A Resilient Recovery – the Road to a New, Better Future in Latin America after COVID-19

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By Eugene Zapata-Garesché, Managing Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Resilient Cities Network.

COVID-19 has challenged the very nature of 21st Century society. Cities have endured the worst of the pandemic and are leading the recovery process. But returning to a pre-COVID “normal” is impossible nor necessarily “desirable”. The uniqueness of this global pandemic moment calls us not just to rebuild, but to write the story of a new future with our every decision, to shape a substantially different urban reality that is safer, more prosperous, and above all, more resilient, especially for the most vulnerable.

Urban resilience is an essential element for this new way forward. The pandemic serves as a stark reminder of how urban challenges are deeply connected, and our solutions must be so as well. To be effective, urban solutions must recognize how inextricable linked the systems that support urban life are. Our health and wellbeing, economy and society, infrastructure and environment, and leadership and governance—the four dimensions of urban resilience—cannot be addressed separately, solutions do not give way to multiple benefits when they are conceived and implemented in sectorial isolation.

In emerging cities, gaps in water and sanitation services, overcrowded and poorly housed communities, and a lack of social safety nets have proven to be a dangerous backdrop for people facing a pandemic and its impacts, undermining their recovery efforts. And even in our wealthiest cities, inequality has undermined people’s chances of surviving this public health crisis and preserving their livelihoods, increasing uncertainties on how they will weather subsequent disruptions.

The call for continued resilient recovery is loud and clear.

But what is a resilient recovery? 

Resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems to survive and thrive in the face of shocks, like a pandemic or natural disaster, and stresses, like an ailing transportation system or a lack of community cohesion. COVID-19 is a very disruptive shock, laying bear the stresses and brittleness that weaken cities, and demonstrating that cities need many capacities to survive and thrive through major disruptions. Cities need robust information and communications infrastructure to allow parents to work and their children to attend school from home. Cities need accessible health care that supports the wellbeing of all residents. Cities need inclusive economies where nurses, couriers, and waste collectors receive the appreciation and remuneration they deserve. And most importantly, they need a leadership committed to informed decision-making to maximize multiple benefits and minimize risk.

Building resilience requires not only a deep understanding of the risks we face but an acknowledgment of the structural weaknesses of our systems, their interdependencies, and a willingness to address them head-on. Building resilience into recovery and a more resilient future requires a different way of thinking, planning, and acting. While there may be many paths to recovery, as many there are cities leading innovative recovery initiatives–urban centers must integrate the four dimensions of resilience to build back better.

Take the case of the city of Montevideo. The capital of Uruguay engaged in the long-term transformation of one of its most vulnerable neighborhoods, the Pantanoso basin.  Known for its pollution, elevated crime rate, scarce access to reliable public transport and overall social degradation, Pantanoso has been converted by city authorities into a “Resilience Laboratory”, a place for Montevideans to feel proud of. All urban systems are at stake:  sustainable mobility, public space, wetlands preservation, waste management, social inclusion, crime prevention…. The road to a Resilient Laboratory in Pantanoso is not straight nor fast moving, it is a long term bet that requires creative will from public and private actors, in all sectors and simultaneously.

Maximize health & social wellbeing of the most vulnerable  

In this transformational moment, cities must give vulnerable populations their due attention and support, and ensure all communities benefit from the recovery effort. Given the extent of unmet needs and the fragile economic situation in cities around the world, every recovery dollar spent must deliver positive social returns, especially for those with the greatest need and who stand to gain the most from an equitable recovery. Cities must apply this lens to maximize the benefits of all their recovery investments, by prioritizing social mobility and the just distribution of benefits. In so doing, they will foster a more widespread, robust recovery from COVID-19 and its effects as well as becoming more resilient to future disruptions.

Commit to creating an equitable society and economic opportunity for all

The socio-economic situation was difficult in cities before the crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare existing structural challenges and inequities. In this context, the Agenda 2030 slogan, “leave no one behind,” takes on a new and even more real meaning. Cities across the world are rethinking how to transform systems of power that grant privilege and access unequally, taking a holistic approach, opening opportunities for everyone, and building stronger and more cohesive urban societies. Closing the social gap, that creates an unjust difference between community groups, will make cities more inclusive and less oppressive for the most vulnerable.

