Build back better cities

Most large and middle-sized cities around the world are amid a re-invention after the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today remote and hybrid working models are mainstream, and many central business and financial districts have lost some of their vibrancy. Affordable housing shortfalls and socioeconomic disparities pose major challenges to city governments, as well as the climate and environmental impact of urban development.

Emerging urbanization and ‘build back better’ trends were mentioned last week in Davos during the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, where it was underlined that cities can contribute to sustainable business models by preventing the depletion of nature and resources, and accelerating the energy transition. Increased energy efficiency and the shift towards far-sighted energy systems are specifically important, said the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, to protect citizens from high bills, boost energy security, and reduce environmental footprints.

The process of building back better cities will be iterative and most probably require years to be completed. Some immediate issues like climate-related extreme weather events call for urgent solutions, other challenges need long-term plans backed by strong leadership, bold interventions, and a constructive public – private collaboration.

In North America, where office vacancies induced by the pandemic affect most large commercial properties, city leaders are pushing to convert unused buildings into other property types that can improve residential and visitor density. Some US cities are launching affordable housing initiatives taking advantage of grant and tax credits programs by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, favoring the growth of accessible and inclusive residential districts.

In Asia Pacific, the key question is how to accommodate the growing number of people moving to cities, and how to provide them with efficient and quality services. The ‘build back better’ effort is not only about affordable housing, but also on essential infrastructures such as healthcare and public transportation. Bangkok, Delhi, Jakarta, and Mumbai are for instance doubling and even tripling their metro systems to connect residents with job and leisure opportunities, but they are also investing on the mitigation of climate change phenomena – particularly flooding and heat waves – that frequently affect them.

Cities in Europe are generally questioned about decarbonization and the regeneration of existing spaces. There are lots of good examples of cities accelerating on urban green (think of Paris, France, with the Bioclimactic Local Urbanism Plan), people-centered policies (as Amsterdam, The Netherlands, with the Humane Metropolis vision), or sustainable mobility (as Bologna, Italy, introducing traffic bans and the speed limit of 30km/h in the city center).

All ‘build back better’ plans ask city managers to rethink existing services and design new ones. Street lighting, mobility and parking management, municipal solid waste collection are among the services that are under scrutiny when a new residential district is created, or when an urban area is converted.

Cities that rely on smart, interoperable networks can quickly adapt to change, and provide their citizens with the efficient, quality services they need. Flexible and scalable backbones truly enable the development of attractive and sustainable communities, where residents and local economies can thrive in full respect of available resources.

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