Our public health and climate crises are going to have to be tackled simultaneously—this may seem impossible, but cities show us how to do it collaboratively.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that change is possible overnight—if we want it. Public health affects all of us. Tackling COVID-19 requires solidarity and cooperation.
Much of the burden of fighting the multiple impacts of the pandemic falls on local governments. Whether in urban or rural areas, local governments and their essential workers are on the front lines. Consequently, higher levels of government need to empower decision-making at the lowest, most appropriate level.
However, such responsibilities require the means to fulfil them. In most cases, local governments will need more resources to deliver short-term responses and long-term recovery. Mitigation measures, including lockdowns, have dramatically reduced local governments' revenues at the very moment they need more to purchase personal protective equipment, contact trace, mitigate economic free-fall amongst local businesses and secure the livelihoods of their most vulnerable residents.
Moreover, local governments will need to ensure that response and recovery plans do not backslide on hard-won environmental gains -- such as bans on single-use plastic or movement towards renewable energy -- and sustain recent gains, such as providing shelter to the homeless and reallocating street parking for dining.
Achieving all of this requires a symbiotic relationship between national and local governments. Ministries must ensure the right priorities are funded at the top, and municipalities need sufficient capacity to plan, regulate and implement them on the ground.
Now is the moment for governments, academia, civil society and the private sector to re-envision together how they might innovate a socio-economic system that is capable of responding to the demands of the 21st Century.
We need to rebalance the roles of the public and private sectors and ensure that no one and no place is left behind. Governments are going to have to be more proactive in setting the stage for development, introducing accountability measures, regulating impacts, and mitigating the severity of future crises.
The pandemic started in cities because of their connectedness. This does not mean we should disconnect. Achieving cities that are healthy, green and resilient will require foresight and solidarity. It will also require integrating science and ethics into investments and policies.
UNDP and UN-Habitat advocate for attaching ‘green strings’ to development so that cities are better designed and more compact; cities, with high quality public spaces, protected walking and cycling paths, and easy-to-access schools and health facilities. 'Green strings' will also prepare us for the intensifying threats of climate change and biodiversity loss. Protecting and managing natural habitats around cities, for example, can reduce the zoonotic vectors of disease transmission, provide clean water, and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
The UN is more than the sum of the nations of the world. The institution, in its 75th year, is more necessary than ever to tackle global challenges together. As the UN Secretary-General declared earlier this year, now is not the moment to retreat from our climate commitments and the 2030 Agenda. Achieving sustainable development must continue to be our global compass.
UNDP and UN-Habitat have committed to working together to seize this tipping-point moment for long-term public good for people and the planet.
Statement by Mr. Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN‐Habitat).