Cities must lead on reform in the post-pandemic world

©Arab News

The U20 summit gives city leaders the chance to build cultural bridges.

DUBAI: Governments seeking to respond to threats such as the coronavirus pandemic and global warming should focus their efforts on cities, which are home to more than half of the world’s population.

That was the message from Mauricio Esteban Rodas Espinel, the former mayor of Quito, Ecuador, who spoke to Arab News during the Urban 20 (U20) Mayors Summit.

“It is in the cities that we need to tackle the world’s biggest problems: COVID-19, climate change, migration, and social inequalities,” he said.

The urban track of the G20 organization, this year hosted from Riyadh, is an annual highlight for the international community of city leaders. Experts in urban planning have the chance to build cultural bridges and consider solutions to common obstacles.

He said: “72 percent of CO2 emissions take place in cities. If countries want to meet the Paris Agreement goals in terms of reducing the level of emissions, they need to work with cities, because without cities it would be impossible to meet those goals.”

During the three-day summit, which began on Wednesday, urban leaders from across the globe will present the G20 with a 27-point communique. Drafted over a period of nine months, the aim is to forge a blueprint for global cities that are more inclusive, sustainable and carbon-neutral in a post-pandemic world.

“The U20 was created as a cities advocacy group to the G20,” said Espinel. “What I am optimistic about is to see how the U20 is going from work to action and this is not the case for every international cities mission. I think the U20 is making a huge difference in the world.”

Espinel ended his five-year term as mayor of Quito last year and since then has thrown his weight behind various cities networks around the world. He’s also a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, where he researches the urban impact of climate change, infrastructure and finance.

Espinel believes the Riyadh summit has already taken the U20 to the next level, with three new task forces established. One of these examines the sustainable circular economy, while the others explore inclusive communities and nature-based solutions.

“For task force number two there are specific recommendations outlined for the creation of affordable housing and specifically on how to attract more private investment for affordable housing,” Espinel said.

“There was also the creation this year of a special COVID-19 and future external shocks

working group within the U20.”

The group was created last July and is jointly chaired by Rome and Buenos Aires. “It focuses on the kinds of financial mechanisms needed to cope with future external shocks.”

Espinel attended the previous two U20 summits as mayor of Quito, when he primarily focused on the impact of climate change and on ways

to restructure the external financing of cities.

“For my country Ecuador, in order to have access to international finances in a city, you would need a national guarantee — a guarantee granted by the national government — and it may not be granted because of political rivalries between the national and local government,” he explained.

Regardless of the initiatives launched by the U20, the elephant in the room at this year’s summit is COVID-19 and the obstacles it has created for urban development.

“COVID-19 has transformed pretty much all of the urban dynamics in every single way, from affecting the delivery of public services to reducing tax revenues, generating budgetary constraints, forcing budgetary reallocations, and it has also generated changes in the mid- and long-term planning of cities.”

“The other big threat for humanity is climate change, and cities play a vital role in climate change. Migration is another important issue and cities need to be prepared to deliver infrastructure and services to an increasingly higher number of migrants around the world, and most of those migrants are moving to cities — not to the rural areas,” he said.

The priority now is ensuring cities have the financial resources to stand up to these challenges.

“There is an urgent need to channel direct financing for cities today in a greater way. Through cities we need to discuss things that unite us rather than divide us,” Espinel said. “Our cities need to be places where people can have equal opportunities, enjoy the arts and culture and feel safe.”

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