COVID-19 Presents an Opportunity to Build Back Stronger Cities

Meeting of the Minds

It’s been nearly a year since the coronavirus pandemic started, and in that time, we’ve been through the ups and downs of shortages, closures, re-openings, re-closures, and endless proclamations and debates about what comes next. But there’s another crisis still affecting the globe, and that’s the ongoing climate crisis. Climate action has been the topic of many years of debate about what should be done to prepare for and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Interestingly, many cities are leveraging lessons and actions of the COVID-19 crisis to refocus on and drive ambitious sustainability and resiliency strategies. These cities are implementing a “build back better” strategy that ultimately will benefit some of the most vulnerable groups affected by both climate impacts and COVID-19. These strategies can strengthen building infrastructure, create good jobs for those who need them most, and rapidly accelerate cities’ carbon emissions reduction goals.

By and large, cities have felt the impacts of the pandemic more intensely than rural and suburban areas (90% of reported COVID cases are in urban areas), exposing the inequalities in health, income, and opportunity even within the cities themselves. And like coronavirus, climate change is a risk multiplier for cities, which are on the front lines of managing impacts to citizens, communities, and businesses.

Last spring, I moderated a webinar in partnership with Meeting of the Minds, “Responding to Waves of Extreme Events: Long-Term and Short-Term Sustainability and Resiliency from Philly and Fayetteville.” I learned how these two cities were able to leverage their long-term sustainability planning to respond to the short-term crisis of COVID-19, as well as how it caused setbacks in progress. Now, after several months of experience and learning, I want to explore what it takes for a city to come back better than ever.

What Does it Mean to Build Back a Better City?

If your house burned down and you had a chance to rebuild, how would you do it? Would you bring it back exactly the way it was, with carpet stains, a rickety heating system, and outdated appliances and fixtures? Of course not. You’d take the opportunity to plan a better house, with more modern and efficient technologies that would help you live better, while lessening your impact on the environment. So, shouldn’t we do the same for our cities during the COVID-19 recovery and the climate crisis? Instead of simply thinking of recovery in economic terms: restoring and strengthening jobs and the economy, how can we make cities regenerative, livable, and thriving?

The Thriving Cities Initiative, part of C40 Cities, is working with Philadelphia, Amsterdam, and Portland, Oregon to pilot COVID-19 recovery efforts as an opportunity to innovate and build back a healthier, more sustainable, and resilient city. According to the initiative, “the approach takes the Doughnut Economics framework for meeting peoples’ needs within planetary boundaries, and downscales it to the city level.” The Doughnut has a social foundation to ensure no one is short on the essentials, and an ecological ceiling to ensure that we protect Earth’s life-supporting systems. Between those boundaries is the ecological and social ‘safe space.’

Image source: Doughnut Economics

Christine Knapp, director of the Office of Sustainability for the City of Philadelphia, says layering the thriving cities concept into recovery means looking beyond metrics like GDP as an indicator of progress. “It means looking at success a little differently. To speak about a green and just recovery means focusing on the fundamental roots of climate change, racial injustice, and economic disparities, and finding ways to fix systems as we rebuild them.” She has a vision of Philadelphia not only recovering but thriving. For instance, while job creation is an indicator of recovery, the jobs should also be good, well-paying jobs that contribute to a healthier, better city. Additionally, providing more affordable and energy efficient housing, more green spaces to allow residents to connect with nature, more trees  to keep homes cooler and healthier, and a thriving mobility network can help support climate, equity, and economic recovery goals.The Thriving Cities Initiative is working with Philadelphia to pilot new ways of thinking, governance, and collaboration to foster community-led action for a green and just future.

As one of the members of C40 Cities, Philadelphia has committed to reducing citywide carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 and moving to 100% renewable energy. Last year, Mayor Jim Kenney signed new legislation requiring all non-residential buildings over 50,000 square feet to either achieve a high-performance building standard or perform a tune-up to bring building systems to their highest efficiency. Before COVID, the city saw this as a chance to expand green jobs. Post-COVID, this initiative will help recover the 18,000 clean energy jobs estimated to have been lost in the Philadelphia region since the start of the pandemic, while helping to cut carbon emissions by nearly 200,000 metric tons per year.

How Do We Implement Building Back Better Cities?

The work of better, happier cities cannot be implemented by governments or private organizations alone. Regional governments, businesses, banks, and financial institutions must commit to green stimulus and inclusive recovery. These recovery strategies will prioritize jobs and growing the economy, support health and pollution reduction, enhance energy and climate resilience, and support decarbonization, all while focusing on social equity.

