Pandemics permanently change cities. New York and London built new sanitation systems in the 1800s after typhoid and cholera outbreaks. In Bombay, city planning only truly began after a deadly bout of plague.

Today’s densely packed cities are again being forced to adapt to a disease. As business centres and roads are shut, parks have stayed open and pedestrian paths are being widened to allow for social distancing. Singapore has mooted overhauling its Central Business District with public housing and leisure facilities, reflecting our remote working futures.

How can mayors and managers lead cities out of this pandemic? “City managers should not shy away from technology, allowing communities to come up with innovative solutions and taking bold steps to be resilient,” the Executive Director of UN-Habitat, Dato’ Seri Maimunah Sharif tells GovInsider.

Advice for city leaders

Cities of the future will have to be adaptable, she says. In particular, “city leaders need to be data driven”.

UN Habitat has earmarked US$6 million for projects on urban data, mapping and knowledge across 64 countries. “Our ‘new normal’ is using technology and digital,” she says. The funding will help governments build community data projects; map out potential disease hotspots; and set aside public spaces and buildings for health and emergency services with urban planning software.

But city leaders mustn’t just rely on anonymous data sources. “Engage with your community, your community leaders”, the UN Under-Secretary General says.

UN Habitat’s Covid response plan sets aside US$52 billion of funding to increase community ownership of initiatives. It will connect communities with formal governance mechanisms, giving them resources and power to lead and run projects.

Vulnerable communities

UN Habitat’s immediate priority is to serve those who are most at risk, ensuring they have resources to protect themselves, Dato’ Seri Maimunah says.

Migrants, refugees, the internally displaced, and informal settlements have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. They lack access to water, sanitation, and formal health services, making it harder to isolate, maintain physical distances or frequently wash hands.

The agency is rolling out initiatives in informal and migrant settlements across the world. In Egypt, the agency is using river filtration technology to expand access to clean water and sanitation. In Myanmar’s Rakhine state, they are installing public hand wash stations. And in Tunisia, they have helped develop a Covid-19 information app. UN Habitat’s efforts must promote inclusivity and leave no one behind, Dato’ Seri Maimunah says.

Migrant workers

Governments must do more to ensure that migrant communities receive equal protection, she believes. “Recovery programmes should never be enforced with discrimination”.

A “whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach” will allow cities to support migrants, she adds, while considering their needs across multiple areas like culture, health, housing and technology.

For instance, migrants may not have access to important public information on the pandemic in their own languages. “Cities should always provide information in different languages”, Dato’ Seri Maimunah says, and make sure it caters to the disabled.

Officials have to be aware of the “digital gap” in access to internet and digital devices too. Children from vulnerable families should continue to have access to quality education online, even as lockdown restrictions prevent them from going to classrooms.

UN Habitat advocates an “area-based approach” to tackling the pandemic, by understanding the needs of a community as a whole, rather than targeting specific groups within a location. “The government must include migrants at this moment of a pandemic, irrespective of the migration status, in the service provision scheme,” she says.

The new normal in cities

At the same time, cities have to think ahead to what their “new normal” will look like. “How can we build back better?” UN Habitat is looking at four areas.

First, the UN is looking at how to “rethink the state” and reorganise local governance. While governments at every level are battling the virus, “the local governments are facing the real challenge on the ground,” Dato’ Seri Maimunah notes. They have been at the frontline of the pandemic, and their roles and capabilities will need to be strengthened.

Second, UN Habitat will address the rise of inequality in cities. The pandemic has thrown open the gulf between rich and poor. Cities must look at how access to public healthcare can be available equally to all.

Next, the agency will re-evaluate planning, density and compactness in cities. Current city plans could change in light of new physical distancing norms, she highlights.

Finally, the UN  will look to mitigate the “failure of the current urban economy”, she adds. It plans to invest in protecting workers in informal sectors, in particular.

We don’t yet know what a pandemic-resilient city would look like. Some changes could be quite practical like more open spaces, widened footpaths and multilingual communications. Many others will be invisible, but will change cities forever.

Images by UN Habitat