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A Call for Global Cooperation for Sustainable Urban Transitions

A Call for Global Cooperation for Sustainable Urban Transitions

The World Health Organisation (WHO) supports that even if vaccines are found, COVID-19 may never go away. ‘Post-virus’ recovery mechanisms suddenly become out-of-place and obsolete. If we wait for the coronavirus crisis to be over to tackle climate change, then many of us may be swimming in deep waters. Coordinated and immediate actions, coupled with planetary-scale cooperation, to tackle both crises in parallel is now needed. For cities, this means adopting mechanisms that enable both economic recovery and sustainable transitions.

Most countries are gearing to lift lockdown restrictions due to COVID-19 and economic engines are slowly being warmed up. The economic impacts of the coronavirus have been brutal, and represented through record unemployment levels in many countries around the world. In the USA, Goldman Sachs predicts that the numbers may reach as high as 25%, rivalling the Great Depression of the 1920s. In subsequent reports, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) consistently warns that the situation is dire. For the UK, recent indicators support that for the latest comparative point, we need to go beyond the two world wars, all the way back to 1706 in a time when Queen Anne was on the throne.

The advent of the virus couldn’t have been predicted, and its impacts have underlined numerous concerns on not only our resilience, but also our lifestyle.

© Felix Fokoua
© Felix Fokoua

With nearly half of the world’s population in lockdown, we are travelling less, consuming less, and burning less fossil fuel. While many are missing our previous lifestyle, the environment is better off. Sometime in March to April, social media was flooding with reports of the clear waters of the Venice Canals, and of the return of ocean organisms. These were compounded by increasing headlines of a noticeable decline in emissions in various cities and countries. China, which had increasing emissions in the past years had a 25% decrease since the beginning of the year. Italy, UK and France reported a 16% decrease in the month of March since the start of lockdown. New York also reported having had a 50% reduction in pollution. With urban lungs now breathing cleaner air, the question now arises as to what happens with the easing of lockdown restrictions?

Soon, the annual budgetary programmes of entire countries will have as their central theme COVID-19 recovery programs. Those will be guided by the severe economic shocks that countries faced. Even if the situation is dire, on the linear economic front, we do know from the 2008-10 recession that we did not enter a decade of an economic slide. Instead, in post-recession China, the construction industry spiked, bringing with it a faster recession recovery period. With steep unemployment numbers, and lockdown impacts on the construction industry, there are strong indicators that governments will attempt the same approach and protect the real estate sector. Fiscal mechanisms will enter in force to boost the industry post-pandemic.

This may not only counter COVID-19 impacts but also remediate the declining performance of the global construction sector in 2019, linked to weaker-than-expected international trade and investment flows. One challenge to those policies will be the immediate resulting spike in carbon emissions in cities.

© Felix Fokoua
© Felix Fokoua

Recovery tools must not be aimed to return to business-as-usual, as their effects will be devastating for the environmental sector, reverberating negatively on the urban fabric. Instead, we must use those as transitioning mechanisms to decouple cities from heavy and fossil fuel emitting industries.

One challenge is that even if we manage to push for this agenda, it will usually come into force through national urban policy programs -- which take time to both write and enact. So, we also need immediate enforceable solutions as of now, until we reach those much needed transitioning policies. This is paramount as projects usually take a few years to complete. Driving the construction (including infrastructural) sector towards clear directions will ensure that it aligns with upcoming transitioning policies. 

Peter Newman -- internationally celebrated for his work on sustainable cities -- supports that a triage mechanism can be adopted to ensure that sustainable infrastructure projects can be fast-tracked to ensure that investment flows are still sustained during the recovery phase while supporting sustainable outcomes. This proposal shows promise, where Newman’s approach can also be developed to encourage developers of upcoming projects to revise their plans through fiscal incentives to achieve more sustainable outcomes to benefit from this ‘fast-tracking’.

The challenge? Governments will need to act fast and showcase leadership and innovation by relaxing the formalism tied to evaluation committees, and re-visiting how those may work via distance. The technology is available today, but the willpower to do so does not always follow. However, faced with economic pressures, there will soon be no way around it. We need to be smart as to how to proceed to ensure that sustainable projects are prioritised and the agenda pushed at the forefront of recovery mechanisms.

