By Lauren Sorkin and Oren Ahoobim
Whether managing dense housing and mass transit, providing water and sanitation, or creating small business incentives or cultural events, cities concentrate both risk and opportunity. Never has this been clearer than during the current COVID-19 pandemic. But, not all urban communities have been equally impacted.
In the U.S., African-Americans face a COVID-19 death rate that is six times higher than white Americans. Similarly, job losses for African Americans and Latinx workers in the U.S. far outpace national averages. Women around the world are facing a surge of domestic violence as they quarantine in unsafe homes. And for the one in four city dwellers — nearly a billion souls — living in informal settlements, social distancing, and preventative hand-washing practices are luxuries that are far out of reach.
Inequalities that drive divergent health outcomes are deeply rooted, reflecting a mix of structural racism, and a lack of investment in urban infrastructure and services for poorer and marginalized communities. As cities manage their immediate response to the COVID-19 pandemic and are looking ahead to planning and resourcing recovery efforts, there is an opportunity to transform our cities in meaningful ways that not only protect vulnerable people from immediate health threats, but also build resilience for the looming climate crisis as well.
Equitable, resilient recovery plans need to develop fast often in places where capacity, data and funding are limited. How can this happen?
First, cities need holistic approach to recovery planning that captures the cascading impacts of COVID-19 and other shocks and stresses that will likely exacerbate the human and economic cost of this pandemic. As summer approaches, Europe is at high risk of heatwaves and the US, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Caribbean are at high risk of hurricanes and tropical storms. Droughts and locust infestations in parts of Africa and South Asia could push food insecurity, (already at critical levels due to a halt in informal, daily-wage activities and global trade), to situations of mass hunger and starvation. Managing effective and equitable responses to these overlaying shocks and stresses requires tools that bring these connections to light and enable systems level decision-making. The City Resilience Framework is one example of a holistic tool that can be adapted to recovery planning.
Second, cities need to organize and share existing vulnerability data quickly, which may be a challenge for governments with gaps in their understanding of vulnerable groups such as migrant workers or families living in informal settlements. “We don’t share data well enough,” says a city officer working on inclusive recovery in a European city. “We’re getting data on new vulnerable groups that are emerging, but we are not able to share them fast enough with partners who can support these groups.” Cities need to identify gaps in their existing data systems (e.g., specific indicators, frequency with which data is collected, analytical capabilities). They can fill these gaps by expanding existing systems, building new data capabilities, and partnering with trusted community-based organizations who can support data collection. The Rockefeller Foundation and the City University of New York, for example, have developed a set of data-driven Equity Indicators that city leaders can use to measure and understand disparities within their cities, providing a valuable baseline against which they can measure the impact of their recovery efforts. In many informal settlements, trusted local organizations working with community leaders have the ability to quickly map and identify households impacted, making the invisible more visible.
Third, cites need to prioritize funding for recovery projects that respond to vulnerable communities’ needs and deliver multiple benefits in response to today’s COVID19 urgencies and tomorrow’s climate related challenges. In a survey undertaken by GRCN and Dalberg of approximately 50 cities across the world, funding, unsurprisingly, emerged as the biggest barrier for cities as they build recovery plans. “Fiscal barriers are going to be a big barrier for cities to invest in equity,” says a North American city official. “Yes, there are stimulus plans, but there is a lot of uncertainty around them because all cities are going through the crisis at the same time.” There is an opportunity to embed equity in all aspects of city systems that will be re-started or re-invigorated. Examples such as investments in converting temporary hand-washing stations into long-term water infrastructure for communities that did not have steady water supply before the crisis showcase this multi-benefit approach.
A truly resilient recovery cannot exist without equity. The current pandemic is just the latest reminder of not only how fragile our economic and health systems are, but how increasingly our individual health and prosperity depends on the health and prosperity of the most vulnerable among us.
COVID-19 has proven that if one community is at risk, the entire city is at risk. Response and relief efforts have brought together diverse actors in new ways. We must act with real openness to achieve new ‘normals’ and work closely with partners and funders to seed innovation and help city governments adapt regulations to be more inclusive. The Global Resilient Cities Network platform, Cities for a Resilient Recovery, launched with support from Dalberg recognizes the potential of this moment to support cities to better use data, innovation and partnerships to achieve a more resilient and equitable recovery.
Lauren Sorkin is the acting Executive Director of the Global Resilient Cities Network. Oren Ahoobim is a Partner at Dalberg Advisors.