While the impacts of the pandemic were felt globally, not all places were equally prepared to deal with the COVID-19 health crisis, nor its economic, social and environmental consequences. Almost half the world’s population live in cities, and the bigger the city, the greater the inequalities in opportunity, access to public services and transport, and even life expectancy. COVID-19 magnified these inequalities and needs to be used as a catalyst for change.
The OECD launched the Champion Mayors for Inclusive Growth Initiative in March 2016 in response to the growing gap between the rich and poor. This initiative has helped governments assess inequality, living standards and broader well-being, and design policy packages that promote equity and growth. However, in this 5th anniversary year, there is still more work to be done.
COVID-19 united cities and regions around the world in their need to develop resilience to future shocks. While some measures to promote resilience respond to pressing local needs such as financial support for local SMEs, others need to contribute to a more global imperative, such as supporting the transition to a more sustainable economy.
Cities have a critical role to play to tackle inequality and social injustices. They play a key role to implement nation-wide measures, but also provide laboratories for bottom-up and innovative recovery strategies. Over the past five years Champion mayors have tackled inequality through programmes such as the affordable housing strategies introduced by Bill de Blasio (Mayor of New York, USA), the migrant integration focus of Leoluca Orlando (Mayor of Palermo, Italy), Yuriko Koike’s (Mayor of Tokyo, Japan) promotion of gender equality, and youth employment programs introduced by Jorge Munoz Wells (Mayor of Lima, Peru). COVID-19 exacerbated existing inequalities but it has also helped build consensus around the need to tackle them. How can cities use that momentum to help build a better future for everybody?
One of the most pressing needs is to support the vulnerable throughout the recovery. Young people in particular have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic in terms of their educational experience, social welfare, employment prospects and opportunities. However, by involving them in the response, we can empower them to champion future-proof ideas. Anne Hidalgo (Mayor of Paris, France) is supporting young people through a program providing career guidance, training opportunities and psychological support.
Reshaping Cities Post Pandemic
One of the most visible impacts of COVID-19 was the sudden emptying of city streets. As we transition to life beyond the immediate crisis, cities have an opportunity to redesign their urban landscape and make it more accessible and inclusive. Libby Schaaf (Mayor of Oakland, USA) has been experimenting with the use of outdoor space during the pandemic through street closures and a street vending program. In October 2020, Sam Liccardo (Mayor of San José, USA) launched the ‘Better Bike Plan 2025’. The plan seeks to make cycling safe and convenient for all ages and abilities across the city by building new cycle routes, enhancing existing bikeways, and implementing supportive programs and policies. Matúš Vallo (Mayor of Bratislava, Slovakia) has plans to invest in 25 public spaces across the city, and has set principles for maintaining and developing public spaces in the capital. Einat Kalisch-Rotem (Mayor of Haifa, Israel) is replanning the public transport network, paving of cycle routes, and the rejuvenation of the historic city centre.
Recovering Productivity in Cities
Cities are also focusing on recovering productivity and building resilient post COVID-19 economies through the development of strategic plans supporting those most affected by the crisis. Lisa Helps (Mayor of Victoria, Canada) set out a long-term economic plan, Victoria 3.0, which aims to build an economy that enables everyone to flourish and sets Victoria on a path to low-carbon prosperity. Similarly, Juan Mari Aburto (Mayor of Bilbao, Spain) allocated 15 million Euros to the city recovery plan, ‘Bilbao Aurrera’, that supports the sectors most affected by the pandemic, and vulnerable groups. Dagur Eggertsson (Mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland) oversaw the creation of an action package supporting local enterprises through commercial property tax reductions, the extension of tax deadlines, and a marketing campaign to promote the city as a destination when travel restrictions are lifted.
Could the Grass Be Greener Beyond COVID-19?
Cities can significantly contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions produced as part of ‘every day life’ through measures such as decarbonising buildings and boosting clean forms of urban mobility. Susan Aitken (Council Leader of Glasgow, UK) is delivering decarbonised affordable housing to meet the accommodation needs of residents in an environmentally sustainable way. To increase vegetation cover by 50% by 2022, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr (Mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone) has committed to plant 1 million trees over two years, and introduced building regulations to slow deforestation. Peter Kurz (Mayor of Mannheim, Germany) aims to make the city carbon neutral by 2050 through initiatives such as the decarbonisation of heating in municipal housing, and reducing the cost of public transport. Ricardo Rio (Mayor of Braga, Portugal) has pedestrianised the historical area of the city and renewed the city bus fleet to vehicles using renewable energy.
The Champion Mayors have achieved a lot in the past five years but Covid-19 presents a unique challenge which threatens to widen inequalities. Together, the Champion Mayors are already working to prevent that, and to secure a recovery that is more inclusive, more sustainable, and more resilient – a recovery for all.
To learn more about how cities are planning an inclusive post COVID-19 era, , visit the Champion Mayors website.
Liv Gaunt is the Community Manager of the OECD Champion Mayors For Inclusive Growth Initiative. In her role with the initiative, she fosters exchange between Champion Mayors and stakeholders to advance inclusive economic growth in cities around the world. Liv also works with the Cities, Urban Policies and Sustainable Development Division of the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities to promote innovative, digital and sustainable policies that improve quality of life and create more inclusive societies in cities of all sizes. Before joining the OECD, Liv worked in Australian state and local government, as a journalist and underwater photographer.