© Felix Fokoua
© Felix Fokoua

The desired transitional changes will transcend the built form and reverberate at the very core of our lifestyle, as this virus has tested the way we live and the way our city functions. On a larger scale, we’ve seen how global supply chains have been impacted on our global system, resulting in the lack of some food items and toilet paper in supermarket isles. Beyond the reduction of our trips to the loo, there are far larger consequences on the global landscape. On the geopolitical terrain, this pandemic plummeted oil prices, rendering a perceived immediate competitive edge against renewable energy and electric cars. This, however, will be short-lived. Last month (on the 20th of April) the price of oil futures fell 300%, to as low as -$37.63, meaning that people were paying to get rid of their oil futures contracts. While this is not representative of the actual physical product, it gives a strong indicator of the appeal of ‘liquid dinosaur’ as a commodity at the moment.

Producing oil in a time where is it not desired is proving expensive. With no endpoint as to when this pandemic may end, the world prepares to transition to the new economy. Some countries -- like Angola, Brazil, Canada, Malaysia, Norway, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States and Venezuela -- will be forced to cut investments in this area; leading to lower global output. If the pandemic sustains a long enough period, this will force a global energy transition -- which actually started during World War 2 -coined as the ‘war of oil’, but failed to gain global traction due to the influence of oil-producing countries. This will now be accelerated, not by shared concerns for the environment, but by necessity.

This may be particularly interesting for developing economies, like Africa which, even though having a large solar energy potential, have been slow in transitioning to renewables. The demographic boom on the continent will require investment in new energy sources, and if COVID mechanisms bailout fossil fuel industries, this may pose a threat to this transition. Additionally, this may bring an interesting shift of power from the gulf -- from the decreasing interest in oil, to the impoverished Sahel and Maghrebian regions in Africa, where export of energy would no longer be through oil tankers, but from undersea cables. A move that can potentially earn valuable currency, while creating new ‘sun’ jobs by cutting carbon emissions at both local and regional levels with billions in revenue. 

© Felix Fokoua
© Felix Fokoua

The geography of many countries could be exploited leading to potential solar valleys in India, Peru or northern Australia, not only as revenue-generating activities, but also to solve long-lasting challenges, like channeling water for drip irrigation in areas of draught -- solving on the fly the problem of food resilience.

Energy independence will enable countries and regions to better control resources, but the political architecture of regional governance will need to follow. The United Nations, African Union and trading blocks like the COMESA and others will need to assess the collective needs of consumers, not only at the country level, but also -- in a time of rapid urbanisation -- at city level. This is key in the search for energy independence and decentralisation of production as rising urban consumption standards may put pressure on food systems, resulting in health problems. On this, the idea of ‘smart growth’ and ‘compact city’ as advocated by Andres Duany and Nikos Salingaros may offer interesting pointers so that we achieve self-resilience not only at the regional level, but also at neighbourhood, street and building scale.

The drive for sustainable and equitable change in cities cannot be emphasised enough. Recovery from the last recession provided strong global growth, but at the expense of the poor and the environment. Calls for climate action have weathered down through this crisis, but they are still very much needed. In our interconnected world, where the behaviour of one country can have far-ranging impacts on all others, there is no space for piecemeal attempts. Climate change being a planetary-scale problem, we need more coordinated worldwide strategies. Moreover, faced with severe economic impacts, the IMF supports that ‘a global crisis like no other needs a global response like no other’.

Cities, countries, and regions will need to transcend from nationalistic agendas, and this may be accelerated by the global economic and societal consequences as a result of the current pandemic. Pandemics -like the Black Death, the Great Plague of London, the San Francisco plague, the Spanish flu, and others -- have a history of shaping cities and urban planning. To what extent will cities be changed from the current pandemic is still uncertain. We believe that it will have to do with two factors: (1) the speed at which a vaccine is found -so that restrictions can be eased, and (2) economic recovery periods, which will direct new business models. The longer both are, the deeper the changes will be. 

But we do not need to wait to transition to the new economy. Climate Change is already here and -unlike most of us, it is not under lockdown.

This article is the last installment from a month-long collaboration between ArchDaily and Zaheer Allam, Gaetan Siew, and Felix Fokoua to explore the future of Architecture and Cities after the coronavirus (COVID-19).

We invite you to check out ArchDaily's coverage related to COVID-19, read our tips and articles on Productivity When Working from Home and learn about technical recommendations for Healthy Design in your future projects. Also, remember to review the latest advice and information on COVID-19 from the World Health Organization (WHO) website.

About this author
Cite: Zaheer Allam, Gaetan Siew and Felix Fokoua. "A Call for Global Cooperation for Sustainable Urban Transitions" 19 May 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/939930/a-call-for-global-cooperation-for-sustainable-urban-transitions/> ISSN 0719-8884
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