycle while practicing social distancing, experimenting with new means of public transport, and decarbonizing heating systems.
In her opening remarks Olga Algayerova, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission (UNECE) highlighted the chance to seize opportunities in the midst of crisis. “COVID-19 continues to be catastrophic” she said. “It also offers a chance to transform our cities and create a new normal. A ‘normal’ that benefits all people and our planet”.
“It is often said that cities are the places where future happens,” Ms Algayerova added . “Cities have always been a real-life testing ground for human innovation. Now we are presented with a life-time opportunity where we can shape our future more than ever before.”
Calling for a new era for the cooperation between national and local governments, Tatiana Valovaya, Director-General of the United Nations at Geneva said that “as frontline responders to this major health crisis, local governments are demonstrating the indispensable role in tackling the pandemic. But also in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals”.
Ms. Valovaya also spoke of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations this year, and the need to reinvigorate the organization by continuing to expanding participation to include more than national governments. Ms. Valovaya spoke of “the necessity of building more than multilateralism -- multilateralism of the 21 century, inclusive multilateralism which will include as key actors not only the governments but also international organizations, regional organizations, cities, local communities, private sector, professionals, academic experts, groups of young people and citizen as such. ”
“It is promising to see that local actors play a great role in advancing and revitalizing international cooperation, ” the UN Director-General said.
To mark the close cooperation between national and local authorities, city mayors and ambassadors got together for some soccer fun on the lawn of the Palais des Nations, under the theme “United for Our Goals” – shooting penalties with the aim to be the first to score 17 goals (in a nod to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs).
The outcome document from the meeting, known Geneva Declaration of Mayors, provides a blueprint for concrete steps that local authorities will take in the coming months and years to realize their cities’ potential for greater sustainability. It addresses concrete steps to be taken on climate action, urban tree planting, sustainable energy and transport, as well as affordable and adequate housing.