The UN Policy Brief on COVID-19 in the Urban World offers three key recommendation to reflect on and reset how we live in, interact with, and rebuild cities:

  1. Ensure that all phases of the pandemic response tackle inequalities and long-term development deficits and safeguard social cohesion.
  2. Strengthen the capacities of local governments.
  3. Pursue a green, resilient, and inclusive economic recovery by focusing on high ecological transformation and job creation, to steer growth toward low-carbon resilient pathways and advance the SDGs.

As mentioned above in the City of Philadelphia’s initiative, we know that one of the most effective ways to build back a stronger, more resilient, cohesive city is through building decarbonization. Decarbonization projects:

  • Create good, skilled jobs
  • Help cities accelerate progress toward the goals of The Paris Agreement
  • Generate operational cost savings for cities in a time they are most needed
  • Are ‘shovel ready,’ meaning they can be implemented within a year, and there are funding mechanisms that can finance the cost without capital outlay

According to the IEA, the job creation potential of investment in building efficiency improvements is substantial, creating nine to 30 jobs for every one million dollars invested. It’s estimated that 10% of the global workforce is in construction, and as the pandemic drastically reduced activity in the building sector, these projects have the potential to get people back to work, many in minority-owned businesses.

Anatomy of Decarbonization in Buildings

Source: ENGIE Impact

In the U.S. buildings account for about 40% of all CO2 emissions, from burning onsite fossil fuels for water and space heating, to generating electricity for lighting, HVAC, and appliances. As we return to work during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, improved airflow and UV lighting can create safer and healthier environments. To get to these safer outcomes, building upgrade work will need to be done.

Measuring Quantifiable Success

Recovery after COVID will be measured by job creation, reopened businesses, and new revenue. But what are the metrics of building back better through decarbonization, renewable energy, and green jobs?

  • Success of measures like building decarbonization are informed by cost and consumption data. What was the operational and resource spend before and after upgrade work? This savings data can then be converted into data on emissions reductions. Space heating and cooling account for almost 40% of energy use in buildings and for 42% of CO2. If just 20% of buildings in advanced economies were retrofitted with efficient technologies over the next five years, we could reduce energy consumption and CO2 emissions from space heating by about 20%.
  • The city of Los Angeles launched its Sustainable City pLAn in 2015, a directive that puts the city on a path to protect the environment while growing jobs and the economy. According to Mayor Garcetti’s office, L.A. soon became the number one solar city in America, pioneered new transportation technologies, reduced greenhouse gas emission by 11% in a single year, and created more than 35,000 green jobs, showing the link between sustainable growth and jobs.
  • In Philadelphia, the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability partnered with PhiladelphiaWorks to document the number of workers participating in a ‘clean economy’ including recycling, pollution mitigation and education and training. A survey revealed that 9.3% of employees in the region produced green goods and services while 5.5% were using green technologies and business practices.

Measuring Qualitative Success

While building a green economy around decarbonization, resource efficiency, renewable energy, and electric mobility will create jobs and reduce emissions, is it possible to  measure the greater impact: that people are happy and thriving?

The World Happiness Report is a survey of the state of global happiness that ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be. The latest report focused on environments for happiness, “with special attention on the social environment, happiness in cities and rural areas, and the natural environment, including links between happiness and sustainable development.”

Researchers connected countries and cities with a higher SDG Index score to those with a higher subjective well-being. In a COVID-19 recovery scenario, SDGs can provide a more holistic framework for the objectives that cities should aim for to increase citizens’ well-being and satisfaction, including inclusive and sustainable economic health, resilient infrastructure, sustainable cities, and climate action, to name just a few. Higher SDG scores can result in cities with higher levels of well-being because investments in infrastructure are done in a ‘climate-smart’ way with supplementary benefits. For instance, some cities have installed ‘smart’ LED streetlights that are not only more energy efficient and reduce utility costs, but also form the backbone of the emerging 5G network and can also integrate IoT technology, such as air pollution sensors. This infrastructure investment also generates good jobs that pay living wages. Lastly, climate-smart infrastructure investments create healthier communities by making them cleaner and more resilient; for instance, replacing gas vehicles with smart EVs to reduce air pollution. Connecting SDGs and the prioritization of sustainability to COVID-19 recovery could ultimately lead to stronger economic development and citizen wellbeing, including a robust job market, better air quality, and healthier communities.

Leverage Pivotal Moments to Come Back Better Than Ever

In his opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 in March 2020, the WHO Director-General urged, “Let’s all look out for each other, because we need each other.” In the context of COVID-19, this advice applies not only to health and safety, but to the weeks and months to come. COVID recovery is a chance to innovate and build healthy, sustainable and resilient cities, and in turn, better lives for all citizens in the context of increasingly complex and volatile global issues and influence. The time to be proactive, rather than reactive, is now.

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