Unhealthy cities were covid-19 ‘incubators’


UNHEALTHY and overcrowded cities pre-pandemic have made urban areas “incubators” for Covid-19, according to an Asian Development Bank (ADB) official.

In an Asian Development Blog, ADB Vice President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development Bambang Susantono said this has caused suffering for millions of poor and informal workers.

This warrants finding ways, for countries in developing Asia, to help cities build back better and “build forward better” to adapt to the new normal, Susantono said.

“Today’s cities face many challenges. They include rapid urbanization, aging societies, infrastructure deficits, climate change and disaster risk. Well before Covid-19, many urban areas were already overcrowded, unsafe, and unhealthy,” Susantono said.

“They provided the virus with a natural incubator. The poor and informal workers were particularly vulnerable, without financial means or access to formal social protection systems, such as those related to unemployment,” he added.

Susantono said cities must use risk-sensitive land-use management, nature-based solutions, the circular economy, and low-carbon practices in order to “build forward better” in a post-pandemic era.

Ultimately, Susantono said cities in the region must become “greener, more inclusive, more competitive, and more resilient” after the pandemic.

“Urban infrastructure and services have struggled to keep up with Asia’s transformation over the past 50 years. But in today’s world—and to deliver a better world for future generations—falling behind is no longer an option,” Susantono said.

He offered six recommendations on how cities can achieve this. The first is to focus on inclusion by strengthening social protection and standardizing urban services for all.

Susantono said cities have become a home for all kinds of people including women, the elderly, the poor, and persons with disabilities. This means their special needs must also be addressed in urban areas.

Another recommendation, Susantono said, is for cities to provide urban services and infrastructure that employ the best available technologies as well as digital solutions.

This means turning to technological solutions to provide services such as water; boost land-related tax collection, value-capture, and planning; and employ urban planning when building infrastructure.

Relatedly, Susantono said, urban planning systems should incorporate the lessons of the pandemic. This is his third recommendation for urban areas.

“This helps cities plan for better resilience against future shocks by providing open public spaces and green corridors, and by creating affordable housing, especially for the poor, vulnerable, and returning migrant workers,” Susantono said.

“Reviving sustainable tourism and risk-informed urban planning for low-carbon development, environmental protection, and disaster risk management are also priorities for most cities in the region,” he added.

Susantono said his fourth recommendation is on financial sustainability and building governance capacity. Cities, he said, must maximize their revenues—one of the lessons of the pandemic, he pointed out.

Covid-19 exposed the financial weaknesses of cities and, Susantono said, they must remedy this by adopting transparent, accountable, consistent and coherent responses to shocks and stresses.

Another recommendation is for cities to build healthy and environmentally sustainable urban areas. Cities must conduct health impact assessments; prepare age-friendly plans; and implement efforts that promote health and sustainable environments.

He said an age-friendly city means being able to provide home-based care and the use of smart health platforms. It is also important for cities to create green spaces as well as multimodal and inclusive transport systems, especially for the elderly and children.

His last recommendation is for cities to be more resilient through the creation of disaster management plans. This should include efforts to become more energy-efficient while providing access to heating and cooling for vulnerable groups.

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