A Way Forward for Sustainable and Resilient Cities During COVID-19 and Beyond
-Karen Lightman, Metro21: Smart Cities Institute Executive Director
Back in 2016, the United Nations adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future” - with Goal 11 – make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable – having the most relevance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Goal 11 calls for sustainable cities by “creating career and business opportunities, safe and affordable housing, and building resilient societies and economies…investment in public transport, creating green public spaces, and improving urban planning and management in participatory and inclusive ways.” Many of the challenges we have faced during the pandemic are related to resilience, and if the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that our society is not so resilient. We have a lot of work to do, and we can be guided by the SDGs and the positive work of other cities to set a path for a better future.
The challenges faced by US cities during the pandemic were and continue to be multifaceted. Cities and their residents are dealing with what some are calling the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: 1. the COVID-19 pandemic; 2. civil unrest (exacerbated before, during, and after the election); 3. a weak economy; and 4. the continuing environmental crisis. Because of the pandemic, the inequalities and inequities in many of our cities were laid bare for all to see. The challenges are many-fold in the US. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10.7 million Americans are out of work; in part related to our heavily dependent service economy. The number of food insecure people rose from 10.5% in 2019 to as high as 23% in 2020. According to researchers at Broadband Now, 42 million Americans do not have access to broadband, and that statistic does not include people who live in areas with broadband infrastructure but cannot afford it or the quality is sub-par. This means compared to people with quality broadband access, these Americans are less capable of working at home, their kids can’t attend online school, and the family can’t access telemedicine resources. Transportation and mobility have also been severely disrupted - especially public transportation - most severely affecting essential workers and people who could not work from home, like retail workers and food service workers.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, people are still trying to build resilience and combat the inequities that have been highlighted by the pandemic and help their communities. Some regions have used CARES ACT funding to invest in expanding fiberoptic, high-speed broadband and cities like Chattanooga, TN that made investments decades ago are reaping the benefits. Another homegrown example of building resilience through tech is a project at Metro21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. In this project, “Feeding Families in Need,” Metro21 collaborated with numerous municipal, educational, non-profit, corporate and community groups in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, applying machine learning technology to addressing the disruption to school meal programs caused by COVID-19. In operation since July 2020, this collaboration has helped provide over 7,000 meals/month in Penn Hills, McKeesport and McKees Rocks communities.
A recently released report by the Centre for Public Impact, entitled “Innovation in the Face of Crisis: Insights from European Cities”, highlights public sector innovation with a focus on communication, inclusion, public participation, dialogue, collaboration, and cooperation. The report outlines many examples of how Europe is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic that could provide models for our own interactions with government. For example, Barcelona launched hackathons to help provide technical solutions, including connecting medical professionals with personal protective equipment, designing platforms to combat misinformation, and creating artificial respiratory equipment. Likewise, the recent report Smart City Solutions for a Riskier World aims to help inform leaders post-pandemic, offering insights and resources on issues related to broadband, lowering emissions, and economic suggestions. This report can help leaders prepare for the inevitable re-building that will be necessary as we navigate the pandemic and its effects, and it provides examples of cities that are providing solutions.
While COVID-19 has laid bare the inequities in our society, it has also given cities a chance to address these problems and become more resilient. Cities are accepting more outside help. They are collaborating within their communities and they are listening, so they know how their communities can be best served. This is how we will reach the SDGs, by encouraging innovations in the public and private sector, united. Though I know it’s not a straight path, I’m hopeful for this future; one that is sustainable, resilient and equitable for all residents.