Building urban resilience: How coronavirus pandemic is giving us ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity’ to reset social

Updated: Oct 27, 2020 11:10 PM

Building a safer and more equitable world by prioritising urban resilience

One way to stoke demand may be for the government to clear its overdue bills, says economist Indira Rajaraman.

By Lauren N Sorkin & Krishna Mohan Ramachandran

Covid-19 has challenged the very nature of 21st century society. Cities have an unprecedented opportunity as they lead the recovery process—in not just rebuilding, but also reshaping an urban reality that is safer, more prosperous and more resilient, especially for the vulnerable.

The pandemic exposed the problems we were not paying enough attention to, demonstrating how deeply connected our urban challenges are. Our solutions must reflect the links between the systems that support urban life: health and wellbeing, economy and society, infrastructure and environment, and leadership and governance—the four dimensions of urban resilience. To ‘build back better’ and prepare for the next shock, cities must pursue responses that integrate these dimensions. They must seek an understanding of the risks we face, of the weaknesses of our cities, and their interdependencies, and must address inequity head-on.

Maximise health & social wellbeing of the most vulnerable: Cities must pay vulnerable populations the attention they deserve, and ensure all communities benefit from the recovery effort. Given the extent of unmet needs and many cities’ fragile economic situation, every recovery dollar must deliver social returns, especially to those with the greatest need and who stand to gain the most from an equitable recovery. By prioritising social mobility and just resource distribution in their recovery investments, cities will foster a widespread, robust recovery that makes them more resilient to future disruptions.

Chennai’s NGO community embraced this perspective. The Citizens COVID Fund, formed by a group of NGOs, rapidly crowdsourced over $100,000, and worked with local farmers and retailers to help feed more than 50,000 people during the strict lockdown. Chennai also set up a helpline for migrant labourers, and helped funnel financial support to over 20,000 workers to get them through the crisis. Projects such as these are providing a lifeline for hard-hit groups such as migrant workers, who often fall through government safety nets because they lack documentation. Chennai has an opportunity to capitalise on the energy, resources and reach of these local networks to bolster the city’s efforts, both its ongoing Resilience Strategy and Covid-19 recovery.

Lead with data-driven, transparent, inclusive decision-making: Cities should leverage resources allocated to monitoring outbreaks to also collect and improve essential data. By applying a resilience lens to their application of data, cities can understand their vulnerable communities better, allocate resources more effectively, and learn to track and optimise performance based on this new metric.

The Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) collaborated with agencies in the city to apply special data mapping in their Covid-19 recovery efforts. They mapped daily cases at the ward level to identify trends and micro clusters, and then shared it with stakeholders. To collect data, PMC surveyed over 870,000 homes, identifying vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and those with comorbidities, at the same time.

Pune used this data to manage resources, contain cases, and communicate with the public to reduce panic. They set up flue clinics and mobile ambulances, conducted fast contact tracing, surveyed foreign travellers, and referred the cases this revealed for treatment. Improving data collection and ensuring transparent dissemination can improve programme delivery, help direct funds where they are needed, encourage learning and innovation, and be a vehicle to pilot new approaches to data application, beyond simply measuring real impact.

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 sustainable economy, and address coming threats together. Cities have access to an effective approach to building a safer and more equitable world, by prioritising urban resilience.

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 these towards a better future for all.

(Sorkin is executive director, Resilient Cities Network, and Ramachandran is chief resilience officer, Chennai)

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