DUBAI: The reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic showed the strength and resilience of the world’s great cities, Fahd Al Rasheed, president of the Royal Commission for Riyadh City, told civic leaders at the opening of the U20 Mayor’s Summit.
“It was in this moment of utmost need that our urban centers demonstrated their inherent flexibility, agility and resilience. Many cities were able to transition to a virtual world almost overnight. We truly saw the strength and resilience of our cities, and humanity as a whole,” Al Rasheed said.
He was welcoming delegates at the virtual opening of the U20, the urban track of the G20 leaders’ organization, which is under the presidency of Saudi Arabia this year. Representatives of some 42 cities, as well as 30 thought leaders in urban planning, policy and economics, are attending the event organized from Riyadh.
Al Rasheed said that cities were “perhaps mankind’s greatest invention”, but warned that there would be long-term repercussions from the onslaught of the pandemic and the economic lockdowns that have resulted.
“It has impacted the world in a very dramatic way, and of course altered our way of life. Travel plans have been curtailed, families separated, businesses upended job lost, mental health strained, and we’ve lost many loved ones,
“Everything has been altered, but our productivity has not slowed. Indeed, as the U20 has shown, in many ways we are actually working closer than ever, despite being cities, countries or continents apart,” Al Rasheed added.
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Some urban experts have forecast the “end of the city” as a result of the pandemic, as travel restriction and social distancing measures lead to an exodus of employees to less densely populated areas.
But cities would continue to thrive, he said, because “we are social creatures who do our best work and achieve our highest form of self when we are together.”
“Cities give us so much more than just community. They give us communities of scale on the delivery of services of all kinds.
They give us healthcare systems, education, entertainment and pubilc transit services on a level we cannot afford on our own.
“While this pandemic has forced us into social distancing and to productively digitise many of our daily routines, we as humans need to connect pysically and congregate in order to enoy and afford a better way of life,” he said.
Rather than question the future of cities, policymakers should ask: “How can we best enable cities to adapt to this, and to future shocks?”
Al Rasheed said the answer was investment in resilience. “The importance of investing in the resilience, of our cities and our citizens, is the major takeaway from this unprecedented disruption.”
Maimunah Sharif, executive director of the United Nations urban organization habitat, said she was “extremely concerned about the multiple devastating effects of the pandemic on the most vulnerable people in cities, especially in crowded areas.”
But she pointed out that more than half of the world’s population now live in cities, which account for nearly 80 per cent of global gross domestic product. “Cities are powerhouses of economic growth, and function as catalysts for inclusion and innovation,” Sharif said.
“We need to create global gender balance and provide prosperity and well-being for the rapidly growing, aging, and culturally diversifying global urban population, while reducing waste and protecting the ecosystems all people depend on. There can be no sustainable development if urbanization is not sustainable,” she added.
The U20 culminates on Friday in the publication of a joint communique signed by the leaders of 37 cities, which will be submitted to the G20 leadership for consideration as an element of the final summit communique.