Prioritizing Equity on the Path to a Resilient COVID-19 Recovery

Written by Resilient Cities Network
Tuesday, 06 October 2020


Cities are leading the way in creating a COVID-19 recovery plan that prepares them for the future. They have been the hardest hit by COVID-19, home to 95% of positive cases. Cities are fighting the pandemic against the backdrop of multiple shocks and stresses and emerging vulnerabilities, while striving to prioritize equity, economy, and climate action in their plans. As they cope with COVID-19 itself and attempt to recover from the various impacts of the pandemic, they need to ensure their recovery strategies and investment decisions enhance, rather than undermine, the city’s resilience.  

In this unique moment of pausing to build a recovery plan, cities have the potential to integrate further resilience into recovery activities and to make increasing equity a pillar of their approach, and in fact, 79% of cities surveyed are prioritizing enhancing social equity in their recovery efforts.

Building a recovery that addresses the ongoing crisis while “building back better” demands that Cities go beyond conventional, linear disaster response planning. They must integrate agile decision-making and feedback loops as information and our understanding of the situation evolve. And they must identify and prioritize opportunities to build for the long-term while meeting urgent and basic needs. 

Resilient Cities Network, other organizations, and member cities continue to innovate new strategies to make their recovery resilient. Some of the most useful, widely supported, and impactful are: 

  1. Sharing information and learning together with other cities and organizations 
  2. Using data for a responsive, people-oriented recovery 
  3. Resilience-oriented funding solutions

Innovating and Learning Together  

In the face of uncertainty about the virus itself, as well as the local and regional stresses that make resilience more challenging, cities identified a need to connect, to generate and share knowledge to inform their response and recovery. In fact, 68% of Resilient Cities Network (R-Cities) member cities said that they needed a platform for sharing ideas to support them in building their recovery plan. 

Cities have collaborated with one another and with other organizations in both formal and ad hoc forms. For example, El Paso, Texas connected with fellow Texan cities, both within and from outside the RCN, to navigate regulatory uncertainty around federal COVID-19 recovery grants, in order to devise a strategy for grant allocation that would minimize their cities’ risk exposure. On the other hand, RCN Chief Resilience Officers responded to cities’ need for a platform for sharing ideas by coming together to launch Cities for a Resilient Recovery (C2R), a coalition of cities and partners including The World Bank and The University of Manchester

C2R set out to connect Cities, support them in taking action to protect the most vulnerable, and help them develop tools to create sustained resilience. C2R’s main activities are a global community of practice, the Coronavirus Speaker Series, conducted in partnership with The World Bank, and the bi-weekly Manchester Briefing on COVID-19 created by the University of Manchester Alliance of Manchester Business School, as well as a Toolkit for a Resilient Recovery.  

One of the first things C2R identified was that Cities prioritizing a resilient recovery wanted a place-based and people-centered recovery. As the Resilient Recovery community of practice’s work advanced, they coalesced their learnings into three themes: a people-centered recovery, a risk-aware recovery, and a system-enabled recovery. They published a synthesis of all the knowledge and best-practices they have collected, organized along these themes. 

The “Cities on the Frontline Speaker Series” was the earliest step Resilient Cities Network took to deepen existing networks between Cities and other organizations, and to begin to build up a base knowledge. There have been over 25 sessions to date, featuring nearly 70 presenting participants. In each panel-style remote conversation, experts present on a curated topic, ranging from aging cities to gender inclusivity, in a COVID-19 recovery context. A Q&A discussion that lets attendees engage with the experts follows, making this series a truly broad-based knowledge exchange forum.  

Curated by Resilient Cities Network, the Manchester Briefing on COVID-19 brings together key international lessons and examples to support the response and recovery efforts of resilience officers, emergency planners, and other city practitioners. The briefing is organized around the pillars the cities have identified as most important for addressing key challenges—Health and Wellbeing, Economy & Society, Infrastructure & Environment, and Leadership & Strategy. It features case studies and actionable suggestions such as “Consider using digital tools to track unemployment rates and economic vulnerability” under Economy & Society, supported by an evidence-based examination of how cities have used the advice or tactic effectively. 

These collaborative learning projects capture a much broader survey of resilient COVID-19 response and recovery actions than can be covered in this document. Most importantly, their findings are readily available online, and where appropriate, they are open and eager for new cities and participants to join the coalition, because they exist to empower Cities to plan for their resilient COVID-19 recovery. 

People-Centered, Responsiveand Data-Driven 

Many cities that have identified inclusivity and equity as priorities are focusing on allocating their recovery planning resources towards understanding and responding to their inhabitants’ specific needs and context better, by leveraging evidence and data. This unique moment enables them to embed support for improved inclusion, social cohesion, and equality into their work, by applying a responsive, equity lens to their efforts to manage outbreaks and using data to learn more about people’s circumstances. 

