It Takes a Global Crisis Podcast Episode 4: Did Covid-19 Cause Us to Rethink our Relationship to Cities and Sustainability?

In this fourth episode, we discuss sustainable cities and reflect on how Covid-19 has reshaped our understanding of urban living environments and quality of life in cities.
It Takes a Global Crisis Podcast Episode 4: Did Covid-19 Cause Us to Rethink our Relationship to Cities and Sustainability?

The SDG Lab and UN Geneva Library & Archives collaborate to bring you a podcast mini-series exploring COVID-19’s effects on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs.)

The UN Library & Archives Geneva in collaboration with the SDG Lab explore how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted sustainable development solutions. Following the first, second and third episodes, on digitalization and connectivity, the link between the environment and social resilience, and social protection systems, in this fourth episode, we discuss sustainable cities. With guests, Dr Agata Krause, Head of the 2030 Agenda and International Relations at the Centre for Sustainable Development, Trondheim Kommune, Norway, and Dr. Bernadia Irawati Tjandradewi, United Cities and Local Governments Asia Pacific (UCLG ASPAC), Secretary-General, we reflect on how Covid-19 has reshaped our understanding of urban living environments and quality of life in cities.  

Did it take a global crisis to prioritize sustainable cities?  

The Covid-19 pandemic reshaped our understanding of urban living environments and the quality of life in cities. According to Dr. Bernadia Irawati Tjandradewi, cities had to react and respond differently to the pandemic than, say, rural environments. Across Indonesian cities, collaboration and improving supply chains became a priority, while the island of Java created a programme to encourage residents to support each other called “Look after your Neighbours.” Similar initiatives have been seen elsewhere with communal pantries and vegetables-on-wheels. In Norway, the pandemic reminded people of social relationships and the importance of social services--like education, childcare and health services--that society may otherwise take for granted, according to Dr. Agata Krause. One project, for instance, relies on better mobility for students, creating new social movement hubs around the city.  

Cities, of course, were heavily impacted by the pandemic; but the virus created opportunities to redesign cities to better utilize public spaces. Jakarta, for instance, built new bike lanes, and 200-or-so good practices were assembled across the Asia-Pacific region and shared for future consultation and implementation, according to Dr. Bernadia. In Trondheim, the city focused on reinforcing the values of the 2030 Agenda, building resilience, and strengthening ties with stakeholders, including university research centres and big and small enterprises, Dr. Krause said. The importance of safeguarding civic spaces also became central, she noted.  

To ensure cities continue the momentum and build sustainable spaces, it is essential to create opportunities for citizen engagement and prioritize digitalization. A platform in which citizens can voice their opinions and participate in public life became successful in Trondheim and has the potential to be scaled up to the national level, Dr. Krause underscored. Sustainable finance is also key: “What Covid has proven is that taking a limited perspective on generating additional financial resources and technologies is insufficient to build resilient cities,” she added. Good quality, granular data about the development of cities is also needed.  

Dr. Bernadia agrees. “Returning to business-as-usual means missing a vital opportunity to take and align these interconnected environmental, economic, social and relational challenges that pre-dated Covid-19,” she said. Governments must “get creative” on financial mobilization and guarantee public services for all, including the informal sector.  

Local leaders and governments play a pivotal role in enshrining the values of the 2030 Agenda, noted Dr. Bernadia. But local leaders also need strong partnerships with various stakeholders to implement the SDGs. Indeed, multi-level government collaboration with data, to assess SDG indicators, is crucial, Dr. Krause added.  

A fascinating example of how cities can be more sustainable and better reflect society’s needs is through the winning ideas of the C40 reinventing cities competition. Over 1,000 students from 150 universities globally submitted ideas on their vision for green and thriving city neighborhoods. One of the winning teams discusses their idea on how soil can be used as a sustainable city solution in this episode.  

According to Dr. Krause, it took a global crisis to “make us rethink what is important in life, our values and relationships, but also to reconsider what is a good quality of life in cities.” Dr. Bernadia echoed a similar sentiment on rebuilding the city toward sustainability and resiliency: “Cities need to be vibrant and dynamic, and happiness of the people is most important.”  

Health and Well-Being
Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
Sustainable Cities and Communities
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