Parque Cuitlahuac in Mexico City is a case in point on how a public park can set the grounds to social and equitable long-term transformation. Nicknamed by city authorities as “Resilient Cuitlahuac” the 145-hectare park is being built on the former grounds of an open-air dump site in the most populous and vulnerable region of the city, the borough of Iztapalapa, home to 2 million low income dwellers. Cuitlahuac park has turned up side down the basic premises of traditional green space for family entertainment.  Its walkways were built with recycled refuse from the former dump site, its benches and lamp poles from recycled plastic bottles, the park boasts its own water treatment plant built with nature-based technologies and the 2nd largest Olympic standard skate park in the world among a long list of innovative features.  Cuitlahuac will also integrate a giant Seismic Resilience Pavillion and a Water Pavillion to educate local population on how to prepare and live with two of the most important shocks and stresses suffered in Iztapalapa:  earthquakes and water scarcity.

Lead with data-driven, transparent and inclusive decision making

Recovery is an opportunity to improve accountability and transparency in planning, implementing, and monitoring. Cities can leverage incentives to monitor and understand outbreaks and vulnerabilities better in order to also collect and update other essential data more effectively, learning to use it to make informed choices and determine and track performance. Improving data collection and ensuring transparent dissemination can aid in the delivery of existing programs, help to redirect funds where they are needed, encourage learning and innovation, and pilot new approaches to data application, beyond simply measuring real impact.

Strengthen local economies and create safer jobs to improve livelihoods

Through historic lay-offs and a global economic downturn, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that the economic resilience of our societies, corporations, and small businesses is surprisingly low. Only a few months into the crisis, several countries announced drastic financial relief packages totaling over 10% of national GDP, including Japan, United States, Sweden, and Germany. It’s impossible to ignore the role that availability of childcare and healthcare, access to technology, and small businesses play in local and global economies, and the people and societies that rely on these economies. Cities can unleash powerful economic tools to drive investment in local businesses and enable more entrepreneurship and better jobs by changing how they think about the economy. Cities must make these goals, and addressing the underlying, linked impediments to achieving them, priorities, not just in how they plan and create their stimulus packages, but in how they incentivize and collaborate with the private sector.

In Latin America, the Resilient Cities Network has partnered with AVINA Foundation to work with small and medium sized enterprises that want to contribute to make their cities more resilient.  With support of the Interamerican Development Bank’s LAB (IDB-LAB), innovative solutions involving local craftspeople, and small business initiatives have been supported in Mexico City, Quito, Salvador and Buenos Aires.

Leverage recovery funds to strengthen your natural assets and critical infrastructure

As governments reassess priorities and consider stimulus packages, the imperatives for more resilient, inclusive, green cities are more pressing than ever. While fighting the pandemic and its consequences, cities are preparing the measures necessary to open economies and engage in sustainable growth in a newer, more equitable way, drawing lessons from the crisis. We must learn from previous economic stimulus packages and identify opportunities for “shovel-ready,” job-creating, high-efficiency, low-carbon infrastructure investments. City governments should not only aim to jump-start their economies, but also prioritize empowering inhabitants as agents of urban resilience and protecting them from major threats, including extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and increased water risk driven by climate change.

The COVID-19 crisis has shown that our approach to improving urban life can be more intentional. The pandemic provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset the social contract between citizens, cities, governments, and corporations, elevating a commitment to support the vulnerable, protect natural systems, build a new, sustainable economy, and address coming threats together. Cities have access to an effective approach to building a safer and more equitable world, by prioritizing urban resilience.  Present in more than 40 countries, the Resilient Cities Network is here to make this happen.

The pandemic derailed our economy, but in many ways, it stopped a run-away train. A resilient recovery is not about getting back on track. It’s about elevating our tracks to a new level and pointing them towards a better future for all.

Originally published by Milenio in Spanish: Read it here

A Resilient Recovery – the Road to a New, Better Future in Latin America after COVID-19