Understanding where vulnerable people are, both where they’re living and what jobs they’re doing in a City, and what their vulnerabilities are, empowers Cities to engage with these communities and begin centering their unique contexts to increase equity. For example, the borough of Hackney, in London, England, used existing property data sets to identify and understands groups vulnerable to COVID-19 as illness, especially the elderly, houses with someone known to have a co-morbidity, or receiving government aid, and those vulnerable to the economic impact of the pandemic. They created a briefing pack, consulted with organizations representing these groups to understand them better, and shared this information to collaborate with service providers

Cities are also making their planning more responsive and equitable by evaluating how communities have been impacted by COVID-19 and identifying which communities have been disproportionately impacted, using data to identify the scale of impact and prioritize recovery resources to those who need them most. For example, in Pune, India, the city used existing pandemic spatial mapping of confirmed cases based on over 800,000 door-to-door surveys, and overlayed that with income and density maps of the city. While using this information to direct their outbreak response, Pune began applying it to direct the supply of essential resources and services to the neighborhoods where outbreaks were more severe and where population density and income levels created the greatest need. 

Across dozens of cities applying data to understand their city’s communities, those communities’ needs, and how COVID-19 was impacting them, one element that stands out is that many cities already had access to some of the data they needed. However, COVID-19 spurred them to connect data sets or analyze it with an eye towards equitable resource allocation for the first time, or to collect and layer new data on to of what they already had. This new perspective on data, on applying equity, and on solutions that respond to individual community context will leave a lasting impact in many of these cities, on top of the shift created by providing them with additional or more-tailored resources. 

Funding a Resilient Recovery 

From the outset of the pandemic, cities identified funding as one of the crucial gaps in their response. Many cities have seen tax revenue decline while spending has increased to fund response and recovery, putting the financial sustainability of many local governments at risk. As they have begun to seek new funding options, cities have also identified the opportunity to center equity and inclusion, for example requiring a dedicated budget to support organizations that serve a specific vulnerable group. 

Especially early in the response and recovery period, cities leveraged partnership with philanthropies and donations to deliver resources to individuals and organizations quickly. Oakland, United States, Mayor Libby Schiff announced the Oakland COVID-19 Relief Fund, an emergency fund to serve Oakland’s most vulnerable residents and first responders during the pandemic. This donation-based fund relies on philanthropic contributions, which are administered with city guidance towards four priority areas: food, homelessness, community health and education, and economic security. As of July, the fund has raised nearly $6 million. The government of Jakarta, Indonesia created the Large-scale Social Collaboration platform, which displays information about neighborhoods’ COVID-19 cases and invites residents to use the online map to donate directly to others, and as of May 27, the platform had distributed 561,118 aid packages. 

Other cities targeted priority areas and the most vulnerable by allocating resources to issue-specific funds. In Tel Aviv, Israel and London, England, they’ve pioneered financial instruments to prioritize resilience by supporting vulnerable populations. London Mayor Sadiq Khan led the push to create a £1 million fund to help small businesses and community groups prepare for future disruptions as they recover. This London Resilience Fund pairs businesses, social enterprises, and community groups with innovators to help them create new ways to deliver their products, and then provides grant funding to design and test these solutions. Tel Aviv created a special budget to provide support to women’s organizations, in a bid to promote gender equity, support women’s health, and protect women, which Tel Aviv explicitly recognized as disproportionately hurt by COVID-19. 

In each case, city leadership working with team members and community organizations to identify the resilience needs for their priority objectives to be sure the funding instrument had the appropriate criteria. The opportunity to define a new fund’s objectives and key audiences, such as slum dwellers or addressing sustainable energy, demonstrates how cities can leverage this unique moment to focus resources on resilience in their COVID-19 recovery.


The Future of Resilient Urban Recovery 

Cities are still in the midst of building their resilient recoveries and responding to COVID-19 at its various stages. Many cities will combine these and several other components of a resilient recovery as they seek to prepare for the next disruption while addressing current weaknesses by increasing equity and supporting the most vulnerable. With so many cities identifying building equity as a core concern in their COVID-19 responses, and the uncertain future of the pandemic, supporting and empowering cities to continue developing, refining, and sharing what they learn remains a core practice area for Resilient Cities Network and the over 220 million urban dwellers our work touches. 


of cities are working to embed resilience into their recovery efforts.


of cities are prioritizing enhancing social equity in their recovery efforts.


of cities say a funding gap is a primary concern while working on Covid-19 recovery plans.

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