Asia’s cities risk missing ideal opportunity to reshape their future

Many Covid recovery packages are falling short on green growth.

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Covid-19 should have been a big wake-up call for local and national administrations. But has the pandemic resulted in different approaches to urban planning and urban resilience? I would hesitate to say yes.

Some cities are looking for opportunities to build back better in a different way but we do not see big changes happening on the ground.

While it is understandable that the first reaction to the coronavirus pandemic is to focus on health services and income losses, we are more than one year into the pandemic now and should be seeing more substantive elements of change.

Relevant Sustainable Development Goals

There is a similar observation, of course, for national-level responses in developing countries across the Asia-Pacific region. While some recovery packages give some attention to the environment, we see neither a systemic change nor a proper allocation of recovery funds to green growth.

A recent report from ESCAP shows that many Covid recovery packages are actually incompatible with major environment and development agendas such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement. 

Another recently published UNEP report on the global level concurs, noting that “one year from the onset of the pandemic, recovery spending has fallen short of nations’ commitments to build back more sustainably.

Some recovery packages go back to the old school of thought that says we need growth, whatever that growth consists of. We often see planners using tools from the 1960s or the 1970s, because their only focus is growth. 


A dangerous disconnect

This mindset and the use of inappropriate tools and development frameworks may even have created the Covid pandemic. We have lost our interaction with nature, and have stopped considering humans as part of nature.

By breaking these links and invading natural ecosystems in an unprecedented way, we have increased zoonotic diseases, including Covid-19.

Cities remain especially prone to shocks and stresses. While the impact of climate-related and natural disasters are well recognized, cities must prepare for all types of disasters, including the economic and social impact of pandemics.

Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of sustainability planning when investing to improve determinants of health.

Here are some key recommendations:

  • Proper urban and territorial planning should create healthy environments that can serve as “spatial vaccines.” This includes planning for informal settlements, housing and slum upgrades, safe mobility, provisions for open space, and coastal and waterway bank management. 
  • Cities can only be healthy and resilient if all urban development is considered through an equity lens. All citizens, including poor and vulnerable populations, must be able to practice disease prevention measures and have access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure. 
  • Urban resilience should leverage nature-based solutions, which can improve health and reduce the risk of climatic and health threats. Urban nature-based solutions such as “Sponge City” developments enhance water quality and water security, prevent flooding and improve health.
  • We cannot disconnect urbanization from the significant loss of biodiversity in our region. If resilience strategies do not prioritize protection of nature, we will continue to see environmental challenges such as coastal degradation, loss of forests and species and the emergence of zoonosis disease. 
  • The changing urban-rural dynamic has wide-ranging implications, from resource efficiency to food security. The use of urban resources (materials, food, water, energy) and waste generation must be considered in a broader context. Most of the plastics in our waterways originate in urban areas, for example. We must reduce the flow of plastics from urban areas. 
  • Community engagement and placemaking approaches should also build digital and technological literacy, to prevent a digital divide. Ensuring equitable access is essential as digital solutions, including e-health, employment and mobility, become mainstream. 

We need a different development model than the one that brought this pandemic. Development frameworks should not start with targets for GDP growth.

Targets need to safeguard Mother Nature’s capacity to support life, based on the fundamental principle that humans have to respect ecological limits.

Stefanos Fotiou was one of the speakers at the Creating Livable Asian Cities book launch and panel discussion, hosted by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

More information on Creating Livable Asian Cities, published by the ADB, can be found here. The book launch and panel discussion can be viewed in full here.

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Stefanos Fotiou

Director, Environment and Development, United Nations ESCAP

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